In Chapter 24 of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, “In Which Mr. Osborne Takes Down the Family Bible,” George Osborne’s father formally disinherits him by crossing George’s name from the fly-leaf of the family Bible and then burning the will in which George is named as his legatee. “The great scarlet Bible” normally resides in a glass-fronted bookcase along with several “standard works in stout gilt bindings” which are unread “from year’s end to year’s end.” Family and servants are forbidden to touch the books and the room itself inspires “a certain terror.”
One of the ways in which Osborne senior enforces his authority over the family is through Sunday evening prayers read “to his family in a loud grating voice.” The “pompous book, seldom looked at, and shining all over with gold” whose frontispiece appropriately depicts Abraham and Isaac, is an emblem of the Osborne’s family’s social weightiness.
Thackeray’s novel, published in 1847, but set in 1812, recalls a period when the heavy family Bible sat in a glass-fronted bookcase alongside Burke’s Peerage and the Gentleman’s Magazine to demonstrate the household’s wealth and importance. National Trust properties in Britain still reflect this practice of displaying sumptuously bound but unread volumes. The inaccessibility of these books to modern researchers has been the subject of a lively controversy in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement.
The Osborne”library” is a scanty effort whose pretensions come nowhere near the vast libraries of the families whose lineages are set out in Mr. Osborne’s copy of Burke’s Peerage. But weighty volumes with fine bindings operated as a signifier of social status at many levels.
By the last decades of the nineteenth century large illustrated Bibles were being displayed very humble households, and, like the Osborne family Bible, acted as repositories of family records. In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) the bankrupted Mr. Tulliver insists that his son Tom fetch the “big Bible . . .where everything’s set down” and inscribe a vow of vengeance in its opening pages.
By the end of the century, although family Bibles continued to serve as the formal record of genealogically significant events and to serve as signifiers of social respectability, they had become so ubiquitous that they no longer implied the level of social prestige comparable to that suggested in Thackeray’s novel.
The popular literature of the late Victorian period is full of illustrations of poor and pious family listening attentively to a father’s bible reading. In heavily didactic works, like the Sunday at Home periodical received in my grandmother’s family, the bible reading is often presented as a provocation to dramatic moral repentance.
The Bible’s force as an agent of moral exhortation in poorer households stemmed in part from its status as the sole book in the family’s possession. In one of my grandmother’s favorite girlhood novels, James F. Cobb’s The Watchers on the Longships, the heroine is desperate to rekindle the lighthouse’s signal lamps. She can only reach them by using the family Bible as a platform, “But to stand upon the Bible! She could never do that. Her mother had always taught her to treat the sacred volume with extreme reverence. It was scrupulously dusted twice a day. . . . to stand on it . . . seemed like sacrilege.” After resting her head on “the holy Book” and praying, young Mary’s hesitation vanishes and she stacks the Bible with other household objects to rekindle the lamps to send “their cheerful beams over the mass of raging waves.” The Bible is then restored to its role as “sacred volume” when Mary prays for mariners’ safety by reading the ninety-third Psalm evoking the “Lord on high . . . mightier than the noise of many waters.”