- Victorian Jesus: J.R. Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity by Ian Hesketh
In 1866, London publisher Alexander MacMillan invited sixteen high-profile guests to dine at his home, promising that they would meet the author of Ecce Homo: A Survey of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ. The runaway bestseller had been published anonymously in 1865 and was alternately hailed as a modern Imitation of Christ and denigrated (by no less a figure than Lord Shaftesbury) as "the most pestilential book ever vomited from the jaws of hell." In the year following its publication, the book was attributed to such diverse figures as George Eliot, James Anthony Froude, Cardinal John Henry Newman, and Napoleon III. The actual author, J.R. Seeley, was indeed present at MacMillan's dinner, but he did not reveal his secret; the other guests came and left, none the wiser about whom the author among them might be.
In Victorian Jesus: J.R. Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity, Ian Hesketh recovers this sensational period in nineteenth-century publication history. Ecce Homo's anonymity, which further obscured its already ambiguous doctrinal investments, made the book "perilous" for readers and writer alike, as Hesketh reveals in his analysis of its critical reception. Along the way, Hesketh tracks the complex relationship between Seeley and MacMillan, especially the rising tension between them as Seeley continued to resist revealing his secret, while MacMillan sought to increase book sales by baiting contemporaries to offer their guesses about the authorship, crafting elaborate accounts of how the manuscript had come into his hands and generally poking the fire of speculation on the author's identity whenever it seemed at risk of going out.
Victorian Jesus contains fourteen short chapters, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The short-chapter format is eminently readable, though the book would have benefited from a super structure that grouped them under broader section titles. The first three chapters detail mid-century religious publication contexts, including the rise of higher criticism and the controversy [End Page 116] surrounding Essays and Reviews (1860); the next three deal with Ecce Homo and the attention it initially received in the periodical press, especially in response to Seeley's effort to bracket the question of Jesus' divinity in order to deal "scientifically" with his moral example; chapters seven through nine detail the ongoing saga of Seeley's secret authorship in the press and extant correspondence in order to explore the cultural significance and ethics of anonymity more broadly; the final chapters treat Seeley's later publications as professor of modern history at Cambridge University, which Hesketh productively puts into conversation with his religious writing, and Seeley's eventual sequel to Ecce Homo, Natural Religion (1882), also published anonymously despite the fact that Seeley's authorship had long since been discovered.
Hesketh recognizes the risk of setting such a narrow focus; like Seeley's own three-volume study of Prussian statesman Baron vom Stein, the sustained investigation of the details surrounding a single figure – and, for the most part, a single text – might be tedious to readers accustomed to wide-ranging, multi-author studies. However, as the book's subtitle indicates, Hesketh locates Ecce Homo in a complex network of nineteenth-century religious thought, which serves to clarify the significance of anonymity and its particular set of problems for religious publications. Each chapter begins with one or two epigraphs, mostly from archival sources, that foreground the centripetal force of the study and reinforce its central claim that "Ecce Homo was an important nexus that connected many friends, colleagues, various schools of religious thought, and readers in a common discussion about Christianity and authorial identity in a way that can tell us much about the controversial debates of the mid-Victorian period." Hesketh's unearthing of the forgotten controversy of Ecce Homo not only recovers this "discussion about Christianity and authorial identity" but does so in a way that vividly realizes the complexity and urgency of the religious debates that animated...