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“All national institutions of churches—whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish—appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit.” Thomas Paine’s uncompromisingly anti-clerical “profession of faith” in the Age of Reason (1794) constituted one of the most immoderate—and accessible—challenges to Christian belief, and the authority of the national Church, of the late Enlightenment. Revived and popularized by a second generation of radical infidels, the creed of Painite freethought appeared to many more orthodox observers to represent an urgent threat to political and moral order, and drew down upon its defenders harassment, prosecution, and imprisonment. Yet in response even to such provocative and extreme examples of religious heterodoxy, legal persecution provided strategic opportunities for infidel expression. The radical journalist Richard Carlile not only succeeded in reprinting the classic texts of eighteenth-century freethought before his imprisonment for blasphemous libel; he continued to run his publishing business from his cell, and insisted upon reciting the Age of Reason at his trial in order to facilitate the text’s republication in newspaper legal reports. The enforcement of orthodoxy opened a precarious space for the articulation of dissent.
Mark Canuel’s Religion, Toleration and British Writing is precisely concerned with the shifting, ill-defined relation between religious toleration, conformity, and dissent in the early nineteenth century. Such a study is particularly welcome since, along with the recent work of Jon Mee, Martin Priestman, and Robert Ryan, it seeks to challenge the traditional focus of Romantic studies upon the internalized, imaginative sublimation of religious identity, and insists instead upon considering that identity within an institutional and political context. To assert, as Paine did in the 1790s, that “My own mind is my own church” was to articulate a claim with public, political implications, not simply to make a statement of private belief. Canuel’s study is an ambitious, if also in some respects unsatisfactory, attempt to trace the consequences of this fact for our understanding of Romantic literary culture.
The broad historical framework for the book rests upon the argument that a significant measure of religious freedom had been achieved in Britain by the early nineteenth century, and that this development coincided, in an allegedly non-arbitrary fashion, with the extension of governmental agency in the fields of poor relief, prison reform, national education, and policing. The rise of “secular government” is asserted, but not explored in any depth; instead, Canuel seeks to substantiate his larger case by reconstructing an eighteenth-century “discourse of toleration” in which the demand for freedom of conscience is linked to the formation of the modern political subject. This introductory section of the book is sustained principally by discussions of Bentham and Locke. Thus Bentham’s hostility to religious establishment is explored in relation to his writings on secular education, while Locke’s Letter concerning Toleration is aligned with the Two Treatises and the responsibility of government as a guarantor of the security and property of the individual.
As an explanatory account of the growth of religious freedom in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain this is, of necessity, a partial and schematic argument. Indeed, its presentation requires Canuel to overlook significant differences not only between Bentham and Locke, but also between theoretical arguments for toleration, and the complicated and contingent circumstances in which the cause of religious freedom was fitfully advanced after 1689. (The Toleration Act itself is conflated with Comprehension and misdescribed as “an attempt to unite Dissenters within the Church of England” (25), an elision with some consequence for the larger argument.) It is certainly true that Lockean thought played a significant role in eighteenth-century dissenting discourse. Yet the natural rights arguments employed by the Feathers Tavern petitioners, and a string of dissenting propagandists, were quite foreign to the Benthamite secularism of the early nineteenth century. Tolerationist argument throughout this period could extend from extreme statements of the universal right to liberty of conscience to much more restrictive and pragmatic arguments for the toleration merely of certain forms of belief and practice. As Canuel himself appears to suggest, the limits of toleration had as much to do with social class and political power (at both local and national levels) as with a free-floating discursive “logic”.
The book’s argument here, and elsewhere, is extremely—often needlessly—dense. But Canuel’s basic position seems to be that “To advocate toleration was to advocate for [sic] a seemingly unavoidable set of interlocking commitments to religious freedom and to an institutional facilitation and management of that freedom” (44). Thus, liberty of conscience emerges alongside certain other (secular) forms of social control, and the presumption of such freedom, according to Canuel, underpins the distinctively modern form of the nineteenth-century British nation-state. This dialectic of freedom and restraint finds literary expression in Wordsworth’s poetic treatments of the national church, in Byron’s meditations on religious conflict, and in the imaginative representation of the Catholic Inquisition, which Canuel traces from Radcliffe’s The Italian, to Shelley’s Cenci and Lord John Russell’s Don Carlos; or, Persecution (a tolerationist drama by one of the leading reformist Whig politicians of the 1820s, and the architect of the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts). But, with a capaciousness that cumulatively detracts from the depth and focus of his argument, Canuel also discovers the “Romantic” discourse of toleration in an ambitious list of nineteenth-century literary texts, the range and selection of which sometimes appear rather more responsive to the imperatives of the modern academic canon than the strict demands of his subject matter.
