Appeared in Vol. 9 No. 1 Download PDF here

The Victorian era, often viewed in retrospect as a stable and altogether conventional period of politics, social mores and religion, actually seethed, according to Carson Daly, with an unending battle between the desire and the inability to believe in Christ. In the article which follows, the author brings this battle to the surface through a brief analysis of four Victorian literary works. She thus provides the reader an opportunity to view a key problem of modern man, a problem which, as the rise of religious and pseudo-religious concerns in our own day will attest, has hardly gone away. Thus the Victorian dilemma, in Daly’s analysis, would justly appear to be but a revealing prelude to our own religious difficulties.

The Victorian Era seems staid and stable only in retrospect. To those living during this period, it seemed an age of terrifying transitions in which the unquestioned framework of civilized life was crumbling. As the critic Walter Houghton observes in The Victorian Frame of Mind, the early part of this era was characterized by the belief that time had somehow miraculously accelerated-irretrievably dividing the past from the present.1 One of the crucial effects of this “great divide” was the increasing difficulty which many authors experienced in adopting the religious beliefs of their forbears. In “Rugby Chapel” Matthew Arnold attests to this difficulty, bemoaning the failure of his own generation to believe and behave with the “simple downrightness”2 of their fathers. Indeed, for this poet and for many Victorians, the “Sea of Faith” seemed to be “retreating, to the breath/Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear/And naked shingles of the world.”3 In “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” Arnold speaks for an entire age when he says, we are “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born.”4

The inability of many to adhere to the seemingly old, “dead” world of tradition or to give birth to the new, did not result from a lack of effort. All of the major Victorian poets: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Hopkins, and Hardy attempted to re-affirm old tenets, to temporize between the old and the new, or to invent their own system of belief and disbelief. Even the less major poets like Clough and Swinburne, as well as the Pre-Raphaelites, the Aesthetes, and the Decadents addressed the question of faith and doubt. Many of the important novelists-most notably George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Hardy-were also bedeviled by religious uncertainty-often depicting their characters as prey to the doubts that they experienced themselves. Numerous writers of nonfictional prose also attacked the problems of religious faith and doubt in their autobiographies, essays, and occasional pieces.

Victorians were clearly obsessed with religious uncertainty and with what J. Hillis Miller has called “the disappearance of God.”5 Indeed, in the Victorian era the search for God became a hide-and-seek of cosmic proportions, as God was sought in the most probable and improbable places alike. The Oxford Movement looked for Him in traditional liturgy and doctrine; the evangelicals sought Him in an intensified, personal, scriptural study, hymn singing, and revivals; the Pre-Raphaelites looked for Him through a glass darkly in the pageantry of the past; and the Aesthetes sought Him perversely by spurning Him, till God, like the Hound of Heaven pictured in Thompson’s poem,6 pursued them-seeking them down the nights and down the days, and down the arches of the years, and down the labyrinthine ways of their own minds, till, in the midst of tears, they clung to Him.

Perhaps because the Victorian age was so preoccupied with faith and doubt, and with God’s presence or His absence, it was also full of conversions and de-conversions. Many Victorians were de-converted-as it were-from their childhood beliefs, familial religions, or youthful credos. Conversely, many others who had been lukewarm Christians became zealous, and some who had had no special religious affiliation became fervent advocates of a particular denomination. The conversions of aesthetes like Oscar Wilde, as well as those of the more circumspect traditionalist like John Henry Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins, show the breadth of such experiences during the Victorian era and also demonstrate the central and crucial role that conversion and de-conversion played in Victorian life and literature.

Although much critical attention has been devoted to the crisis of faith that afflicted Victorians, relatively little has been devoted to the experience of conversion and de-conversion that often underlay or accompanied this crisis. For that reason I would like to focus very briefly on this kind of experience as it is revealed in four Victorian works: Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Mill’s Autobiography, Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. I have chosen these works because they represent a variety of genres, a relatively broad chronological distribution within the period, and a diversity of conversion or de-conversion experiences. Moreover, all of these works act as “spiritual palimpsests” in at least three respects. First, each of the authors, Carlyle, Mill, Butler, and Hardy, underwent a traumatic conversion or de-conversion experience which underlies the heavily autobiographical aspect of each of these texts. Second, the main character is each of these works undergoes such an experience that undergirds the rest of his “real” or “fictional” life and hence, of the story. Finally, the conflicting aspects of conversion and de-conversion underlie and condition each other throughout the works-so that even when religious conviction seems firm-it is usually being ironically undercut, and when religious or irreligious skepticism seems absolute, it is usually being surreptitiously undermined.

