The Victorian English left us, in the form of fiction, a picture of themselves more complete than any we possess for other nations or other generations. But historians have almost ignored this vast mine of humane knowledge, a source of insight, if not indeed of fact. The view of the intellectual movement presented by men of unquestioned honesty to a public too well acquainted with the subject to accept obvious misrepresentation, should be valuable—not only for what is stated, but also for what is unconsciously revealed of bias, assumption, of the spiritual atmosphere of the time. Moreover, the Victorians were tremendously concerned with religion, lest it vanish, and their chief instrument of propaganda (in fact, their favorite means of presenting serious psychological or social study) was the novel.
Those of us who love the Victorian novel nevertheless face certain challenges in absorbing from it all that it has to offer. For the modern reader, one of the greatest of these may well be coming to terms with not merely the religious content, which is almost ubiquitous, but the terminology that goes along with it. In Victorian Britain, religion was a very public thing: this was a time of strife, not only between the church and its enemies – or at least its disputants – but between the various factions within the church itself. One of the pleasures for me of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement is that it allowed me finally, seriously, to begin to get my head around the vocabulary of the age, and to understand the allusions that for the Victorian reader were clear and self-explanatory: High Church, Low Church, Evangelicalism, Tractarianism, Puseyism, High Anglicanism, High And Dry, Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism— AAACCKK!!!!
Grateful as I am to Joseph Ellis Baker, I have, nevertheless, certain qualms about trying to review this book. As he declares in his preface, Baker was himself Catholic – or as I should say in this context, Roman Catholic – and even with my limited knowledge, I can see how this tends to skews his presentation of his material. Another issue is that, writing in 1932, Baker makes certain assumptions, and takes certain things for granted, that some eighty-odd years later we might not be inclined to accept. This presents a problem – one I don’t intend to try and overcome. Call it tolerance or call it cowardice, but I’ve decided not to engage with Baker at that level.
Instead, I’ll stick to talking about what I most took out of this book, a better understanding of the various religious movements of 19th-century Britain, and an awareness of some now extremely obscure novelists. And, well, you know me: obscure novels, and obscure novelists, are my stock-in-trade; and I confess that these peculiar, clumsy, ponderously sincere, ephemeral texts hold a strange fascination for me.
(While I can say I have a better understanding of this subject, that’s certainly not to say it’s flawless. So if I get anything wrong here, or misuse any of the terminology, please feel free to set me straight.)
By Baker’s account, the so-called Oxford Movement grew out of a backlash against the liberalism of the 1830s, which saw various reforms passed giving greater rights and opportunities to the lower and middle classes, and an increasing distance placed between Church and State. A key moment came in 1833, with a Bill introduced in parliament to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland. Although this was part of a reform under which the money saved would be applied to other church business, the Bill was preceived in some quarters as an outrageous secular meddling in religious matters. The most notable reaction came from John Keble, the author of The Christian Year and, from 1831, the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. In 1833, Keble’s Assize Sermon was entitled “National Apostasy”. In it he denounced both the Irish Bill and the interference by the state in church affairs. This sermon is now generally regarded as the beginning of the Oxford Movement.
Following Keble’s sermon, a group of English clerics banded together and produced a series of papers that they called Tracts For Our Times, which expounded upon the principles of what they called “the English branch of the Holy Catholic Church”. These Tracts became the focus of a move away from the Low Church, or Evangelical, form of worship, which then dominated England, and towards what would be known as Anglo-Catholicism: a stricter, more traditional approach that, while not recognising the authority of the Pope or the Catholic hierarchy, or incorporating confession and absolution, adopted Catholic procedures and rituals. It was Anglican, but not Protestant.
This movement was and for a decade remained based around Oxford. In the first instance it was often called “Tractarianism”, in reference to the publications which the Anglo-Catholics used to fire the first barrages in what would become a decades-long conflict. In line with their horror of liberalism and reform, the Tractarians advocated a return to an England under the joint paternalistic rule of the church and the aristocracy: a realm where everyone was content to stay where God had seen fit to place them; where the poor were “looked after”, in the feudal sense, and thus kept passive and obedient, and where an uppity middle-class was to learn submission to God’s will whether it liked it or not.
