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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Literature and Religion in Victorian Studies

Posted by Miriam Burstein on 04/26/05 at 04:33 PM

[Note: the main text is a brief and, to be honest, disjointed sketch for a longer, but still brief, piece on the return of religion to Victorian studies.  Comments, questions, corrections, etc., will all be welcomed and acknowledged in the finished essay.]

Just to prove that everything old can be new again, religion and literature has become the next “in” thing in Victorian studies.  The rise of the new HolyTrinity (gender, race, and class) often left religion shivering out in a blizzard somewhere; when Sandra Gilbert and Susan M. Gubar took on Jane Eyre in the Madwoman in the Attic, for example, they allied themselves with the novel’s most extreme Victorian critics and called it “‘irreligious.’”* In other words, “religion” was somehow wrapped up in repressive Victorian attitudes, and could hardly be reconciled with apparently liberal or even radical positions—despite any evidence to the contrary.  (Similarly, critics have sometimes had a hard time dealing with figures like Eliza Lynn Linton, a religious radical with resolutely conservative positions on most social issues.) Beginning in the 1990s, though, scholars began to think about religion as an organic part of Victorian culture, one flexible enough to accommodate any number of aesthetic, political, and intellectual positions.  Whereas G&G had seen religion as part and parcel of a kind of “clothes philosophy,” as it were, more recent scholars have insisted on tracing its importance for all aspects of Victorian thought.

The new religion & literature differs in many respects from the old—indeed, from the Victorian version.  Victorian critics, after all, were accustomed as a matter of course to examining the religious elements in their literature, and to thinking about what literature (including literary aesthetics) might mean for their religion.  This is not to say that Victorian critics were always out hunting for Religious Correctness.  The popular clergyman-cum-critic, Stopford Brooke, distinguished between a poet’s theology in “ordinary life” and his theology in poetry; while in the former, they were “subject to the same influences as other men, and if religious, held a distinct creed or conformed to a special sect,” in the latter, “[t]heir theology was not produced as a matter of intellectual co-ordination of truths, but as a matter of truths which were true because they were felt; and the fact is, that in this realm of emotion where prejudice dies, the thoughts and feelings of their poetry on the subject of God and Man are wholly different from those expressed in their everyday life.”** For Brooke, poetry offers something close to a truly universal expression of Christian faith, one set free from sectarian conflict by the imagination’s idiosyncratic workings.  (Since this approach also allows Brooke to read an atheist like Shelley as a Christian poet at heart, modern readers may feel some skepticism about this tactic.) Brooke, in other words, is not at all a historicist; he seeks an expression of religious belief unique to poetry.

In the first half of the twentieth century, studies of religion and literature tended towards the encyclopedic catalogue, with far more emphasis on minor authors and taxonomies of doctrinal positions.  It’s worth remembering that the first wave of work on non-canonical authors arrived roughly in tandem with the Germanic model of the doctorate: scholars sought to demonstrate mastery of a particular literary-historical “slice.” (For this reason, there’s a lot of scholarship from this period that remains useful today—e.g., J. M. S. Tompkins on popular fiction or B. G. MacCarthy on early women novelists.) Moreover, academics themselves were far more likely to be practicing Christians than they are now.  Studies of Victorian religion and literature from this period tend to exclude historical context beyond theology; the results can feel fairly close to Lovejoy’s history of ideas.  Not surprisingly, however, the 1960s and later saw a growing interest in what J. Hillis Miller termed “the disappearance of God.” And, after a time, religion & lit itself disappeared from Victorian studies.

Its return in the 1990s came with new strengths and new glitches.  Many scholars interested in the subject have had little or no religious upbringing (or, at least, no upbringing in the faith tradition they’re studying).  While this has at least one advantage—namely, non-sectarian scholarship—it also means that academics fail to grasp important problems or, conversely, see problems where no Victorian found them.  Not surprisingly, some recent books have fallen badly afoul of historians of religion.  More positively, as I said above, the recent scholarship usually tries to integrate religion into what David Newsome calls “the Victorian world picture,” the better to show that apparently contradictory positions (a Calvinist feminist?) might have their own internal logics.

What has motivated this return of the religious (semi-)repressed? At least three things are at work:  1) The rise of various fundamentalisms has led scholars to revisit earlier periods characterized by religious controversy.  2) In the logic of the academic market, fields left fallow are tilled, once again, when other areas become overworked.  3) Victorian literature is so chock-a-block with religious references that most scholars cannot simply ignore them.

Below the fold, I’ve provided a beginning bibliography for those interested in Victorian literature and religion.  The bibliography covers only books devoted specifically to that subject—no history of theology, for example, which would take up an entire weblog—and emphasizes surveys over books on individual authors.  I’ve tried to provide a mix of still-useful older works and more recent material.