All of these characteristics are easily visible in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. First published in 1833, this work provides a paradigm for the whole Victorian experience of conversion and de-conversion and acts as a source book for other treatments of the subject. Sartor Resartus is paradigmatic in that it accepts man’s utter need for a supernatural principle, considers traditional Christian faith outworn, and attempts to formulate a new, more acceptable theory in precisely the terms of the credo it has rejected.

Carlyle, as W.H. Hudson points out, considered “himself a type of his restless and much-troubled epoch;”17 representing “thousands of other young men”‘ in his generation who believed that only religion would save them, but who no longer believed in the religions of their youth. This is the predicament of Professor Teufelsdrockh depicted in the chapter entitled “The Everlasting No.” Carlyle describes the Professor as utterly bereft, for “Doubt had darkened into unbelief’ and “The loss of his religious Belief,” the narrator informs us, “was the loss of everything.” 9 From this period of desolation, Teufelsdrockh moves to a state which he calls “the Centre of Indifference” and then to the “Everlasting Yea.”

The new religious theory which Teufelsdrockh articulates in this state is really a kind of vitalism which asserts that there is a supernatural spark in all of creation. The only difficulty is to clothe this new theory, which expresses some old truths, in more contemporary and fashionable vestments and metaphors. In attempting to do this, Carlyle most clearly depicts the old, tattered garment of Christianity showing through under the newly fabricated mantle of vitalism. As Froude rightly observed, Carlyle’s “thought was dominated and pervaded to the end by the spirit of the creed he had dismissed.”10 This is everywhere evident-in his rhetoric, his syntax, his metaphors, and even in the content of his argument. A sampling of even a few phrases shows how totally Carlyle’s mind was undergirded and conditioned by Christianity. For example, he describes his era as “Our Wilderness… in an Atheistic Century”;11 portrays Nature as “the Living Garment of God”; depicts his fellow man as his brother;12 and finally, asserts that “there is in man a HIGHER than Love of Happiness: he can do without Happiness, and [should] instead thereof find blessedness!… Love not Pleasure; love God. This is the EVERLASTING YEA, wherein all contradictions are solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him. “13

Like Carlyle, John Stuart Mill experienced a kind of mental breakdown based upon his loss of faith, but his was in the tenets not of Christianity but of utilitarianism. Despite the fact that Mill was not experiencing a deconversion from Christianity, he describes it in stages closely approximating those of Carlyle’s Everlasting Nea, Centre of Indifference, and Everlasting Yea. Mill records that from his first reading of Bentham, he had had “an object in life; to be a reformer of the world”14-a conception inseparable from his own happiness. Once he realized, however, that he would still not be happy even if he attained his object, then he thought that he “had nothing left to live for.”15 Comparing his state to that of a convert to Methodism, Mill says that he was like someone who had been “smitten by [his] first conviction of sin.”16

Attempting to rid himself of this lethargy, Mill began his own book therapy-immersing himself in the nature poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge in an effort to nurture his feelings. The turning point in Mill’s deconversion resulted, however, from his reading of a passage in Marmontel’s Memoirs in which the latter’s father dies. Of this event, Mill records, “A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my burden grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless.”‘7 After this Mill developed a theory of life very like that of Carlyle’s idea of anti-self-consciousness. Mill also adopted a kind of personal gospel of the heart and a public gospel of service to society. The first was expressed in his nearly religious devotion to his wife during her life and later to her memory; and the second was obvious in his exertions as a member of Parliament.

In The Way of All Flesh Butler somewhat vulgarizes the vitalism with which Carlyle replaces Christianity and the gospel of emotion which Mill exchanges for utilitarianism. This is exemplified in the protagonist’s statement that the highest good would be that state in which the greatest number of well-bred men and women, enjoyed the greatest happiness.18 In accordance with this idea, Butler’s chief character, Ernest Pontifex, undergoes a de-conversion from Christianity to the gospel of mammon, but before this change is effected, he is exposed to life as an Anglican minister, as well as to evangelical, Broad Church, and Anglo-Catholic Christianity. The first of these factions, referred to as Simeonites, are appallingly ill-kemp social climbers who play on the basest enthusiasms and guilts of the flock. The members of the Broad Church are victims of inertia-uncommitted to either enthusiasm or dogma. The Anglo-Catholic faction, represented by an effeminate fellow pointedly called Pryer, are depicted as affected, hypocritical, snobbish, and perverse.