Even as it is generally accepted that civil war is the most internecine, this battle not between different religions, but between degrees of the same religion, was a bitter if bloodless conflict, a war fought from the pulpit, and in the newspapers – and in the novel. By the time of the birth of the Oxford Movement, the novel was an accepted although not entirely approved form of recreation. While in general novels were still held to be a threat to the weak-minded of society – women, servants, the working-class – it was nevertheless recognised that if written with strict purpose, the novel could be a powerful weapon. So it was that during the 1840s, the religious novel was born, as each of the various factions tried to reach, to educate, to sway the English public through its favourite form of entertainment – not, however, without certain qualms.
It is to these qualms that we owe the most peculiar characteristics of the novels of this time. Many writers, uneasy at adopting a form often denounced for its pernicious influence to favour their cause, actually took pains to make their novels as unentertaining as possible. (Or at least, that’s the story they’re sticking with.) It became a matter of pride, for instance, not to include anything resembling a love-story: a convention perhaps easier for the Anglo-Catholics, one of whose tenets was the celibacy of the ministry. Indeed, many of the earliest religious novels are essentially sermons in prose. But over time, it was conceded that the power of the novel lay in its ability to engage the imagination and the emotions; that soapbox shouting defeated its own purpose. Finally, the more talented of the religious novelists began weaving their themes and their arguments into stories that carried conviction through their grounding in a recognisable reality.
Most readers today, I imagine, if asked to name a religious 19th century English novelist, would probably nominate Anthony Trollope, specifically his Barchester books. Ironically, although he gives Trollope his own section in his book, Joseph Ellis Baker essentially dismisses him as a religious novelist, arguing that his clergymen are predominantly creatures of society and not the church. This is, of course, to a large extent true, as Trollope himself admitted; it is not private religion but public duty with which he mostly concerned himself. Baker also points out that in Trollope’s novels, the Oxford Movement seems almost not to have happened – that he spends most of his time satirising the Evangelicals from a High (but not too High) Church perspective, exactly as his mother, Frances Trollope, was doing in her novels of the 1830s. This, however, Baker subscribes largely to the fact that Trollope was writing his novels after the first great wave of religious controversy had subsided, during a period of greater tolerance and reduced disputation.
Nevertheless, for the modern reader, Trollope is still a good place to start – and quite complicated enough, with his Proudie / Grantley – Low Church / High Church brawling. We do in fact find in his novels a few references to the earlier religious controversies, including the unanticipated and most unwanted climax of the Oxford Movement, which saw several of its leading exponents, most notoriously John Henry Newman, convert to Roman Catholicism: exactly what the Movement’s Lower Church enemies had warned would be its natural consequence.
Thus in Barchester Towers, Francis Arabin is described as “an ardent disciple” of Newman, and, So high, indeed, that at one period of his career, he had all but toppled over into the cesspool of Rome. In Doctor Thorne we have Caleb Oriel, who represents a mild form of another frequent accusation made against Catholicism: that it was a religion of the senses and not of the spirit. Caleb’s initial calling was, we learn, Rather to the outward and visible signs of religion than to its inward and spiritual graces. He is also an advocate of celibacy in the church: a belief which scarcely outlasts his first meeting with Beatrice Gresham. Trollope is indulgent with those who go a little too “High”, believing that this is something they will simply grow out of; but he has little patience with those who go Low. For Trollope, Evangelicalism is the refuge of the ungentlemanly.
That Anthony Trollope is an enduringly popular novelist, and that Anthony Trollope was not, in Joseph Ellis Baker’s opinion, a religious novelist, are probably not unrelated. Most of the propagandistic novels produced during this time were so narrow in scope, so humourless in execution, so specific in respect to time and place – and, let’s face it, so poor in quality – that very few of them outlived the brief period of their initial release.
A few good – or at least, interesting – novelists, albeit ones not much read these days, did emerge from this controversy. Benjamin Disraeli’s works reflect his “Young Englishism”, a form of Toryism than looked yearningly back at the forms of Old English tradition, and thus found some parallels with the conservatism of the Oxford Movement. Significantly, Disraeli’s novels came in two waves, matching the two great outbreaks of religious controversy, during the 1840s and the 1870s.
On the other side of the fence, Charles Kingsley used the novel to launch scathing attacks upon the Tractarians, but from a rather unique perspective. Kingsley took issue with the notion that human nature was inherently sinful, believing that what was “natural” was “good” – including sex. While decrying celibacy and asceticism, Kingsley finds God equally in nature and in science. On the other hand, he held grave views about the possibility of rebellion by the lower classes, which like his religious enemies, the Anglo-Catholics, he viewed as defiance of God’s will.
