Charlotte Brontë

What was Victorian Doubt?

Butler - Victorian Doubt“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

So writes Tennyson in his In Memoriam. According to Lance St John Butler, in his Victorian Doubt: Literary and Cultural Discourses (1990), Victorian doubt was not some “mere shadow of faith, a ghost prowling at the feast of the believers, but as the very condition of there being faith at all.” “Above all,” he continues, “doubt came to be seen, especially later in the century, as a corrective that religion offered to mere theology.” While Enlightenment skepticism seemed to put religion in jeopardy, doubt, after Romanticism, “became something positive as is apparent not only in an honest doubter such as Tennyson but also in many of the ‘deconversion narratives’ of Harriet Martineau and F.W. Newman, William Hale White, Samuel Butler and others,” including Lesile Stephen’s Agnostic Apology (1876) and A.J. Balfour’s Defense of Philosophic Doubt (1879). Numerous metaphors were used to express these “deconversions”:

“Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones” (Mill);

“The old has passed away, but, alas, the new appears not in its stead” (Carlyle);

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead The other powerless to be born” (Arnold).

There was much religious ambiguity during the Victorian period. It was “a puzzle to many Victorians how unbelief seemed to gain ground in spite of the greatly increased evangelistic effort.” The advances of science began to cause distress only later in the century, “after Buckle, Darwin and Colenso.” Evolution was not the problem. According to Butler, “religion quickly took on board the whole of evolution, at least in intellectual circles…[it had] no effect in halting the imminent decline in religious practice.”

“We need an account of the Victorians,” Butler argues, “that does not rely too heavily on our belief that we know the end of the story.” Butler’s purpose in the following chapters is to demonstrate that the “avowedly religious discourse of the Victorians is shot through with the lexicon, the syntax and the imagery of doubt while the avowedly unreligious or antireligious discourse of the period is shot through with metaphysical assumptions, and with vocabulary and imagery that betray the cultural pervasion of religion.” “The point at issue,” he goes on, “seems more to have been which religion (taking this word in its broadest sense) to pursue, or how to deal with the religious cultural baggage loaded onto the Victorian mind, rather than whether to both with religion at all.”

“Doubt is ubiquitous in the discourse of the Victorians.” An endemic doubt, a prevalence of metaphysical anxiety, is present in the vast majority of Victorian writers. But Victorian doubt should not be confused with unbelief or despair, “the prelude to atheism.” It is, as in the case of the honest doubter Tennyson, the faintly trusting of a “larger hope.” Many Victorian writers saw themselves as “living without God in the world.” This was not a personal choice; rather, it was a sense of “God’s absence from the world.”  The writings of Antony Trollope (1815-1882), George Eliot (1819-1880), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) seem, at first glance, to be a radical secularization of the English novel. But according to Butler, they actually display a religious ambiguity, or, more generally, a deep desire for religion to work. Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) Bleak House (1852-53), for example, treats the clergy as secular and strained: “Churches tend to be either decaying or out of place in some other way wrong.”

Even John Henry Newman (1801-1890), in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), and then in his Apologia (1864), displays a move from relative optimism to a “black pessimism.” Man needs God. But he also needs a “guide to lead him to a knowledge of God and that that guide must be the Catholic Church.” As Butler surmises, “for Newman the fallen world is, per se, utterly bereft of the divine and man is encircled by gloom…Newman is working perilously closely alongside the classics of Victorian doubt.”

Many other Catholic poets shared Newman’s “metaphorical system of Victorian doubt.” G.M. Hopkins (1844-1889) “felt that God hid Himself from the world.” Francis Thompson’s (1859-1907) Hound of Heaven (1893) depicts the believer as wanting “escape not from the consequences of sin but from the consequences of unbelief. He tries to escape God in his own mind and by hiding under laughter (scoffing?) and by finding other ‘hopes’ and by plunging into despair, evidently a despair based on the fear that God does not exist.”

The loss of faith pervades Victorian poetry. The mourning, this nostalgia for lost love, is “a metaphor for another, deeper loss,” Butler tells us: “the loss of a more general certainty.” “Any anthology of Victorian poetry quickly reveals the obsession with loss, with death, with endings and with yearnings for greener grass elsewhere.”

Images of light in darkness are found in several places in the novels of Dickens. The darkness in, for example, Great Expectations (1860-61), Bleak House (1852-53) is a symbol that something has “gone terribly wrong with the world.” “[H]ell has risen and engulfed the earth.” As Butler astutely writes, “The fog, the mud, the nightmares, the darkness, the squalor, the disease, the poverty—these are not only social problems (they they are that), they are also emblems of spiritual wreck and images of a devilish possession of man’s abode.” This is the “infernalisation of the earth,” the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s (1757-1827) Milton (c. 1804-10). Was this “hell-on-earth” the result of industrialization? Or was it punishment? Or the  spiritual condition of Victorian humanity? Whatever it was, the central question on the minds of Victorian writers: Where is God? The answer: “God is absetn from the world as currently organised, he has disappeared; we are, are Hardy will put it, ‘God-forgotten’; the light is available only beyond the tomb or behind a veil.”

