Victorian England found itself in a predicament with regards to its faith and religion. On the one hand, there was the established practice and belief in Christianity, especially in its Anglican form, in England, which was very well entrenched in the lives of the Victorians. On the other hand, many new ideas were systematically undermining the doctrinal foundations of Christianity. Thus, the Victorian writers of this period lived in the paradox of being reared and raised in the Christian faith and being placed in a Christian environment, but themselves already losing their Christian convictions. Thus, their writings contain both their acknowledgement of the loss of faith, and various ways of responding to this loss.
Religion and Faith
It will be useful for the purpose of this paper to distinguish between “religion” and “faith”. “Religion” comes from the Latin word “religio” which means something approximately to “the ties that bind”. Thus, religion is an essentially communal entity bound by shared rituals, as the philosopher Roger Scruton puts it in his article Better off without religion?,
…religion involves three different, but related, phenomena: ritual, membership and belief. A religion includes words, gestures and ceremonies, which must be repeated exactly, and which define a core experience of the sacred. This experience is a strange sediment in human consciousness; it might have an evolutionary cause…
A religion also defines a community. The rituals of religion are shared; and those who participate in them are drawn into another kind of relationship with their neighbours…
Faith consists primarily in belief and personal conviction in doctrines and myths. In particular with regards to Victorian Christianity, the evangelical revival of John Wesley in the 18th century which had an important effect throughout England, it has placed much emphasis on personal conversion and conviction in certain rather developed aspects of Christian theology (for instance, a personal conviction of one’s sins and salvation in Christ and Biblical literalism).
Loss of Faith
The first reason for the loss of faith in Victorian literature was the new developments in science and biblical criticism. The rise of higher criticism of the Bible had a direct effect on the Victorian intellectual climate. The critical study of the Bible would set aside its theological lenses and simply examine the Bible by making analyses of its historicity and accuracy as they would with any other historical writings. This new attitude towards the Bible also had the effect of shifting the focus of the Bible as a divine book to a merely human one with human interests. This has lead to wholesale skepticism about the veracity of many Christian stories found in the Bible foundational for much Christian doctrine. As Thomas Hardy would put it in his poem The Respectable Burgher; On “The Higher Criticism”,
Since Reverend Doctors now declare
That clerks and people must prepare
To doubt if Adam ever were;
To hold the flood a local scare;
To argue, though with stolid stare,
That everything had happened ere,
The prophets to its happening sware;
That David was no giant-slayer,
Nor one to call a God-obeyer
In certain details we would spare,
But rather was a debonair
Shrewd bandit, skilled as banjo-player:
That Solomon sang the fleshly Fair,
And gave the Church no thought whate’er…
…And other stories rich and rare,
Were writ to make old doctrine wear
Something of a romantic air…
And Sue would echo sentiment that the songs of Solomon was merely a ‘fleshy Fair’ and nothing to do with the Church in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure,
And what a literary enormity this is,” she said, as she glanced into the pages of Solomon’s Song. “I mean the synopsis at the head of each chapter, explaining away the real nature of that rhapsody. You needn’t be alarmed: nobody claims inspiration for the chapter headings. Indeed, many divines treat them with contempt…
Jude looked pained. “You are quite Voltairean!” he murmured.
“Indeed? Then I won’t say any more, except that people have no right to falsify the Bible! I HATE such hum-bug as could attempt to plaster over with ecclesiastical abstractions such ecstatic, natural, human love as lies in that great and passionate song!”
Other intellectual breakthroughs like Darwin’s Origin of Species would also serve to undermine the doctrinal foundations of the Christian faith, especially with regards to the Creation doctrine.
Therefore in sum, new developments in the biological sciences and in higher criticism have rendered Christian doctrine and belief increasingly irrational and tenuously to hold on to.
A second reason for the loss of faith in Victorian literature is the new awareness of how religious convictions merely colour completely natural events and are themselves merely a veil for human interests and hopes. Thus God and theological systems are but a mere product of man’s imagination or hopes, and has no foundation in reality, or in other words, God is made in man’s image. We can see traces of this idea in Eliot’s Middlemarch, right after Mr. Casaubon’s speech of happiness regarding marrying Dorothea,
…No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook…
Dorothea’s faith supplied all that Mr Casaubon’s words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime…
And again speaking of Mr. Casaubon,
His efforts at exact courtesy and formal tenderness had no defect for her. She filled up all blanks with unmanifested perfections, interpreting him as she interpreted the works of Providence, and accounting for seeming discords by her own deafness to the higher harmonies. And there are many blanks left in the weeks of courtship, which a loving faith fills with happy assurance…
We can see here Eliot trying to point out the fact that Dorothea’s faith in Mr. Casaubon had no foundation in reality, and that whenever the reality of Mr. Casaubon conflicts with her perception of him, she merely conveniently reinterprets them to force it into what her faith perceives and fills in the missing blanks.