But it was the Anglo-Catholics who first seized upon the novel as a means of propaganda, their leading lights in this respect during the 1840s being William Gresley and Francis Edward Paget. Both of these men were exponents of the dissertation school of novel-writing, avoiding love interest and concentrating instead on topics such as church restoration and the removal of pews. Stories of individuals who inherit estates and make them over in religious / feudal terms were also popular.
Another recurrent theme was the pernicious influence of the Mechanics’ Institutes and the like, which not only educated the poor and the working-class, but educated them in science; thus moving from being merely foolish to the outright sinful. In her 1855 novel, S. Alban’s; or, The Prisoners Of Hope, Felicia Skene offers a dire warning about what was going on in these Institutes, giving an example of the kind of lecture the lower classes were listening to: They were all equal, and men were not to be bought and sold like slaves, whose labour was to be made use of; and all this wicked sophistry [was] remarkably palatable to the proud unchastened spirit of the man…
But as the fight heated up, the novels became more and more thunderous against democracy or liberalism in any form; against reform; against social progress; and above all against anything that questioned the “natural authority” of the church in the first instance, but also of the aristocracy. This attitude is illustrated in William Gresley’s Clement Walton, wherein the English Church – i.e. the Anglo-Catholic Church – is praised for producing men who are “loyal, faithful, peaceable, and intelligent”; while conversely, in those who follow other tenets there is, An absence of that humble submission to authority, which is so amiable a feature of the Christian character… Corresponding with this spiritual defect there is a political disaffection to civil government; a democratic, arrogant temper; an anxiety to maintain rights rather than to perform duties.
Most of the early Tractarian novels were written by men about men; but later in the century, the novel of domestic manners became prominent, and gave women writers an acceptable framework within which to tackle religious matters. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these novels is their profound anti-intellectualism. The same advocacy of submission is present in these novels, but it goes hand-in-hand with an overt suspicion of the intellect. “Thinking”, generally, is viewed as a form of wicked wilfullness that will inevitable lead to sin: to think is to question; to question is to doubt; to doubt is to disbelieve. And “thinking” is doubly sinful when it is done by women, who along with the church will usually have an array of fathers, brothers and husbands to whom they should be submitting without hesitation or reflection.
Perhaps the most well-known, and indeed the most talented, of this particular school of novel-writing is Charlotte Yonge. The Clever Woman Of The Family, as we might guess from its title – the 19th century produced no more damning term for a woman than “clever” – is the story of a woman who has the temerity to think for herself, and who must suffer a proper and thorough humiliation as a consequence and thus learn her place. Meanwhile, Yonge’s Hopes And Fears has a young woman who has learned to be deeply suspicious of her own intelligence, which she fears will lead her into sin, looking wistfully at her mentally disabled sister and praying to be, As silly as she.
It is, however, Elizabeth Missing Sewell who represents the most extreme form of this stance, embracing a creed of absolute, unthinking obedience to authority. Obstacles are sent by God not to be striven against, but as a sign that we should stop whatever it is that we are doing and sit still: in Margaret Percival, when a character cannot afford to go to university and become a clergyman because of his brother’s gambling debts, it does not mean that he should work and strive and overcome these difficulties, but a sign that God does not want him to be a clergyman.
Also in Margaret Percival, we find the heroine hesitating over donating money for church restoration, as to do so would give her pleasure and is thus in all likelihood a sin. When she wavers towards Rome she is lectured bluntly about, “The duty of remaining where God has placed you, unless you have absolute demonstration, which you never can have, that the English Church is no true Church…” – and further warned that doing what is right “in her own eyes” will likely land her in Hell. “Thinking” is a form of self-will, and therefore a sin. “Conscience”, likewise, is setting our own judgement against that of a proper authority and a sin of pride. Acts such as these are dangerous for anyone, but unforgiveable in a woman, for whom the safest way is to fill her life entirely with religion – the right religion – so that she is in no danger of thinking about anything else, and therefore in no danger of thinking at all. In Ursula, a woman who has suffered an illness that leaves her “weak-minded” finds that obedience to authority now comes much more easily to her, and recognises that what she at first viewed as an affliction is a gift from God.
After all this, it was, I confess, with some relief that I turned to Baker’s account of the opposing Evangelical novels. It is a given in these novels that Anglo-Catholicism is all about the externals – of the senses, not the spirit, as we have said. As a religion, it leads people away from inner grace to a fixation on forms and ceremonies; while the decoration of churches reflects a sinful adherence to worldly pleasures. Evangelical novels do not generally express the same kind of suspicion of the intellect per se as the Tractarian novels, but what we find instead is a dismissal of art and literature as having any value in and of themselves.
