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  • Theology and the Victorian Novel
  • Gavin Budge (bio)
Theology and the Victorian Novel, by J. Russell Perkin; pp. x + 273. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009, $95.00, £57.00.

This is a broadly focused study of the Victorian novel's relationship to theological issues, ranging from the works of William Makepeace Thackeray to Thomas Hardy. Many chapters concentrate on a single novel, with Charlotte Brontë being represented by Shirley (1849), Thackeray by Vanity Fair (1847-48), and Anthony Trollope by the little-known The Bertrams (1859); other chapters contrast pairs of novels, in George Eliot's case Adam Bede (1859) and Daniel Deronda (1876) and in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). Some less canonical figures also appear: a chapter is devoted to The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), a best-selling novel by the Tractarian novelist Charlotte Yonge, and the concluding chapter compares Mary Augusta Ward's novel of religious doubt Robert Elsmere (1888) with Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean (1885), considered as an example of "the popular Victorian genre of the early church novel" (196).

J. Russell Perkin is critical of what he sees as the preoccupation of recent commentary on Victorian religion with "elements that prefigure the concerns of postmodernity" (8), and he states that his own aim is "to engage as far as possible with Victorian religious experience and literature on their own terms" (8). But in practice the organization of this study precludes detailed engagement with the historical contexts of Victorian religion. Despite aligning his position with "the radical orthodoxy movement" (26), Perkin adopts a largely Arnoldian perspective that often seems to privilege a vaguely defined spirituality over specific religious doctrine. He is alert, however, to some of the contradictions created in the nineteenth-century tradition of liberal Christianity by its unreflective embrace of modernity, drawing attention to the ethnocentric characterization of western Christianity by figures such as Matthew Arnold, and to the moral intolerance of the Comtean religion of humanity embraced by Eliot and Ward and embodied in Hardy's contrast between the moral responses to sexuality of Angel Clare and his evangelical parents.

Perkin's combination of an Arnoldian approach with a critique of religious liberalism works best in the final chapter, where he makes a convincing case for Marius the Epicurean as "a version of Christianity that is possible for postmodernity" (223). In an argument indebted to Ellis Hanson's Decadence and Catholicism (1998), Perkin contrasts Pater's reappropriation of Catholic sacramentalism as an aesthetic of eroticized male friendship to Ward's "late-Victorian liberal earnestness" (208). Perkin is much less comfortable with the more specific doctrinal commitments of a writer such as Yonge, an uneasiness he expresses when he concludes that although The Heir of Redclyffe is "an important Christian novel," perhaps "its appeal is much greater to those who share Yonge's beliefs"; this ignores the fact that Yonge's work was popular with Victorian readers holding a wide variety of religious views. The suggestion of moral rigidity implied by Perkin's [End Page 720] comment that "there is always the sense with Yonge that she is above all a lady" is puzzling (102), given that he situates Yonge's writing in the context of the Tractarian poetics of John Keble's lectures on poetry, exactly the same context that in his account enables the Paterian aesthetic reinterpretation of orthodoxy. The presence of characters in Yonge's fiction who fit the late-nineteenth-century category of sexual inversion suggests that a reading prepared to probe Yonge's necessarily somewhat reticent writing might also be able to make a case for her viewpoint as a radically orthodox one.

This tendency to characterize Yonge as a merely dogmatic writer highlights a limitation of the book's critical methodology, which brackets off issues defined as theological from other cultural concerns that Victorians themselves would have thought relevant to discussion of religion. Although Perkin acknowledges the Tractarian novel's kinship to other writings on the "condition of England" (59), and he reads Shirley as a critique of the Oxford Movement's aim of a "revived feudalism" (73), this political and social...


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