One of book’s most significant and sustained purposes is to revisit, and complicate, the assumption that the turn to political conservatism by “first generation” Romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge must correspond in a straightforward manner to their increasing attachment to the Anglican Church. Canuel is broadly correct in his refusal to treat the changing religious opinions of the Lake School as a simple reflex of their growing “Toryism”. His argument does however tend to rely upon some overly subtle textual analysis, which abandons the more localized contexts of rhetoric and opinion in favour of sometimes tendentious interpretative nuance. Canuel’s intricate, extended discussion of Coleridge’s prose, for example, attempts to impose a kind of unity on his changing religious beliefs, from the radical dissent of the 1790s to the liberal Anglicanism of the 1830s, on the grounds that in both phases Coleridge’s thought can be described as simultaneously both “tolerant” and “conformist”. This surprising conclusion is argued on the basis that the earlier work, such as The Watchman, displays “a strong urge towards social conformity and religious orthodoxy” (89), while the later writings defend the national church as “a mechanism for organizing potentially incompatible beliefs” (120). The assertion of Coleridge’s enduring tolerationist credentials remains, however, strikingly at odds with his explicit rejection of Catholic Emancipation in his most important work of ecclesiology, On the Constitution of Church and State (and his subsequent description of the Emancipation Act as a fecund “Surinam toad”, spawning such poisonous innovations as the proposed admission of Dissenters to the ancient universities and, not least, the Reform Bills of 1831–2). Canuel makes a brief attempt to mitigate such objections and establish the “tolerant logic” of Church and State, but this phrase has clearly come to signify something rather different from “tolerationism”, in the sense in which it might have been understood by Daniel O’Connell and his supporters.
On Wordsworth, however, Canuel offers a much more successful challenge to the commonly-expressed view of the later poetry as a falling-off from imaginative power into dogmatic orthodoxy. Canuel’s treatment of The Excursion complements and extends the work of Sally Bushell and Alison Hickey on this important and misunderstood poem, finding therein “a social mission for religion that is not simply identical to spiritual consolation” (183). This chapter also attempts, rather less successfully, to find a corresponding defence of something called “hypothetical establishment” in certain passages from The Prelude. It culminates, however, in a short but extremely interesting account of the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, which while acknowledging the orthodox Anglican contexts in which these poems have often been read, also complicates such readings by attending to the peculiar manner in which the sonnets seem to “embed” the church, both physically and metaphorically, within landscapes and communities. Such moments constitute for Canuel both a naturalizing of religious establishment, and (simultaneously) a reconception of the national church as a “frame of social being” that enables the very possibility of dissent.
In this chapter, and throughout the book, Canuel’s discussions of community and belief underwrite a rather more ambitious claim for the “discourse of toleration” as an agent in the formation of British national identity. This is difficult territory: as the work of David Hempton and Colin Kidd has shown, the relation between British identities and religious politics in the long eighteenth century was both complex and volatile; Linda Colley’s pioneering work on this subject now stands in need of substantial qualification. Canuel’s own discussion of this issue hardly touches on Scotland and Wales, while in his chapter on the Irish national tale, his argument for the centrality of “tolerationist” attitudes in forging British identity leads him—in the course of an extended discussion— to omit any reference to the disastrous legacy of the penal laws and the violent sectarianism of the 1790s (and beyond). Indeed, the book’s treatment of Edgeworth suggests that religious and national differences are successfully “managed” by her fiction, through their assimilation into a larger “British” entity, with no apparent recognition (on the part either of Edgeworth or Canuel) of the profound asymmetries of power involved in the process of British state-formation: “her writing makes the differences between groups more visible precisely because of their prior inclusion within the larger identity of Britain. An expanding social and discursive entity, Britain might even be said to maximize opportunities for disagreement or difference to emerge” (128).
If the Romantic “secular state cultivates resistance within itself”, it is not clear, in the end, how genuinely heterodox that “resistance” can be. The Foucauldian idiom into which Canuel occasionally lapses suggests that Romantic toleration serves the purpose of containment and “surveillance”; elsewhere an ostensibly more benign liberalism seems to be at work, for example in the claim that “Novels, poetry, and drama were instrumental in giving shape to the discourse of toleration, at the same time that toleration provided these writers with repeated opportunities to assert the position of their own works in a marketplace inhabited by adherents of different beliefs” (45). In each case, however, Canuel’s relentlessly secularizing critical language reproduces (or pre-empts) the larger thrust of his argument, namely that Romantic texts stage the appropriation of confessional authority for an emergent “secular state”, and the consequent “negotiation” or “management” of conflicting beliefs. If this seems to parallel, in certain respects, more traditional claims for the emergence of a secularized imagination in the canonical texts of English Romanticism, then it is no surprise to find the Romantic discourse of toleration described, in the book’s conclusion, as “a feeling of separation within community—a separation from communal feeling that is itself communal” (268). This formulation obviously (and I think deliberately) returns us to a relatively familiar set of critical preoccupations. But its application to the politics of religion in this period demands a greater sensitivity to the peculiarly intransigent aspects of intolerance and recusancy, of righteousness and persecution. The “negotiation” or “management” of conflicting belief, in which Canuel sets such store, might be appropriate in a marketplace of secular opinions, but such arbitration could not hope to resolve the more fundamental tensions between civil obligation and divine covenant, sacerdotal hierarchy and the priesthood of all believers; still less would it satisfy those, such as William Blake, for whom the national Church bore the mark of the Antichrist, and for whom Anglican establishment and the spirit of true religion were finally irreconcilable. Such beliefs resist “negotiation”; they require instead an unequivocal choice of the kind Blake offers in his annotatory defence of the Age of Reason: “Paine is either a Devil or an Inspired man”.