Mark Knight and Emma Mason, Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. £14.99, ISBN: 978 0 19 927711 7 (paperback), pp. 256
Reviewed by Kate Harper, University of York, August 2007
The focus of Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introductionis somewhat narrower than the title suggests. Mark Knight and Emma Mason are specifically concerned with Christianity in England, and while they note ‘the import of non-Christian religions in the period’ (p. 3), they have limited their scope to an exploration of the perceived principle religion of the nineteenth century. The introduction offers a substantial defence and examination of these decisions, paving the way for a study which constantly interrogates and questions existing perceptions of “religious” literature and culture, while demonstrating the pervasive influence of Christianity during the period. Knight and Mason work from the premise that ‘[r]eligion was not just another aspect of the nineteenth century: it found its way into every area of life’ (p. 9); and their insistence on keeping this in mind in their explorations of nineteenth-century texts results in a series of satisfyingly rich readings. As stated in their introduction, the writers’ intention is not to cover as many texts as possible, but rather to offer close readings of a selected few, thus giving readers ‘a way into some of the nineteenth-century’s main texts, beliefs, and religious events, rather than [providing] a fully comprehensive guide’ (p. 9).
The study is organised into six chapters, which cover Dissent; Unitarianism; the Oxford Movement; Evangelicalism; Secularization; and Catholicism and Mysticism. Within each chapter the approach is broadly chronologically, offering an overview of the shifts and developments that took place over the course of the century. A strength of this study is that Knight and Mason do not tackle the nineteenth century in historical isolation, but rather demonstrate the influence of religious beliefs and practice of the preceding centuries, considering, for example, the influence of early eighteenth-century nonconformism on the writing of William Blake and Emily Brontë.
Knight and Mason take an egalitarian approach to literature, giving hymns (particularly those of the Wesleys) as prominent a place as novels and poetry, and recognising the importance of liturgy and formalised worship. Although drama does not feature, an impressive array of genres is tackled, giving the reader a sense of the breadth and span of both religious literature and the influence of religion on secular writing. Throughout, the ‘continual slippage between the sacred and secular’ (p. 3) is brought to the fore, and definitions of “religious” and “secular” interrogated. Knight and Mason assume little theological knowledge, offering clear and helpful explanations of theological debates and positions, without brushing over the complexity of these issues.
For readers with a specific interest in women religious, this book will provide a good background to the Christian climate of England during the nineteenth century, but no specific information about sisterhoods. A brief mention is given to the Anglican All Saints Sisterhood in London: the congregation joined by Maria Rossetti, sister of Christina and Dante Gabriel. The establishment of Anglican sisterhoods is said to have had ‘a decidedly radical impact’ (p. 98) on Rossetti’s life, although oddly no mention is made of the fact that she undertook a significant amount of literary work after entering the convent. Edward Bouverie Pusey’s efforts to set up sisterhoods are discussed in brief, in the context of an examination of confession within the Oxford Movement, but Catholic sisterhoods are not mentioned at all, which is surprising given the substantial amount of literature produced within convents over the course of the century. Margaret Anna Cusack (‘the Nun of Kenmare’) is quoted describing her experience of confessing to Pusey, but, as with Maria Rossetti, her own literary endeavours go unmentioned.
In general terms, women are well represented, and Knight and Mason are keen to stress Mary Wollstonecroft’s argument that ‘[f]or all the harm Christianity had affected on women… it had also provided the terms for their liberation’(p. 7). Christina Rossetti, Michael Field, Anna Barbauld, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Elliot and Alice Meynell are among the women who feature prominently in this text, and each chapter includes analysis of the work of at least one female writer. While it is a shame that the role of women’s communities is not highlighted, women are never marginalised in this text, and their participation in the propagation of the Unitarian and Evangelical movements is particularly well traced.
Given that Knight and Mason do not claim to be offering a comprehensive exploration of religion and literature in the nineteenth century, it seems unreasonable to point out writers and subjects missing from the text, although I was rather startled to discover that Tennyson was omitted. Knight and Mason capture the flavour of each individual text beautifully, serving to tantalise and encourage further reading rather than to frustrate, and their analysis is scholarly and suggestive. Although it is extremely selective, this is an excellent introduction to a broad and complex subject, and will provide interested readers with a solid starting point.