*--Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 369.
**--Stopford Brooke, Theology in the English Poets.  Cowper—Coleridge—Wordsworth and Burns, 6th ed. (1880; New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1970), 2-3.


Miriam, thanks for the helpful bibliography.

I wanted to underline your point that the new scholarship seems to focus on a different kind of interest in religion. Ragussis, and following him Gauri Viswanathan, have what I see as a cultural studies perspective, that sees religious community as essentially a kind of ethno-racial group. Theology is absent.

Don’t you think it’s probably going to stay that way, at least in the English Department? I don’t see the current generation of scholars getting all that interested in the kinds of theological and sectarian issues that might really Newman and the Tractarians, for instance, seem as sexy as the Spasmodics.

Another thing: I see a pretty profound secularizing turn as the century progresses, partly following the enfranchisement of Dissenters, Catholics, and eventually Jews. Also important are the advent of London University and the education reform of 1870… Do you agree that the Victorian religion begins with a bang but ends with a whimper?

James Wood notes the secularizing turn in his trashing of Matthew Arnold’s crypto-atheism ("false medicine") at the end of The Broken Estate.

By Amardeep on 04/26/05 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1.  I agree that there’s a real split between the theology types (Thormahlen, Wheeler) and the cultural studies types (Ragussis).  I tend to prefer the former to the latter, although I quite like Ragussis’ book; some of us newer folks are trending towards theology, I think (see, e.g., the Victorian Literature and Culture special issue on religion; you can wave hello to my article as you go past).  Not sure that this split really exists in, say, medieval studies, which, for obvious reasons, tend to be religion & lit by default. 
2.  It depends on where you look, I think; there’s plenty of controversy at the popular level (the RTS is still churning out anti-Catholic historical fiction at the end of the century...), but I agree that things look a little thin at the upper end.  Callum G. Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain argues that true secularization didn’t take place until the mid-twentieth c., when (he argues) Christianity ceased to function for many people as an “explanatory narrative.” It’s an interesting book.

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein on 04/26/05 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A very useful bibliography—but there was one work I was surprised not to see: the third volume of Q.D. Leavis’s collected essays (Cambridge, 1989), subtitled ‘The Novel of Religious Controversy’.  QDL’s writings on this subject aren’t as well known as they should be, largely, I think, because many of them were only published posthumously, at a time when the Scrutiny school of criticism had fallen right out of fashion.  Also, perhaps, she was too far ahead of the curve.  If, as you say, religion-and-literature started to reappear in Victorian studies in the 1990s, then QDL was at least ten years ahead of the trend.  She was one of the first critics to draw attention to the way that the secularism of the modern academy had created a critical blind-spot where the subject of nineteenth-century religion was concerned.  I also find her emphasis on religious controversy refreshingly astringent when compared to (say) G.B. Tennyson’s rather bland book on Tractarian poetry, with its stress on the devotional rather than the controversial.

(Incidentally, the volume also includes some of the best, i.e. the cruellest, of QDL’s reviews for Scrutiny, including ‘The case of Miss Dorothy Sayers’ and—my special favourite—‘Lady novelists and the lower orders’.  I personally think QDL was a much better critic than her husband, as well as being a much better writer of prose; and I think her reputation will long outlast his.)

Another book you ought to include on your bibliography, maybe, is Simon Skinner’s new monograph “Tractarians and the Condition of England” (Oxford, 2004), which includes a discussion of Tractarian novelists like Paget and Gresley.  This is very theologically grounded work which goes some way to answer Amardeep’s point (above) about the absence of theology from the new wave of scholarship.  I actually tend to agree with Amardeep on this one—I think there is a widespread assumption among scholars that religion is interesting as a cultural phenomenon but theology is so much hot air—but on the subject of nineteenth-century theology there has been a lot of good work coming out of history departments recently (e.g. Boyd Hilton on the Evangelicals, Peter Nockles on the Oxford Movement).  I could go on about the reasons for this theological turn, but this comment has already gone on too long ..

By on 04/28/05 at 05:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the QDL ref--I haven’t seen that one.  Skinner is on the “to buy” list…

I agree that the historians are far ahead of the English professors on the theology curve.

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein on 04/28/05 at 07:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ragussis, and following him Gauri Viswanathan, have what I see as a cultural studies perspective, that sees religious community as essentially a kind of ethno-racial group.

For what it’s worth, a very few biologists, or all people, are getting interested in religion as a fundamental mechanism of social bonding.  See the very interesting:

David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, University of Chicago Press, 2002.

I’ve reviewed that book here:


By bbenzon on 07/16/05 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Miriam,

Your bibliography comes as a huge help. Could you direct me to any other bibliography that deals particularly with anxieties of declining religion in particular Victorian authors, possibly also in the colonial context? Thanks a ton. This has been very useful indeed!

By on 02/12/11 at 10:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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