Victorian Literature The Christian Church
by
Matthew Bradley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0057

Introduction

The changes and challenges to religion are one of the defining features of the Victorian period and its literature, and these continue to be one of the key literary-critical loci in scholarly discussion. From the very public debates that arose out of advances in biblical criticism and the biological and geological sciences, to the various radical movements that either came to prominence in the Victorian era (the High Church revivalism of the Tractarians, for example) or moved into controversial new phases (Evangelicalism, among both Anglicans and nonconformists), the Christian Church remained one of the focal points for writers throughout the 19th century. The range of literary engagements with religion in the period are extremely diverse; from the well-known “long, melancholy withdrawing roar” of Matthew Arnold’s Sea of Faith in “Dover Beach,” to George Eliot’s translations of Strauss and the influence of Higher Criticism on her fiction, to the modes of evangelical and Calvinistic Christianity rejected by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In recent years, besides looking beyond the traditional canon of Victorian writers, particular critical attention has been paid to the idea of religious faith as providing an important aesthetic framework for the expression of feeling, the shared discourse/rhetoric of the theological and the literary, the historical importance of religious groupings to the writing of Victorian literature, and the ways in which religion in the period allowed for the construction of new gender identities, and the expression of alternative sexualities.

General Overviews

Behind most broadly based accounts of the Victorian church lies Chadwick 1966–1970, which remains the most useful at-a-glance guide for the historical developments of specific movements and a wider view of Victorian churchgoing in general. As has been noted over the years, however, it is profoundly Anglican both in its subject focus and in its tone. A good complement to Chadwick for the literature student, therefore, is Knight and Mason 2006, which is much more literary in focus and very attentive to nonconformist religion and the Evangelicals. Reardon 1980 is not primarily concerned with literary texts but provides a formidable intellectual history that helpfully sums up the thought of many figures who themselves were vital to the development of Victorian literature, while Livingston 2007 gives up-to-date detail on how theology interacted with other disciplines in the period. Fraser 1986 is one of many works attempting to articulate a particular historical connection between religion and literature in the period and remains useful for its wide scope. For those looking for essay-length introductions, Davis 2002 is by far the best general introductory account, but Scheinberg 2000 has a more concise central thesis. Religion at the Victorian Web is extremely useful as a snapshot of Victorian religion, as for many aspects of Victorian literature and culture, but levels of detail can be wildly varied.

  • Chadwick, Owen. The Victorian Church. 2 vols. London: A & C Black, 1966–1970.

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    The classic overview of Victorian Christianity in its social, theological, and liturgical aspects. It has been heavily criticized for its Anglican bias and even named by some the “Last Chronicle of Barset.” Concentrates on historical developments, but literature gets good coverage in the chapters “Doubt” and “The Autonomy of Literature.”

  • Davis, Philip. “Religion.” In The Oxford English Literary History. Vol. 8, The Victorians. By Philip Davis, 98–157. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    The most focused introductory article to the broader field. Well written and strong on religious controversies, it concentrates on important novels by Charlotte Yonge, J. A. Froude, and Mrs. Humphry Ward, which are rarely read now but vital in mapping the intersection between religion and literature in the period.

  • Fraser, Hilary. Beauty and Belief: Aesthetics and Religion in Victorian Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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    Although it assumes a “limited” or flawed series of syntheses between them in a way that has since been questioned, this remains a thoughtful introduction to what Fraser sees as the peculiar interrelatedness of religion and literature in the Victorian age. Strongest in its chapters on the Oxford Movement and Hopkins.

  • Knight, Mark, and Emma Mason. Nineteenth Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Brisk, readable survey charting the relationship between Christianity and literature in the long 19th century, using close readings of specific literary texts in the context of the key religious movements, which are clearly and effectively explained. Currently the most helpful general introduction for both undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Livingston, James C. Religious Thought in the Victorian Age: Challenges and Reconceptions. London and New York: Continuum, 2007.

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    A broad survey of various types of religious writing in the period, which mainly investigates influential but lesser-known writers from various theological perspectives. Very invested in the dynamics of religious and other forms of discourse (scientific, anthropological, comparative, etc.).

  • Reardon, Bernard G. M. Religious Thought in the Victorian Age: A Survey from Coleridge to Gore. London: Longman, 1980.

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    Still essential reading, an intellectual history of religion in the 19th century that perceptively and accessibly works through the key schools of thought in the period, with liberal reference to literary figures such as George Eliot, J. S. Mill, Thomas Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold.

  • Religion at the Victorian Web.

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    Well-presented starting point for exploring various aspects of Victorian religion, mostly historical but with a good level of literary material. Despite its unevenness, there are some short articles and even devoted mini sites for some of the key movements and themes in the field, and it benefits immeasurably from articles by George Landow, who is a scholar in this area.

  • Scheinburg, Cynthia. “Victorian Poetry and Religious Diversity.” In The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Edited by Joseph Bristow, 159–179. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    Useful article which begins with Carlyle’s idea of the poetic vates as a religiously “open” concept, which Scheinburg argues is a result of increasing religious heterogeneity in the period; the first half of the article provides a useful survey, the second half presents convincing close readings of poems by the Jewish historian and poet Grace Aguilar, Christina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

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