But more pertinent is the parallel which she draws between Dorothea’s faith in Mr. Casaubon and a religious believer faith in a prophet or the works of Providence. Her descriptions here clearly presuppose that faith both in prophets and Providence are groundless, and when evident facts conflict with it, they are both conveniently reinterpreted away, thus calling into question whether there is any foundation to it, if it is maintained by a subjective faith rather than in objective facts.
Thus, the eventual disillusionment which Dorothea experiences with Mr. Casaubon is surely an indictment that interpretations of persons or reality based on faith is evidently foolish and will lead to a painful disenchantment sooner or later. Thus so it is with religious doctrines and faith.
No clearer discrepancy between religious interpretations of reality and reality can be seen than in the sad case of Mr. Bulstrode. His case is compounded by the fact that not only was there a discrepancy between interpretation and reality, but that his very religious interpretation itself is tainted by his own all too human self interests. When after he decided to conceal the existence of the daughter so as to receive the bulk of the inheritance, he justified this decision based on his religious interpretation of the series of small events which favoured him to be the proper agent of such wealth as can be seen in this passage,
Bulstrode’s course up to that time had, he thought, been sanctioned by remarkable providences, appearing to point the way for him to be the agent in making the best use of a large property and withdrawing it from perversion. Death and other striking dispositions, such as feminine trustfulness, had come, and Bulstrode would have adopted Cromwell’s words — “Do you call these bare events? The Lord pity you!” The events were comparatively small, but the essential condition was there — namely, that they were in favour of his own ends. It was easy for him to settle what was due from him to others by inquiring what were God’s intentions with regard to himself. Could it be for God’s service that this fortune should in any considerable proportion go to a young woman and her husband who were given up to the lightest pursuits, and might scatter it abroad in triviality — people who seemed to lie outside the path of remarkable providences?
Thus, this passage clearly shows that his theological interpretation of events is but a façade to justify his own desires for property and power.
But for all of Bulstrode evangelical convictions, and thus far chance confirmations of his interpretation of events, they were all exploded when his deception was eventually exposed. Whilst in Dorothea case, a sincere and selfless religious interpretation of reality does not make it anymore real, even more so, in the case of Mr. Bulstrode, is a tainted self serving religious interpretation of reality a fiction, even if it requires a long time before its fictive character is exposed.
That faith merely colours an indifferent reality too can be observed in Jude the Obscure. The narrator notes that when as Jude enters the church and discovers which seat Sue occupies, the choir begins singing the second part of the 119th Psalm, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” and he believes that this Psalm was purposely set for his by a “regardful Providence” to minister to him and remind him as to the wickedness of giving in to his passion for Sue with disastrous consequences. But the narrator continues, “And yet it was the ordinary psalm for the twenty-fourth evening of the month.” Thus, pointing out that there is nothing remarkable or providential in the Psalm chosen, but is a matter of human convention
So far we have seen in Victorian literature two sources for the loss of faith, one, changes in the intellectual climate, especially in the rise of higher critical studies on the Bible that renders Christian doctrines irrational and unbelievable. The second is a new awareness that faith is both a product of human interests and also a mere superimposition on the natural world, thus calling into question the life seen from the eyes of faith.
As these forces run its course, it culminates finally in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach,
…The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world…
As the doctrinal foundations of the Christian faith collapses and the disenchantment of the life of faith permeates through Victorian England, Dover Beach notes with sadness the retreat of the Sea of Faith, which used to fused all of Victorian life
Filling the Void
Various responses to the loss of faith have been suggested by Victorian literature. The first is simply outright aloof intellectual atheism and abandonment of religion. In the same poem of The Respectable Burgher by Hardy, the poem ends with,
…All churchgoing will I forswear,
And sit on Sundays in my chair,
And read that moderate man Voltaire.
Thus course has also been suggested in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure where curiously enough, Sue has also been condemned by Jude as “Voltariean” in her atheism. And as Jude the Obscure develops, Jude also succumbs to atheism.
However, it is questionable whether outright atheism is truly the viable option in Jude the Obscure. While the emancipation from religion and its stifling chains (i.e. in its teachings on marriage) initially seems to bring with it a liberating bliss, as they unlock ‘true love’ without the oppression of martial duties, however the way the novel ended ought to give us pause.
When all of Sue’s children died, it seems that atheism and humanity by itself did not have the cultural and interpretive resources to enable her to cope or make sense of their death, making her crawl back into the arms of religion in order for her to be able to give any coherent meaning to her children’s deaths (i.e. as retribution for her sins). This highly suggests that as repulsed as we maybe that the debasement and identity self-denial which Sue must go through in order for her to adopt again the world of religion, however, it seems that the alternatives to religion is not much better either, or even much worse, as there is no comfort, nor interpretative resource, for Sue to make sense of her children’s death, only the waste land of despair and nihilism.