According to Butler, such imagery and language is first hinted at in Romanticism; but “in Carlyle and Dickens hell takes on its full industrial panoply of horrors and dominates the world.” Both authors had been inspired by Henry Mayhew’s (1812-1887) Labour and the London Poor, published as a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s. After reading these articles, one reader commented: “We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick.”

Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets of 1850 added a “spiritual dimension to Mayhew’s sociological and economic picture.” The degradation of slums is a symbol for the moral degradation of England; the mud of the poison-swamp is London’s dirt and cosmic filth, “a symbol for the dire state of English society. Dragon and devils emerge from the mud; hypocrisy has come to dominate the nineteenth century; the gates of hell are prevailing. According to Butler, although the images of hell-on-earth are undoubtedly social commentary on the “poverty and injustice of the social system and its concrete effects,” Carlyle emphasizes the “inner man”: “Something must be wrong in the inner man of the world, since its outer man is so terribly out of square!”

Dickens had borrowed many aspects of the Carlylean mythology. In Dickens, too, hell is rampant among us and dominant on the earth, while “heaven has become a distant and highly speculative possibility.” Like other Victorians, Dickens is a radical doubter. Organized religion is “unable to combat either the physical or moral nightmares that surround it.” This world is damned. Images of decay, mud, fog, brutes, labyrinths, prisons, and hell-flames were, for Dickens and other Victorians, symbols “that could simultaneously asserts man’s abandonment by God (loss of faith, doubt) and remind him of his need to try to ward off the devil and become something like fully human (faith that there was somewhere a metaphysical guarantee, ‘behind the veil’, that the universe might still be ‘read’ as a morally significant structure even if the readings were almost universally negative).”

This “metaphysical guarantee,” this “surer basis for harmony,” was initially sought in the salvation of science. But the application of science only brought more questions and the relativising of European culture. Victorian geologists not only “demonstrated the uncomfortable longevity of the earth, they also prognosticated a catastrophic future for the planet, now in its ‘decrepitude.'” Astronomy had revealed a vast universe, but at the same time “you feel human insignificance too plainly.” One Victorian reader of the astronomy comments: “It makes me feel that it is not worthwhile to live; it quite annihilates me.”

Many negative images were, however, balanced with positive ones. What is important to note, and quite paradoxical, says Butler, is that “among the novelists at least, the more believing writers reach for the Satanic while the ‘unbelievers’ will reach for the figure of Jesus Christ.”

Victorian belief, writes Butler, was “shot through with elements of doubt or cosmic depression,” a “world cut off from God.” And in the work of Victorian writers, there is an “unmistakable fear that God has abandoned the earth and that it has been handed over to the forces of darkness.” But in writing about God’s abandonment, Victorians continued using the language of Christian tradition. In this sense, Christian vocabulary and symbolism were “hijacked” for other purposes. Indeed, Robert Owen (1771-1858), Carlyle, Arnold, and many other Victorian writers employed religious discourse in their writings.

Butler in chapter four, “the discourses of religion among Victorian doubters,” focuses on a few such writers. The influence of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) here is central. “Comte’s work was utterly (and deliberately) imbued with religious elements,” Butler tells us. Claimed to be the first female sociologist, Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), translated Comte’s The Positive Philosophy in 1853. British secularist George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) “welcomed her English version of Comte as his ‘Bible’ and said that it gave him his ‘creed.'”

Reaction to Comte and his Positivism was not as severe as one might expect. Many recognized that it “showed that orthodoxy had failed the people and that the earnest efforts of Comtists were going in the right spiritual direction.” With the alleged decline of Christianity, many sized upon a metaphysical replacement. This was readily admitted. When British liberal politician, William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), wrote to Holyoake in 1897, he said this much. He also “pointed out that the latter’s secularism (and secularism in general) could never have existed without a precedent Christianity and the ‘atheist’ Holyoake hinted at the possibility of immortality not only in this late correspondence with Gladstone (who was dying at the time) but also in his pamphlet of earlier and more fiery years, The Logic of Death of 1849.” Other so-called atheists or agnostics, including John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), in his posthumous essay on “Theism” (1874), “had not quite discounted personal survival.”

The employment of religious language among the religiously skeptical is so self-conscious that one must conclude that Victorian secularists were often Janus-faced. T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), for instance, in a letter to Kingsley in 1870, refers to his “sins,” the “sanctity of human nature,” the “sacredness” of human duty. Huxley also refers to Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836) as leading him “to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.” “Above all,” writes Butler, “the faith in science and in the new post-Darwinian ‘truth’ was strongly asserted, with a fervour not unlike that of the evangelicals.”

