- Précis Reviews
Knight, Mark, and Emma Mason. Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. viii + 245 pp. $26.95
This nicely compact study makes a handy reference for either introductory courses in the nineteenth century or more advanced studies. The authors aptly interweave a relatively nonconstrictive timeline of religious movements, beginning in the eighteenth century and ending in the fin de siècle, illustrated through representative authors. For example, chapter one very specifically describes the dissent movements (with easy-to-follow subdivisions, like "Methodism") while at the same time providing a complex analysis of not only writers such as Blake but a less-advertised (in the table of contents) discussion of Brontë's works. The authors have included representation from both poetry (chapter three considers the "Oxford Movement: Wordsworth to Hopkins") and prose (chapter five discusses "Secularization: Dickens to Hardy"). Ultimately, however, this book's main purpose is to question where theological debate and discourse stands throughout the century: rather than insisting on "rigid boundaries between the sacred and secular," there is a "continual slippage" in which theological debate is "almost inseparable from philosophical, scientific, [End Page 238] medical, historical, and political thought." Writers were often religious innovators, since for "the majority of the people in the nineteenth century, the doctrinal intricacies of the Church were experienced through texts that were unlikely to appear in a course of formal theology: hymns, tracts, poetry, and fiction." In short, religion "found its way into every area of life, from family to politics, sport to work, church architecture to philanthropy." This study proposes that frequently it is those contemporary writers who inspire renewal and reform of the Christian vision. Of special interest to ELT readers is chapter six, "Catholicism and Mysticism: Huysmans to Chesterton," which addresses the doubt often ascribed to the religious conversions of Huysmans, Wilde, and others. Knight and Mason instead suggest that "many of the aspersions cast on Decadent Catholicism take their cue from the sort of prejudicial anti-Catholicism displayed by Bram Stoker's Dracula," and prove that these writers do indeed have a "religious element" in their works.
Markovits, Stephanie. The Crisis of Action in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006. 258 pp. Cloth $44.95 CD $9.95
Markovits focuses specifically on four authors (William Wordsworth, Arthur Hugh Clough, George Eliot, and Henry James) in order to provide an astute representative spectrum through which we can see how post-Romantic writers struggle with what she terms the "crisis of action." She bases her argument in the Aristotelian position that action is a more essential category than character (good characters must perform good deeds); thus, the "elevation of character (and corresponding demotion of plot) in many works of post-Romantic literature has troubling implications." Markovits considers how these writers are increasingly concerned with what constitutes action. Is thinking the same as doing? Is inaction a "frustrated external action" or "heightened internal action"? She examines her texts from the converging narrative trends of frustrated marriage plots and frustrated revolutionary or social reform plots, noting how often these themes invoke a reversal from tradition: a revolution of country becomes an internal revolution of character (Wordsworth's The Prelude) or purely something of passing interest as seen through the eyes of a tourist (Clough's Amours de Voyage); traditionally gendered roles of the hero are reversed, as when James's Princess Casamassima, "having given up on her marriage, seeks the thrill of revolutionary activity." Chapter two on Clough delves into interesting biographical material (his own wife claimed he was victim to "a certain inertia, a certain slowness of movement") that might have influenced his lack of faith in conventional action, leading him to write his...