Another alternative suggested by Victorian literature is basically religion without conviction. This is especially clearest in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. In that book, there are two main characteristics of this approach: First, a suspicion of too developed or abstract theological systems or conviction. Second, a benign and sympathetic toleration, even encouragement, of religious rituals as a cultural resource for the masses to employ in the construction a meaningful life and for the fostering of good deeds and fellow feeling.
The first instance of both suspicion against the importance of doctrine and the emphasis on fellow-feeling can be seen here in a discussion amongst the farmers regarding the difference between “chapel-going” and “churchmen” or loyal members of the Church of England,
…”But I’ve never changed a single doctrine: I’ve stuck like a plaster to the old faith I was born in. Yes; there’s this to be said for the Church, a man can belong to the Church and bide in his cheerful old inn, and never trouble or worry his mind about doctrines at all. But to be a meetinger, you must go to chapel in all winds and weathers, and make yerself as frantic as a skit…
…”Chapelfolk be more hand-in-glove with them above than we,” said Joseph, thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Coggan. `We know very well that if anybody do go to heaven, they will. They’ve worked hard for it, and they deserve to have it, such as ’tis. I bain’t such a fool as to pretend that we who stick to the Church have the same chance as they, because we know we have not. But I hate a feller who’ll change his old ancient doctrines for the sake of getting to heaven. I’d as soon turn king’s-evidence for the few pounds you get. Why, neighbours, when every one of my taties were frosted, our Parson Thirdly were the man who gave me a sack for seed, though he hardly had one for his own use, and no money to buy ’em. If it hadn’t been for him, I shouldn’t hae had a tatie to put in my garden. D’ye think I’d turn after that? No, I’ll stick to my side; and if we be in the wrong, so be it: I’ll fall with the fallen!”
“Well said — very well said,” observed Joseph…
Thus, we can see here, first, a cheerful acknowledgement of ignorance of doctrines and its insignificance for them, and secondly, the importance of fellow-feeling and loyalty to the parson who has shown them genuine charity, over other-worldly salvation.
We can also see this sort of toleration for religion in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. in the thirty-third section.
Here, it seems that Tennyson at first address whose “faith has centre everywhere” and does not “care to fix itself to form”, indicating that these people have no need or attachment to any particular religious tradition. But he tells them to “leave thou thy sister when she prays”, her “early heaven” or view of heaven before rational enlightenment and he tells them to not confuse her life which “leads melodious days”. And he goes on to say that her faith is as pure as those in the first group, which is justified by the fact that because of her faith, “her hands are quicker unto good…” and “the flesh and blood” which links to a “truth divine” is sacred, thus revealing the logic that the religion is justified by it ability to lead people to goodness and beauty.
We can also see in Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge how the importance of the symbolic function of the church and its building in aiding the repentance of Michael Henchard and in elevating the solemnity of his oath to repentance,
…But first he resolved to register an oath, a greater oath than he had ever sworn
before: and to do it properly he required a fit place and imagery…
and when later he found a church, he went to the communion table and lay his head on the book on it swearing his oath and kissed it. This example serves to demonstrate clearly manner in which religion aids in the construction of meaning for the lives of ordinary people.
Finally, there is the solution of humanism. This is essentially the solution advocated by Eliot in Middlemarch and Arnold in Dover Beach . When both Bulstrode’s and Dorothea’s religious illusions are exploded, they turned instead to the goodness of man as a new source of meaning for their lives. Thus, Dorothea married Ladislaw to pursue the life of true human love, and when Bulstrode’s entire theological world collapsed with the exposure of his notorious deeds, his wife remained behind to support him through his coming alienation and dark days. In Dover Beach, the dirge for faith is immediately followed by a call that “love, let us be true to one another!”, that there is redemption in one fellow’s man love, even when the earth has lost its enchantment.
When we weigh the various solutions found in these Victorian authors, it seems that the solution of optimistic humanism of Eliot and Arnold conflicts sharply with the pessimism of Hardy in the natural world’s interpretative resources to make sense of life, and that his and Tennyson’s more benign religion without faith, the openness to the interpretive resource of religion without its dogmatic convictions, seems to be a much more livable compromise.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Respectable Burgher On “The Higher Criticism”” http://depts.drew.edu/jhc/hardy.html
Hardy, Thomas. “Jude the Obscure”. http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/HarJude.html
Hardy, Thomas. “Far From the Madding Crowd”. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/HarMadd.html
Hardy, Thomas. “The Mayor of Casterbridge”.
Scruton, Roger. “Better off without religion?”. Catholic Education.
Arnold, Matthew. “DoverBeach”. Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/arnold/writings/doverbeach.html
Eliot, George. “Middlemarch”.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “In Memoriam A.H.H.”. Poet’s Corner. http://theotherpages.org/poems/books/tennyson/tennyson01.html