Returning to Comte, Butler reminds us that many contemporaries saw his “Religion of Humanity” as Catholicism minus Christianity. Unitarian minister John Trevor (1855-1930) formed the Labour Church in the 1890s, for instance, and modeled it after Comte’s principles. Although a short-lived failure—apparently disappearing shortly after World War I—its first principle declared “That the Labour Movement is a Religious Movement.”

Interestingly enough, when the Labour Church disappeared, so did Comte’s “Churches of Humanity.” According to Butler, with the “departure of Victorian religion went the departure of Victorian unbelief too. The two were intimately bound together by their possession of a common discourse.”

Butler argues his case by focusing on two main examples, Victorian doubters Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) and Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), otherwise known by her pen name as George Eliot.  Stephen’s Agnostic’s Apology (1874) seems to model itself after Puritan autobiographies and conversion narratives. His doubt is a doubt expressed religiously. In her various writers, from the 1840s to the 1850s, Eliot imagined herself as either  rationalist, theist, pantheist, or positivist. Her husband, English philosopher and critic of literature and theater George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) was, however, “Comte’s most ardent British disciple.” They first meet in the early 1850s, and by 1863, Eliot describes herself as “swimming in Comte.” According to Butler, Eliot had “turned not so much from religion to infidelity as from the religion of her father to the religion of her husband.” Butler follows Eliot’s religious development throughout a number of works, including the novella “The Lifted Veil” (1859), a poem “The Choir Invisible” (1867), supplied to Positivists for use as a hymn in their new liturgy, and her more well-known novels Middlemarch (1874) and Daniel Deronda (1876). According to Butler, Eliot’s writings is “dominated by religious discourse to the point that it cannot be read separately from the vocabularly, the symbolic systems, the codes and the narrative syntax of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” This should come as no surprise, for the “Comtean religion is, after all, a lonely and elevated affair with little to cheer a soul still trying to wrap about itself the Hebrew old clothes.”

The period between 1869-74 is known for a number of important events, from the Franco-Prussian war, the rise of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the revolutionary and socialist Paris Commune (18 March-28 May, 1871), the unification of Italy, and the Pastor aeternus, or the proclamation of Papal infallibility (1870). Indeed, Butler sees the 1870s as a “fulcrum or watershed” moment for Victorian doubt.

Besides these important political events, there was a “surge of science publications in the 1870s.” Tyndall published his Lectures on Sound (1867) and his Lectures on Light (1873). Darwin not only published his Descent of Man (1871), but also his essays on “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” (1868) and “Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals” (1872). Wallace published his Natural Selection (1870), The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), and his Tropical Nature (1878). Spencer published his Principles of Psychology (1870). Huxley published his Lay Sermons (1870) and spent the whole period from circa 1871-1880 as Secretary to the Royal Society.

The “scientific” study of religion was also gaining greater currency. Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), for instance, published in 1873 his Introduction to the Science of Religion and subsequently his 1878 Origin and Growth of Religion. Although Müller distrusted Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer, he was convinced that religion had “progressed” from the days of the Rig Veda. Higher Criticism was ever so popular in the 1870s. Besides Strauss and Renan, J.R. Seeley published his Ecce Homo in 1865, followed by George Macdonald’s Miracles of Our Lord (1870), Henry Ward Beecher’s Life of Jesus (1871), Eliza Lynn Linton’s “historical” novel The True History of Joshua Davidson (1872), F.W. Farrar’s Life of Christ (1874), and many others.

According to Butler, “religious novels were popular throughout the Victorian period…but whereas before 1870 these are mostly novels of inter-sectarian controversy, after 1870 the preponderant question is the question of doubt.”

Butler then goes on to show that the decade of 1870 is marked by “non-religious” novels. For example, he mentions the work of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and Matthew Arnold. Butler also wants to point out that during this decade “religion had reached a high water mark.” It is indeed the decade of Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and his revivalism. It was also the decade of the Metaphysical Society (1869-1880), founded by James Knowles (1831-1908). Its membership included Tennyson, W.K. Clifford, Huxley, Stephen, but also many prominent clergymen. These men were to meet in London “nine times a year to discuss the problems of the coexistence of religion and science.” Knowles’ journal, The Nineteenth Century, published many of the writings of the members.

According to Butler, all this points to a growing “new consensus, a compromise.” This new “spirit of compromise” is apparent in Victorian literary works. John Morley’s On Compromise (1874) and Arnold’s St Paul and Protestantism (1870) and Literature and Dogma (1873) are case examples Butler provides the reader. Although religion is still dead for Morley, Butler’s point in including him is that more optimistic view is beginning to “creep into the sense of loss.” Morley calls “all forms of frivolity, all weak convictions, all vapidity and nihilism,” for example, “forces of darkness.”  One should hold strongly to either belief, atheism, or agnosticism, and refuse to wallow in despair. What is more, each point of view “should learn to tolerate the other’s point of view.” Arnold’s God and the Bible (1875) sums up Morley position: “Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” This, says Butler, the “compromise of disbelieving religiously.”

*  *  *