There is something provocative in the decision made by Victoria Morgan and Clare Williams to preface this collection of essays with a sermon by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Given in October of 2002, mere months after Williams was elected Archbishop and before his confirmation, the sermon reflects on the life of William Gladstone by focusing on unity and belief. Gladstone’s interest in unity, Williams argues, came out of both Homer and his experience of living in turbulent Victorian times, and, hence, was shaped by “story and relation” rather than “programme” (xii). Since Gladstone gained notoriety for attempting to preserve unity within the Anglican church during one of its more fractious periods, we can imagine with what degree of seriousness Williams takes Rowan’s closing reminder, in the spirit of his Victorian precursor, that “God does not deliver a set of solutions, but first a net of relations” (xiv).
In choosing to frame the collection this way, Morgan and Williams seem to signal that the struggle for unity represents the double challenge facing Shaping Belief. On the one hand, the contributors narrate, to varying degrees, the challenges that nineteenth-century writers, poets, and even cartoonists faced in seeking to maintain unity and belief “in an age of increasing secularization” (xvi) and “ideological plurality” (xviii). On the other, the collection itself struggles with the challenge of placing these essays into meaningful categories. The three sections that divide Shaping Belief bear this challenge out, and it should come as no surprise that a collection of essays on the diversity of nineteenth-century belief would refuse easy categorization. This could explain, too, the at-times painful slipperiness that attends use of the term “belief” in Morgan and William’s introduction, which they define broadly as “social, cultural and political phenomena” rather than simply “a specifically religious conviction” (xv). References to John Stuart Mill’s writing on religion—whose compelling and pluralist approach to belief is often overlooked—and the pragmatist William James are welcome additions, and set the tone for much of what follows, even as the editors strive to cast as wide a net as possible.
Several of the essays stand out as fine contributions to the current resurgence of interest in religion in both British and American contexts. Some of the most successful take head-on the question of religious belief. In contrast to the experience of most readers today, Andrew Tate’s essay reminds us that “[c]onversion...was not just a part of the grammar of Victorian theology but also an animating presence in the popular imagination” (3). This fact, Tate explains, helps us to understand not only the influence of Evangelical Christianity, with which conversion has been most associated, but also the degree to which the public accounts of John Henry Newman’s defection to Catholicism and Ruskin’s “unconversion” reveal how “Victorian iterations of conversion are no less slippery than those of the pluralist, postmodern era” (16). In a similar vein, Hester Jones’s essay on F.D Maurice, Octavia Hill, and Josephine Butler emphasizes that not all Victorians were as uncongenial toward diversity and pluralism as we often assume. Stressing the dialectical tension between the church and the nation that animated Maurice’s writing, earning much of the animus that was directed towards his thought, Jones points out that what most, including Ruskin, saw as indecision was actually “the kenotic emptying of content” which marked his work (27). Jones connects Maurice’s legacy to the social reforming work of Octavia Hill, who, despite a conservatism regarding gender akin to that of Maurice (whom she warmly admired), is equally elusive in her understanding of “what constitutes ... the ‘home’ sphere” (34-5). In conclusion, Jones argues, the incarnational theologies of these reformers complicate accounts that would paint them as conservative or “custodial” (37) in attitude.
Philip Davis’s entry takes a different approach to Victorian religion, and does so in a tone both engaging and startling. Davis’s essay follows the plight of “Charley,” who is meant to represent “reluctant non-believers, these sensitive, sincere and vulnerable agnostics” (58). We follow the latter’s travails, from his reading Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity to his reactions to the Victorian era’s transition “towards a more full-blown secularization” which increased his desire to retain some form of belief (59). We find out later that Charley is the Charley Osborne of George MacDonald’s Wilfrid Cumbermede, and Davis’s point is that art allows us to follow through on these questions of faith and doubt without having to “work it all out cerebrally in advance” (69), as we identify with the struggles of realistically drawn characters. Referencing sources from Arthur Hugh Clough to William James, Davis encourages us not to merely historicize Charley’s struggle, but also to take seriously the modern need for belief.
Other chapters focus on particular tropes, symbols, and genres through which to examine nineteenth-century belief. Victoria Morgan argues that Emily Dickinson’s use of bee imagery criticizes religious orthodoxy and its totalizing theories while, paradoxically, revealing her interest in an over-arching design and structure in nature. Morgan echoes the other essays in the volume when she concludes that the diptych of idleness and industry which the bees represent demonstrates Dickinson’s letting go of certainty which is itself a form of faith. Kirstie Blair’s essay points to the mutual influence between church architecture and Victorian poetry; Blair examines Tractarian verse in particular, in hopes that greater attention might be given to poets like Isaac Williams. Alison Milbank takes up the trope of the “Gothic Double” to argue that a religious reading of the doubled self can help us better to understand nineteenth-century social theory.
While the most compelling essays are those that directly engage religion, other interesting essays present more tangential perspectives on nineteenth-century modes of thought, with little obvious bearing on issues of “belief.” Brian Maidment demonstrates how changes in nineteenth-century caricature both threatened class stability and demonstrated the need to incorporate working people into “civility and productivity” (150), while Juliet John examines Dickens’s personal mode of address; these scholars provide glimpses into the everyday lives, and preoccupations, of Victorians. Ella Dzelzainis’s analysis of Victorian seamstress narratives highlights the surprising role such fiction took in the campaign against political economy. These “biologically essentialist” accounts, while reproducing High Tory paternalism, nonetheless provided a vector for critics of political economy to argue that “[i]n exactly the same way that the female bodily economy required regulation...so too did political economy” (53).In the end, the collection represents an appealing variety of views on nineteenth-century culture, even though its generalist approach to the topic of belief often misses opportunities to focus more specifically on the Victorian era’s very palpable and varied engagements with religion. Over all this scholarship looms the specter of secularization – a topic that the introduction and many of the essays address, but with surprisingly little intensity. For most of the accounts here, the conventional secularization thesis, which posits the modern decline and marginalization of religion, is taken for granted. As a result, the essays sometimes seem simply to argue that Victorian belief was “more complex” than we skeptical moderns give it credit for being. The past two decades, however, have seen determined efforts in the humanities to both question and reaffirm the secularization thesis, with recent work raising the question of how accurately our contemporary age can be labeled “postsecular”—a question asked directly, albeit only in passing, by Hester Jones. While little has been written on this issue by literary critics, much less Victorianists—with Vincent Pecora’s recent book Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation and Modernity (2006) being a notable exception—one cannot help but wonder how much more focused a contribution Shaping Belief would have made had some of the essays taken up this debate.
Daniel Wong is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation examines Victorian literature and religion in relation to secularization and postsecular theory.