Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain (2018) by J. Jeffrey Franklin

Lin Young

J. Jeffrey Franklin’s book Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain (2018) examines the evolution of nonmainstream, alternative religious and spiritual belief through the lens of several literary texts, ranging in time from the 1830s to the early twentieth century, and geographically from Europe and Southeast Asia to Africa. These texts are all connected, Franklin articulates, by their “participation in the … cultural contest between spiritualism and materialism” (2). One of the major appeals of this study is the sheer breadth and detail of materials and sources that Franklin manages to incorporate in his work, including a variety of mini-studies or offhanded examples given for further examination, many of which are not included in the table of contents—Jane Eyre (1847), for example, figures prominently in the first chapter. The book is thus a generous overview of a large topic, even as Franklin signals that there is plenty of work yet to be done.

Franklin’s introduction establishes competing schools of thought with respect to religion, science, and culture in the nineteenth century. He demonstrates that, over the course of the century, Victorians found it increasingly difficult to discretely separate the ostensibly competing creeds of materialism and spiritualism, as materialism often attempted to preserve the spiritual. He describes the debates between spiritualism and materialism as performing essential work to “process … tremendous cultural and social upheaval in the transition between mainstream Christianity and a proliferating array of physicotheologies” (18). The text goes on to examine a variety of case studies—featuring authors from Anthony Trollope to Bram Stoker—that Franklin deems relevant to ongoing Victorian debates between orthodox religion and philosophical materialism, or heterodox and orthodox religious practice.

Many of the connections between spiritualism in particular and religion have been tackled by other critics, and many of the base claims in Franklin’s text are not particularly out of the box in this respect. However, Franklin’s contribution to this established research works powerfully to both collect and to expand upon these core concepts of heterodox faiths and belief systems and, in particular, to better globalize them. The result is a text that avoids broad conclusions and injects a series of much-needed nuances to the overall tapestry of the study of heterodox religions and occult philosophies––two sects that have long been observed to be intertwined. The book, as a result, pushes the debates it engages with to new places—particularly as it moves the conversation outside of Europe, to places like Egypt, Ceylon, and Thailand.

Franklin’s framing of ongoing religious and spiritual debates in the nineteenth century is also useful in its broad-spectrum approach, as he organizes his observations around several case studies. In doing so, he thoroughly demonstrates the many ways in which binaries or seemingly clear oppositions in religious and spiritual thought were being constantly challenged, interrogated, and reinterpreted throughout the century. Even the term “religion” begins to grow more and more complex as one progresses through Franklin’s exploration of the term, as even orthodox faiths begin to interrogate their own central tenets, appeals, and values. His consideration of Anthony Trollope’s work in the second chapter is particularly adept at articulating not only how Trollope sets the boundary between heterodox and orthodox religion but also the boundaries of definition itself, as Franklin investigates how many of Trollope’s clerical characters “demonstrate the compromise needed to balance spirituality with temporality or materialism” (62) and thus anticipate a more diverse and indefinable religious landscape in the years to come.

The book’s fourth chapter examines the influence of Buddhist philosophy on Matthew Arnold’s writings on religion. Franklin considers how Arnold’s attempts to ‘save’ and revolutionize modern Christianity in his later work—particularly Literature and Dogma (1891)owe a great debt to his studies into Buddhist philosophy (or, at least, his interactions with nineteenth-century Buddhologists). This chapter also includes an overarching history of mounting European interest in Buddhism over the course of the nineteenth century, encounters that led to the increased popularity of comparative religions led by the Victorians’ interest in Buddhist history and morality. His focus on Arnold demonstrates the ways in which elements of Buddhist thought, such as the concept of nirvana, were being ambivalently explored through a Christian lens in Arnold’s work.

Franklin thus examines, via case studies woven through broader historical recollections, how Buddhism entered European spiritual discourses as a component of the spiritualism versus materialism debate. He eventually traces these influences back to the first encounters of the British Empire with Buddhism in countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand. In these later chapters, Franklin focuses this history around William Knighton’s Forest Life in Ceylon (1854) and Anna Leonowens’ The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870). Of particular interest in these studies is Franklin’s discussion of various vectors of colonial masculinity—which he breaks down into the ‘bully masculinity’ of British explorers and a more detached, liberal-intellectual masculinity—and their confrontations with world religions. Franklin further elucidates how Knighton utilized Buddhist animal parables to demarcate these models of masculinity. This contrasts nicely with the study of genre and women’s travel writing as it influenced Anna Leonowens’ depictions of the Buddhist King Mongkut.

The final section of the book dives into the rise of occultism in Victorian England. Chapter 7 examines heterodox and orthodox interactions with the Victorians’ interest in Egyptian knowledge and religion, utilizing H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra (1889) as an illuminating example. Chapter 8 examines the Victorians’ perceptions of ‘demi-immortal’ figures of the East (particularly, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)) and the intersections between capitalism and Christianity. These chapters round out the discussion nicely, bringing us into the latter part of the century.

As a whole, Franklin’s writing is sharp and accessible as he curates a nuanced, transnational debate that resists simplistic answers or definitions with respect to how heterodox and orthodox religions interacted throughout the nineteenth century. The book certainly demonstrates how much is lost when scholars reduce these two categories into simplistic binaries, and it works to complicate scholarly readings of the century as one in which a straightforward secularization of the British Empire was occurring. The text will be of interest to those looking to tackle Victorian spirituality studies for the first time or for those looking to better globalize their research into nineteenth-century religious discourses. It might also be read meaningfully alongside Georgina A. Byrne’s Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850–1939 (2010), particularly considering Byrne’s research into how the church responded to many of the debates discussed in Franklin’s text by attempting to make their own doctrines more progressive.