Focus on Research: Denae Dyck


Dyck at the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum at Baylor University (Texas). Image: supplied. 

Last month we shared the great news that English PhD graduate Denae Dyck had won this year’s Governor General gold medal for best doctoral thesis at the University of Victoria.

Today we turn our lens more carefully onto the research behind her dissertation — asking what interests motivated her work, how she arrived at her topic and why Victorian literature still matters.


Your dissertation is titled “Forming Wisdom: Biblical Criticism, Creative Interpretation and the Poetics of the Victorian Sage.” What is it about?

My work examines the creative thought that arose in response to the religious controversies of the Victorian era (1837 – 1901), a time when thinkers like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche ushered in what we would now recognize as modern ideas. 

These ideas included new methods of biblical scholarship, generally referred to as “the higher criticism,” which countered accepted ideas about the Bible’s theological unity and emphasized its diverse historical contexts, composite authorship and variety of literary genres. Ultimately, this criticism gave rise to a comparative religious study, which in turn played a role in displacing Christianity from its privileged cultural position in Britain.

I am interested in how the pressures exerted by this criticism prompted Victorian writers to turn to wisdom literature, a genre that privileges questioning and dialogue, as a starting point for more flexible, personal expressions of spirituality. I argue that writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George MacDonald, George Eliot, John Ruskin and Olive Schreiner adapted wisdom literature to re-imagine their experiences of doubt and uncertainty, as well as to engage with broader interpretive issues that still matter today.


Can you tell us a bit about the genre of “wisdom literature” and how it was taken up by these Victorian authors?

When I say “wisdom literature,” I follow traditions in biblical scholarship that focus on the Books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, as well as the Gospel parables. What makes wisdom literature unique in the biblical tradition is that it emphasizes questions about life’s existential mysteries rather than narratives of salvific history. Unlike some other biblical genres such as prophecy, where a speaker makes a direct claim to speak on behalf of God, wisdom literature implies a more dynamic model of revelation. Wisdom literature presents us with metaphors and parables that are oblique and indirect; it’s not so much about the author’s pronouncement as about the reader’s interpretive work.

For the Victorians, wisdom literature provided a means of thinking through the issues raised by the “higher criticism” that I mentioned earlier. A good example is George Eliot (the pseudonym used by Mary Anne Evans), who is most known today for her novels but who also played a key role in translating the higher criticism, which originated mainly in German scholarship, into English. Even though Eliot rejected many Christian doctrines and refused to attend church, her novels show an ongoing fascination with both the content and form of the Gospel parables. She joins the higher critics in seeing Jesus as human rather than divine, yet she’s still very much invested in imagining what “the kingdom of God” might look like on earth. She does so by adapting the narrative strategy of the parable to prompt her readers to act with more sympathy and care toward others in their everyday lives. I see Eliot on a continuum with other writers who, to varying degrees, distanced themselves from Christian institutions but nonetheless engaged rigorously with biblical texts.


Is it fair to say that these authors are trying to navigate a new space between the religious and the secular?

I think it would be fair to say so, yes. Ultimately, my research shows that we need to revise our habitual categories for classifying Victorian writers. The word “secular” is a contested term, which suggests to me that we should be cautious about drawing clear-cut lines of secular versus religious, or belief versus unbelief. These categories can obscure the dynamic intellectual landscape of the nineteenth century. Moreover, they don’t do justice to the complex ways that Victorian writers adapted biblical language and tropes for a variety of purposes.

My work builds on a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship – often branded as “postsecular” – that highlights the persistence and relevance of religion within our ostensibly secular world. This scholarship emphasizes that the religious dimension of human experience is not a stand-alone category but necessarily embedded within wider social contexts. Rather than think in terms of faith and doubt, my aim is to shift the critical conversation to focus on analyzing religious discourse for its metaphorical and potentially transformative power.


How did you arrive at this topic?

I arrived at it gradually and as a product of my own experiences, both in university and as a person. I grew up reading the Bible and attended a small Christian, liberal arts institution for my first degree, where I was immersed in that theological tradition. Even very early on, however, I wanted to explore open-minded and imaginative forms of spirituality. So, in a sense I've been reflecting on wisdom literature for a long time.

As far as Victorian texts are concerned, I started working on the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a Master’s student. Much of this poetry seemed to me to be knocking on the door of a kind of pluralism evident in other writers as well. When I began my PhD, I originally imagined a comparative study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. But, as I began to read more widely into nineteenth-century interpretive debates, I realized that what I observed in their writings was part of a larger cultural formation.


What is this kernel of thought in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry that was “knocking on the door of a kind of pluralism that [you] could see in other writers”?

The poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that I see as most intensively engaged with wisdom literature is called A Drama of Exile. This poem revises the biblical fall story, picking up where John Milton’s Paradise Lost leaves off, after Adam and Eve depart from Eden. It’s not Barrett Browning’s most accessible work, but it’s definitely one of her most ambitious. It invokes the Book of Job to raise questions about the ordering of the cosmos and the meaning of suffering. A Drama of Exile never fully resolves these questions; instead, it uses dialogue to challenge the idea that revelation consists in a single divine pronouncement. I see this work as potentially pluralistic because it foregrounds multiple, even conflicting, voices.

Something similar might be said of George MacDonald. Today, MacDonald is often remembered for his influence on C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, but in his own time he caused controversy within Christian circles. MacDonald had been the pastor of a Congregational Church, but he was asked to resign because his views were seen as too liberal: he was open to the higher criticism, he had reservations with the doctrine of hell, and he believed that animals would go to heaven.

These examples demonstrate that innovative, imaginative work can arise not only from outside a religious tradition but also from within it. Recognizing that creativity can help us get past our reflex to draw embattled, polarized lines of belief/unbelief when talking about spirituality.


Thank you for taking the time to share with us, Denae.


Interviewer: Philip Cox, Humanities Communications Officer