That the Tractarians are, one way or another, deluded is the catch-cry of these novels. Girls are shown to be at particular risk of being drawn in: it is, we are told gravely, a short step from embroidering an altar-cloth to “going over to Rome”. Unlike the Anglo-Catholics, the Evangelicals tended to make a point of including a love-story in their novels. A number of Evangelical novels, including Emma Jane Worboise’s Overdale; or, The Story Of A Pervert, suggest that the attraction of Catholicism (Anglo or Roman) to young women is that its public display affords them – ahem – an outlet for their emotions. Once a nice young man turns up, all that nonsense is quickly forgotten. Another danger is celibate churchmen, who amusingly enough are sketched as being like catnip for their female parishioners. Celibacy is viewed with great suspicion, as evidence of the fundamental “unnaturalness” of Catholicism; and as it leads women away from love and marriage, it becomes not just wrong but wicked.
Despite all this, however, the Evangelical novels tend to be more generous to the Anglo-Catholics than vice-versa: they admit the good intentions of their spiritual enemies, even that they do much good amongst the poor; but all of this is as nothing beside such transgressions as encouraging amusements on Sundays – or frequenting theatres and other such places at any time. Thus, in Experience; or, The Young Church-Woman, an anonymous novel from 1854, we have the heroine refusing an invitation to the opera, her rule being, “Never to go anywhere to which I would not take my Saviour.”
The controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement died away during the 1850s, giving us a period of comparative calm and tolerance in the 1860s, in which religious novelists of all camps, although holding their ground, became more willing to present both sides of an argument, and to allow that their enemies, however misguided, were sincere. It was during this period that Anthony Trollope flourished. Things changed during the 1870s, however, on the back of a severe agricultural depression that put enormous pressure on the traditional landowners and brought about widespread unemployment. Life was hard for many, and it is perhaps because of this that the second wave of the Oxford Movement manifested itself as Ritualism, with an emphasis not only on ceremony, but on the emotional aspects of worship, including belief in supernatural manifestations and an embrace of mysticism.
When the Evangelicals hit back, as they inevitably did, against these “Catholic extravagances”, their retaliation was in its own way just as extravagant: whereas once religious novelists had shied away from the conventions of the form, this second wave found them using the scandalous framework of the sensation novel to make their case, telling lurid stories about religiously mixed marriages and scheming priests. Oddly, this movement produced, or at least attracted, a talented novelist in the form of Eliza Linn Lynton; perhaps she was just glad of an excuse to write a sensation novel. In any case, her Under Which Lord? is the definitive study of an Anglo-Catholic wife torn between her duty to her husband and her duty to her church. The scheming priest in this case is an advanced Ritualist, and condemned by the narrator as, A Roman Catholic in all save name and obedience…one who was contemptuous of modern science, sceptical of modern progress, and opposed to all forms of mental freedom. The distance between Lynton’s creed and that of Elizabeth Missing Sewell is staggering to contemplate.
Amusingly, this new form of Evangelical attack brought the Victorian religious novel full circle, as Francis Edward Paget, one of the pioneering Tracterian novelists of the 1840s, reacted by publishing in 1868 Lucretia; or, The Heroine Of The Nineteenth Century, a bitter and heavy-handed satire of the sensation novel, which is accused of not merely exploiting, but actively promoting all manner of sin – chiefly adultery and murder. Paget has no doubt where this novelistic trend was leading: France is not the only country in the annals of the world in which a reign of lust has been followed by a reign of terror.
The most horrifying aspect of the sensation novel, however, is that so many of them are written by – gasp! – women:
—and the worst of them, UNMARRIED WOMEN!
But this wave, too, died away. In the 1880s, novels were still dealing with religious matters, but those themes were being woven into the story instead of being the story: the era of the overt propaganda vehicle was gone. Not surprisingly, many of the novelists who had entered this particular battle subsequently sank into oblivion. Their works, equally crude and sincere, are the very definition of “an acquired taste”…yet some of us have acquired it. I shudder to reflect what The Novel And The Oxford Movement – in combination with Margaret Maison’s Search Your Soul, Eustace, which I read shortly pre-blog – has done to my wishlist. All the novels mentioned here are in there, people – it’s only a matter of time…