Literature and Religion in Mid-Victorian England

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

The Pope has just canonised three nineteenth-century missionaries, but no-one had seriously expected to see St Charles Dickens or St Wilkie Collins, who are the main focus of this book. The combination of unconventional sexual arrangements in their lives and manifest exasperation with aspects of Evangelical religion in their work has not encouraged readers to take them seriously as religious writers. But it was not always thus. In 1861 the liberal Catholic Lord Acton wrote about Dickens’s religion and Great Expectations in a letter to a friend, observing that “Certain Germans of the last century remind me of Dickens as to religion. They saw ‘no divine part of Christianity’ but divinified humanity or humanised religion … .”

Carolyn Oulton does not mention Acton, and would in any case probably disagree with this vaguely Unitarian construction of Dickens’s outlook, but she has performed a valuable service for students of Dickens and Collins by demonstrating that there is a serious and sustained engagement with religious matters in their work. Caricatures of Evangelical excess embodied in Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby or Collins’s Miss Clack might signal disillusionment with the Christian religion, or they might signal a deeply if unconventionally Christian concern that vital religious truth is in danger of being lost or travestied in the hands (and mouths) of silly Christians. Oulton’s thoughtful and detailed work persuades us that it is the latter. She analyses selected illustrative texts carefully and is alert to personal tension and complexity. As she points out, Collins had had an Evangelical upbringing and knew almost too much about the uses and abuses of doctrines such as original sin and eternal punishment from which he dissented, but his optimistic confidence in benign providence available to all was grounded in a sense of the value of each individual soul which was itself Evangelical in origin. Even Lydia Gwilt in Armadale is reclaimed from a career of successful criminality and allowed a good end, which invites us to suspend judgement. Oulton demonstrates how Evangelical narrative motifs such as illness leading to religious renewal are harnessed and transformed both in the case of Magdalen Vanstone in Collins’s No Name and Pip in Great Expectations. Oulton also identifies and accommodates apparent contradiction: Dickens mercilessly lampooned Evangelical philanthropy yet supported it during the 1848 cholera epidemic; he condemned Evangelical attitudes to children yet supported the work of the Ragged Schools; he rejected Evanglical harshness but could be harshly judgmental, particularly in relation to adult criminals, and he was not above occasional rhetorical dependence on the latent melodrama of its theology of death and judgement, perdition and redemption. She is particularly good on complex negotiations in Dickens and Collins of the non-Evangelical, bluffly affirmative “manly Christianity” or “Christian manliness” popularised by Kingsley and Hughes in the 1850s, pointing out that it can also be applied to women such as the redoubtable Marian in The Woman in White. The reading of Tale of Two Cities in terms of vengeance and reconciliation and the Evangelical doctrine of vicarious atonement is persuasive. So is the exploration of humane alternatives to the unattractive dogma of total depravity, and a useful distinction is drawn between Collins’s tendency to rely on divine mercy and human perfectibility and Dickens’s sterner belief in salvation – if at all – through individual atonement and expiation.

But Oulton is less effective in her handling of religious and ecclesiastical contexts. Dickens’s withdrawal from Unitarianism after briefly attending a Unitarian chapel is mentioned, but it is not really made clear in what ways his extremely liberal and idiosyncratic version of Anglicanism differs from Unitarianism. Nor is it apparent that Dickensian religion is really adequately described by the expression “Broad Church faith,” which, strictly speaking, implies inclusive neo-Coleridgean ideas on ecclesiastical polity.

Other religiously-concerned writers of the period wander through the text almost at random, mainly for purposes of comparison with Dickens and Collins. George Eliot’s more radical quarrel with conventional religion and her rather different critique of Evangelicalism are her passport into the present book, but Mrs Gaskell is nowhere to be found, though her liberal treatment of social issues in a religious context brings her rather closer to Kingsley and to Dickens, who commissioned some of her shorter fiction. Newman appears briefly from time to time, but there is no recognition of the ultimately Evangelical antecedents of his religious thought or of the eccentricity within an English context of religious positions Newman would have insisted were orthodox. Evangelicalism is made to cover a multitude of excesses and absurdities, not all of which can fairly be laid exclusively at its door, but there is no indication of different phases of the movement or differences between Methodist and Calvinist evangelicalism. Evangelical attitudes are illustrated from sources which can appear randomly selected because their particular appropriateness is not explained or justified. Dean Mansel is introduced as if he was a representative of normative divinity instead of a theological extremist whose work was condemned both by John Stuart Mill and by the liberal theologian F.D. Maurice with whose Christian socialism (a term not mentioned in the book) the Dickens of Hard Times had considerable sympathy. That once- controversial symposium of Victorian liberal divinity Essays and Reviews is treated as if its only significant contributor was Benjamin Jowett, but Dickens’s positive response to it seems to pick up on ideas developed in the first essay by Frederick Temple, future Archbishop of Canterbury.

The folly of those who dismiss or trivialise Dickensian religion is quite properly rebuked, but beyond that there is relatively little sense of coherent sustained debate with or within the critical tradition. Many critics are quoted, sometimes, irritatingly, without being named in the main text so their pronouncements seem curiously impersonal and oracular, but this is usually just to provide crutches for the discussion and to make local and specific points.

There are also a few trivial lapses. A teacher in David Copperfield (1849-50) is described as “reminiscent” of Dr Arnold in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). A rather meagre index (less than two pages) contrives to credit Charles Kingsley rather than his friend Thomas Hughes with authorship of Tom Brown’s Schooldays though the attribution is perfectly clear and correct in the main text.

But there is much to be grateful for. French criticism of English fiction in the mid-nineteenth century was sometimes shrewder and more sardonically detached than English reviewing and Paul Forgues and Emile Montégut are quoted here to good effect. Oulton delivers us from clear and present danger because we are at risk of losing any sense of the pervasive presence and power of religion in ostensibly secular Victorian fiction not only as subject matter but as a determinant of narrative form.