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  • The ‘Religious Sense’ in a Post-War Secular Age
  • Alex Owen

'There is a great deal of mystic religion about', Virginia Woolf wrote to the husband of her old friend Gwen Darwin, in March 1923. 'I've been asked to advise a woman as to the souls of the dead—can they come back? As I'm never quite sure which is which—spirit, matter, truth, falsehood and so on—I can't speak out as roundly as a Darwin should.'1 Although Virginia Woolf apparently hesitated to pronounce definitively on the question of returning 'souls', she was nevertheless confirmed in her faith in the Darwin family when she heard that 'Gwen [Darwin] is a militant atheist: the world renews itself: there is solid ground beneath my feet'.2 The boundaries between spirit and matter, truth and falsehood, might be insecure, but Woolf had little time for orthodox religion. As she stated towards the end of her life, 'emphatically there is no God'.3

In early 1923, however, 'mystic religion' was on her mind. The carnage and suffering wreaked during the Great War had caused thousands to turn to mediums and seances in an attempt to contact the fallen, and spiritualism enjoyed a boom during the war and its aftermath that was reminiscent of its Victorian heyday. Ordinary people sought relief and consolation in seances, but so, too, did the bereaved of the middle and upper classes. Sir Oliver Lodge, the eminent physicist, emerged as a champion of the spiritualist movement, as did the famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who travelled the globe as [End Page 159] its international spokesman.4 Indeed, while the war further weakened the social and political purchase of ecclesiastical authority, and hastened the decline of organized Christianity in its traditional stronghold of the middle class, spiritualism and different manifestations of spirituality were everywhere evident. Furthermore, although it was during the 1920s that agnosticism became the publicly articulated and accepted currency of intellectual life, those years also saw a renewed engagement with an unconventional religiosity that harked back to the pre-war period and bore little relation to anything the churches had to offer.

Virginia Woolf was commenting on a cultural phenomenon with which many of her more immediate contemporaries were familiar. Many of those at the centre of intellectual life in Britain—indeed, some of those in the vanguard of literary modernism—were caught up with 'mystic religion'. It filtered in its different aspects through the loose-knit group that gathered at Lady Ottoline Morrell's influential literary salons and famous 'weekends' at Garsington Manor, affected those on the outer reaches of Woolf 's Bloomsbury networks, and permeated circles with which Woolf and her friends had only a nodding acquaintance—or, indeed, no acquaintance at all. This was not the Anglo- or Roman Catholicism that was still winning notable converts in the 1920s, but a different, less orthodox type of spirituality which implicitly questioned the designation 'religion' and explicitly challenged received wisdom on precisely that separation of spirit and matter (or, more conventionally, body and soul) that Woolf herself found so problematic. Here, in the post-war modern age, and among some of the most modern of individuals, mysticism was 'a household word'.5

This chapter considers the question of what happened to spirituality in the seemingly irredeemably secularized culture of post-war Britain by focusing on a particular moment in the intersecting lives of key members of the literary intelligentsia during the early 1920s. It takes as a point of departure the death of the young modernist writer Katherine Mansfield, but deals less with Mansfield herself than with what she represents in terms of the search for what we might think of as a secularized spirituality, or what her husband, [End Page 160] John Middleton Murry, came to call the 'religious sense'. One of the major themes of the chapter is the difficulty experienced after the war by those who sought some kind of meaningful spiritual life but could no longer relate in any way to organized religion or institutionalized belief system; and, conversely, the palpable irony of a professed agnosticism (even atheism) that nevertheless shaded into a deeply felt personal spirituality. This...


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pp. 159-177
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Archived 2007
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