The human weaknesses of individual Christians, however, do not deconvert Ernest. He begins to disbelieve as a result of being shown that the gospels are seemingly inconsistent. Despite his rejection of Christianity, however, Ernest’s disbelief is entirely conditioned by a form of faith which is evinced by his prayer: “Lord… I don’t believe one word of it [Christianity]. Strengthen Thou and confirm my disbelief.”19 The gospel of mammon, which Ernest eventually adopts, is always couched in Christian terms and is conditioned by at least a vestigial Christianity. Even the narrator’s statements concerning science are somehow colored by Ernest’s rejected Christianity. Parodying the Pauline definition of faith, the narrator asserts “Instinct… is the ultimate court of appeal”20 and instinct is itself “a mode of faith in the evidence of things not actually seen.”21 From this and other such statements, we might suspect what the narrator observes concernir.a Ernest, “And so my hero returned almost to the point from which he had started originally, namely that the just shall live by faith.”22

The narrator hints at this still more strongly when he says that Ernest “had lost his faith in Christianity, but his faith in something-he knew not what, but that there was a something as yet but darkly known, which made right right and wrong wrong-his faith in this grew stronger and stronger daily.”23 Even Ernest’s final stance vis-d-vis disbelief is extremely ambiguous, for he takes “the sacrament duly once a year as a sop to Nemesis lest he should again feel strongly upon any subject. “24 Evidently, Ernest’s final situation, like that of Teufelsdrockh and of Mill is that of a convert whose new “religion” very much resembles the structure of his old-only with greater latitude for personal preference and ironic ambiguity.

Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure probably offers what is the most complicated and ambiguous treatment of conversion and de-conversion in all of Victorian literature. In this book there is not one, but two protagonists who are both de-converted from their early ideas and then converted to others. The really interesting thing, however, is that each is converted in the opposite direction. Sue, one of the finest examples of the “bachelor girl” in English Literature, has scant reverence for Christianity even though she works in a shop filled with religious paraphernalia. Her love is for the classical, the pagan, and the unconventional, yet after the death of her children, she becomes slavishly and conventionally religious-almost to the point of parody.

Jude, on the other hand, who at first idolizes the ministry and seeks to become a minister himself, is originally meticulously orthodox, yet he is converted to Sue’s early beliefs so that at the end of the book they are as much star-crossed lovers as at the beginning. Indeed, Jude the Obscure is riddled with the uneasy doubt and even more uneasy faith with which Hardy struggled throughout his life. Like him, an unwilling unbeliever who spent his time restoring ruined churches, Jude and Sue are forever renovating churches or ornamenting them. The paradox, of course, is that they are endlessly building up the physical image of what they cannot either accept or totally reject spiritually.

Hardy’s novel stands at the end of the Victorian Period at the dawn of the Modern age as a fitting palimpsest of conversion and de-conversion. The influence of Scripture, running constantly beneath Hardy’s story, is glimpsed between the lines, but beneath that, in turn, there lie many layers of faith and doubt locked forever in a fierce embrace-waiting like Jacob and the Angel for a dawn that does not come.



  1Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), please see chapter one.

2Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh (Penguin Books, 1979), p. 81.
3Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” Victorian Poetry and Poetics, eds. Walter Houghton and G. Robert Stange (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1968), p.
4Matthew Arnold, “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” ibid.. p. 477.

5J Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), please see especially the introductory chapter.

6Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven,” ibid., p. 723.

7Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, introd. William Henry Hudson (New York: Dutton, 1975), p. viii.
8 Ibid.

9Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, introd. W.H. Hudson (New York: Dutton, 1975), p. 122.

10William Henry Hudson, Introduction to Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, p. xv.
11Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (New York: Dutton, 1975), p. 139.

12lbid., p. 142.

13Ibid., p. 145.

14John Stuart Mill, The Autobiography (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944), p. 93.

15Ibid., p. 94.
16lbid., p. 94.

17lbid., p. 99.

18Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p.

19lbid., p. 305.
20lbid., p. 306.
21lbid., p. 306.
22lbid., p. 306.
24lbid., p. 430.