- Imagined Spiritual Communities in Britain's Age of Print by Joshua King
Joshua King's recent publication, Imagined Spiritual Communities in Britain's Age of Print, represents a significant intervention in the fields of book history and Victorian literature. While the weight of the archival and textual evidence provided by King often overwhelms his argument, the ultimate result of King's careful methodology and interaction with key scholars in the fields of Victorian literature, religion, and history (including Kirstie Blair, Mark Knight and Emma Mason, Charles LaPorte, and William R. McKelvy) is a book that will provide a solid and incontestable foundation upon which future scholars can build arguments about the spiritual communities developed and nurtured through Victorian literature. While I wish that King's monograph had more breadth in its discussion of poetry, it provides an excellent starting place for scholars interested in issues such as readership, audience, and the function of literature (especially fiction and poetry) in the religious press.
Focusing on how the rise of print media reframed the way Victorians experienced religion, King argues that the networks created through the proliferation of print supported the development of an imagined spiritual community within Britain and, eventually, its empire. The core of King's argument lies in his self-described extension and revision of Benedict Anderson's influential conceptualization of nationalism in Imagined Communities.1 As his in-depth and comprehensive survey of essay collections, poetry volumes, and miscellaneous periodical contributions suggests, King agrees with Anderson about the role that print media played in the development of national communities. Each chapter implicitly, and often explicitly, reinforces the importance of print media in both defining and facilitating the creation of an imagined spiritual community—with one major difference: while Anderson aligns the development of a national community with the process of secularization, King builds on the recent work [End Page 381] of scholars such as Hilary M. Carey and McKelvy, who challenge traditional narratives of secularization and nationalism to articulate the development of a national consciousness "as the secularizing successor of religion" (5). For King, such secularization narratives efface the important role that religion and the religious press played in the development of Britain's national identity. In Imagined Spiritual Communities, King thus reorients the discussion of nineteenth-century print media and the development of nationalism to consider the "intersection of nineteenth-century reading, religion, and conceptions of nation" through the networks created by the era's print media (11). Significantly, King does not view this development of a spiritual community through literature as divided along denominational lines. Rather, he argues that the Victorian reader's familiarity with the cyclical structures upon which John Keble, Alfred Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti built The Christian Year (1827), In Memoriam (1850), and Verses (1847, 1893), respectively, collapsed the sectarian divide.
The first part of the book provides the theoretical foundation for King's reading of Keble, Tennyson, and Rossetti. Throughout part 1, King traces the evolution of nineteenth-century debates about the rise of print media and the role of the clerisy in mediating the public's interaction with popular materials. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids of Reflection (1825) (chapter 1) through F.D. Maurice's career as an essayist and author of fiction (chapter 2) to Matthew Arnold's essays on culture and the Church (chapter 3), King examines how each writer presents an argument for the "transformation of Britain's print network into a medium through which readers of all classes and ideologies could imagine themselves in a Christian community spanning the nation" (97). For King, the evolving arguments made by Coleridge, Maurice, and Arnold about a British spiritual republic of letters set the stage for the reception and continuous influence of Keble's The Christian Year (chapter 4), which, King argues, provided Victorian readers with "a means for imagining private and domestic acts of reading as private ways of participating in a print-mediated, national religious community" (130). The final three chapters of King's monograph examine how Tennyson's In...