In Search of The King's Gold
By Alexa Atkinson
The vicissitudes of the devout life are masterfully portrayed in Cheney's novel.
Edyth Wilsey has spent her short life alone. She is shuffled around the world at her father’s behest. At times he even seems to have forgotten her. Edyth, however, is sent to a school for ladies and trained from childhood to become the perfect New York debutante, a valuable bargaining chip for Mr. Laurence Wilsey.
This is where readers meet the heroine of The King’s Gold. Published in 1900 by Elizabeth Cheney, The King’s Gold has wooed hearts with Miss Wilsey’s tumultuous tale for over a century. Edyth finds hope, love, and strength when she encounters Christ for the first time. But this is not where Edyth reaches happily ever after. In the coming months she faces scorn, humiliation, indifference, intimidation, and manipulation; her personal convictions often put her at odds with society’s expectations for a young heiress. There are three main attitudes towards Christianity that pervade the story: the fashionable religion of Miss Rand, the bitter hatred towards Christianity held by Mr. Wilsey, and the calm discipline of Edyth.
Edyth’s mother died shortly after childbirth. Her father traveled often, and she was raised in a fashionable girls school. Mr. Wilsey carefully kept her aunt Helen West out of her life. Exposure to Christianity was limited in Edyth’s life, consisting almost entirely of school chapel on Sundays if the weather was pleasant enough for a walk. So it is that our protagonist is nearly an adult when she first hears the gospel. On a holiday with her roommates after graduation, Edyth becomes a Christian when she unknowingly meets her aunt at a local church. Upon her return to New York society, Edyth, to her deep anguish, encounters a working girl who dies of malnutrition, telling Edyth that “there’s lots of girls like me.”
Edyth and her father quickly begin to clash over her newfound Christianity and principles. The situation escalates as he threatens and manipulates her by turns. The conflict culminates when Mr. Wilsey decides to put her in an insane asylum, but dies of heart failure before he can carry out his threat. Edyth and her Aunt Helen move in together downtown; remembering the girl who died, Edyth chooses a neighborhood where she can minister to the working girls there. She builds a life for herself, makes friends, marries one Reverend Leigh, and sets up several mission services.
Miss Isobel Rand is a wealthy young lady who attends the church Mr. Leigh was the assistant pastor of, and works in community outreach with the church. At first glance, Miss Rand appears to be a devout follower of Christ. However, it swiftly becomes clear that she sees religion as a fashionable hobby, and only devotes her energy to the church when she views it as serviceable to herself. Isobel wants to marry Mr. Leigh and “finding that the mission was the absorbing theme of Mr. Leigh’s thought, she threw herself heartily into the work … teaching a class … in the Sunday school.” When Miss Rand fails to ensnare Mr. Leigh, she withdraws from this task. The second she no longer believes her services will benefit her, she walks away. This view towards the church is held by many of the characters who inhabit the world of The King’s Gold. The theme of religion as stylish diversion, instead of life-changing news, pervades the attitudes of New York high society.
Mr. Laurence Wilsey despises Christians, Christianity, and God. In fact he is openly hostile to all forms of religion, and impressed upon his daughter the intensity of his belief. Mr. Wilsey wanted Edyth to live for the world as he did: “Don’t make war on the customs of society … I won’t put up with any puritanic notions.” He planned to reach the heights of society and was willing to let her be as miserable as himself to do so. “It is my express wish … that you shall leave religion out of your life. You are to shine … to have society at your feet … I hate Christians! I would sooner put you to death than to have you become one.” Laurence was running from God. He knew he had lived his life with utter disregard for the Lord. Tormented by his mistakes, he seeks to gain the world and its pleasures, and to bring Edyth down with him. “Enraged at her composure … he struck her with his palm full on the side of the cheek. She opened her eyes then, but there was no anger, only divine pity in their clear depths, and his soul cowered before them.” He threatened his daughter, he cut her off from her community and locked her up, but she still had a contentment he did not, and it terrified him.
Though the reader meets Miss Wilsey when she is far from God, she steadily learns to love the Lord and his calling for her life. As a young woman approaching adulthood she is burdened with both a restless heart and questions that the world cannot answer. Timid by nature, her faith grounds her in the face of adversity. Edyth responds to her father’s threats with Romans 8:38-39 which says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Following Laurence Wilsey’s death, Edyth steps boldly onto the path to which she had been called. She declared, “I have a ‘call,’ … to a beautiful work, a call from the edge of the grave, that roused me from my timidity and hesitation toward Christ to a positive declaration of love and loyalty.” God touches many downtrodden lives through young Miss Wilsey. Edyth put her trust in the Father and was blessed with a life full of meaning and hope.
Alexa Atkinson was homeschooled through the tenth grade with Classical Conversations, and is currently a junior in high school at Greer Middle College Charter School. She enjoys listening to music, spoiling her two dogs, reading, exploring the Biltmore estate, and collecting random historical tidbits. She plans to major in Education and become TESOL certified.
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