- A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians by Timothy Larsen
It was John Wesley who first described himself as a “man of one book” (homo unius libri), emphasizing a devotion to scripture as the alpha and omega of his evangelical faith. Timothy Larsen borrows Wesley’s pithy observation as the title for his own examination of the Bible’s dominance in Victorian life. Larsen’s ten-chapter survey, organized as a series of case studies, focuses on representative figures from diverse traditions, each of whom displays an earnest if also occasionally suspicious and even hostile engagement with the Bible as a “foundational textbook” (12). Cumulatively, these Victorians’ demonstrative Biblicism—their facile plagiarizing of Biblical metaphor in daily intercourse, their public antipathy to scriptural accounts of creation and miracles, their endless worries about and arguments over doctrinal matters—leads Larsen to the central, if not wholly surprising, thesis of A People: “the Scriptures were the common cultural currency of the Victorians” (2).
Readers interested in a concise reckoning of this proposition’s import might consider turning to the book’s conclusion before plunging into the particulars of individual chapters, which serve more as discrete investigations of sometimes obscure commentaries and marginalia than as components of a progressive and dynamic narrative. Larsen closes with a lament that Oxford University Press resisted his original pitch to publish a second volume dealing [End Page 230] with spiritualism, Judaism, and the Brethren (“a commercial non-starter”), while reminding us of three essential history lessons to be taken away from “the details … presented in the case studies” (295). First, most Victorians were educated through immersion in the Scriptures. Second, daily Bible reading was a general expectation in nineteenth-century households. Third, present-day scholarship is overly preoccupied with (and hence distorted by) critical approaches to the Bible at the expense of genuine devotional contemplation. A critical reorientation toward the latter would perhaps have been more sympathetic to the Victorians’ own scriptural absorption, their “lifelong, deep, experiential appreciation of the power of the Bible to offer comfort, guidance, insight, and edification” (130); it might also have spared Larsen the need to repeatedly declare his subjects’ misrepresentation through disregard of their explicitly religious writings and activities. Larsen’s insistence, for example, that it is “hard to imagine” why E.B. Pusey’s Minor Prophets is consistently passed over in assessments of the Tractarian leader’s life, or that Nicholas Wiseman’s “deep engagement with Sacred Scripture has been neglected” (45) in biographies of the Archbishop of Westminster, forms an unvarying refrain that makes A People a somewhat laboured read. Ultimately, the book does not seek to comprehend the wider social and historical implications of its opening premise that the Bible “loomed uniquely large in Victorian culture in fascinating and underexplored ways” (1).
It does, however, draw upon an impressive range of materials, many of an enigmatic and uncelebrated nature, in its reassessment of various faith traditions. Scholars of Biblical history will find much of interest in Larsen’s well-researched re-evaluations of the various figures he selects to represent these traditions. He fulfills his promise to offer “textured accounts of the lives, words and thought” (1) of the Victorian exemplars who best embody the persuasions and creeds that define his ten categories: Anglo-Catholics (Edward Pusey), Roman Catholics (Cardinal Wiseman), atheists (Annie Besant and Charles Bradlough), Methodists (Catherine and William Booth), liberal Anglicans (Florence Nightingale), Unitarians (Mary Carpenter), Quakers (Elizabeth Fry), agnostics (Thomas Henry Huxley), evangelical Christians (Josephine Butler), and orthodox Old Dissenters (Charles Haddon Spurgeon). Larsen aims with notable success to persuade anyone with an interest in nineteenth-century Biblical studies that “to listen patiently to what the Victorians themselves found significant and compelling about the Biblical text … reveals the Victorians to have been a people of one book” (297–98). [End Page 231]
Peter W. Sinnema is a professor of English at the University of Alberta. He has published articles and books on various aspects...