- Victorian Reformations: Historical Fiction and Religious Controversy, 1820–1900 by Miriam Elizabeth Burstein
Miriam Burstein makes two overarching points in this engaging book. First, controversial fiction played a major role in popular religious and literary culture in the nineteenth century; and second, studies of religion and culture that privilege “canonical” works over popular works result in a “skewed” or partial (in both senses of the word) understanding of the Victorian religious landscape. So, she turns to novels that were read and even reached bestseller status, but that today are ignored by all too many literary scholars and historians. These popular works lay out a “universal plot” of spiritual struggle leading to conversion. However, this is a struggle of individuals, not of groups, whatever the historical period may be. This emphasis on the individual has led scholars from Georg Lukács to the postmodernists to define the historical novel as a secular, post-Enlightenment, proto-anthropological, realist, and materialist awareness. Burstein challenges these interpretations by paying careful attention to the interface between literary and historical discourses.
After this introduction, Burstein devotes six chapters to the heart of her book. Chapter 1, using as its source Sir Walter Scott’s The Monastery and The Abbot (both Edinburgh, 1820), argues that the early-nineteenth-century religious historical novel celebrated the birth of Protestant modernity from the collapse of Roman Catholicism. Chapter 2 analyzes Victorian attempts to locate the Reformation in the Middle Ages. For example, William Howitt, the author of the popular book The History of Priestcraft Throughout the Ages (London, 1833), saw John Wyclif and the lollards as proto-Protestant martyrs; their suppression was a foretaste of what would happen should a revivified Roman Catholicism come to power. This argument breaks Scott’s connection between the Protestant Reformation and modernity. Moreover, the Victorians claimed that only those lollards with spiritual goals were the true lollards; those who challenged the existing social order were false.
Chapter 3 discusses representations of vernacular Bible reading during the sixteenth century. These attempted to recreate the shock of reading the biblical text for the first time—whereas in the nineteenth century, the Bible was omnipresent (and hence just another book) but privatized and feminized. Chapter 4 argues that [End Page 668] Protestant novelists used John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to show the connection between Bloody Mary and the revivified Roman Catholicism of the nineteenth century. To achieve this, however, Protestant authors rewrote Foxe’s work to increase the number of female martyrs. Feminizing martyrdom enabled Protestants to eroticize martyrdom and to fear a return to persecutions should Roman Catholics ever regain power in England. Chapter 5 treats Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic novelists of the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic novelists turned to Elizabeth’s persecutions and expressed the hope that England eventually will be reconverted. They deconstructed the connection between modernism and Protestantism, and denied that Protestantism had an historical sense. Further, they argued that the study of history demonstrated the absence of Protestantism. In contrast, the Anglican novelists were trapped between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism, especially when it came to accepting the miraculous. Both Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism reveled in the miraculous; Anglo-Catholicism had trouble accepting it.
Finally, Chapter 6 turns to Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (London, 1841). Dickens here rejected both the Scottian historical novel and the model of historical memory advanced by Evangelical novelists. Instead, he celebrated the silencing of history in favor of contemporary events. The book ends with a coda treating Victorian representations of Girolamo Savonarola, including George Eliot’s Romola (London, 1862–63). These represent a strand of Victorian fiction that fears that the Protestant Reformation’s victory was not necessarily victorious.
Burstein has written an engaging study of the varying ways in which the Victorians used the Protestant Reformation to pursue their religious controversies. Well-organized, well-supported by primary sources, and well-argued, it is a welcome addition to the scholarship on Victorian anti-Catholicism and religious controversy...