Re-forming faith: idolatry and the Victorian novel

PhD Thesis

Heneghan, Marie. 2019. Re-forming faith: idolatry and the Victorian novel. PhD Thesis Doctor of Philosophy. University of Southern Queensland.

Re-forming faith: idolatry and the Victorian novel

TypePhD Thesis
AuthorHeneghan, Marie
SupervisorBickle, Sharon
Gildersleeve, Jessica
Institution of OriginUniversity of Southern Queensland
Qualification NameDoctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages221
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Recently, Timothy Carens declared 'the trope of idolatry has yet to receive the full discussion it deserves' ('Idolatrous Reading' 239). This project takes up this challenge, reading the traditionally perceived sin of idolatry as evidence of a postsecular re-engagement with spirituality in the Victorian novel from the mid-Victorian period (1840s) through to the fin-de-siècle (1890s). Conventionally, Victorian culture is interpreted through a modern, secular, lens that has tended to overdetermine the material (as opposed to the spiritual) focus of nineteenth-century British culture and befits the master narrative of secularisation. Compelling as a progress narrative from a world of supposed superstition and faith to one of logic and science, the master narrative of secularisation is framed as a movement away from the constrains of the past—a subtraction story. In this subtraction story, the religious and the secular are accepted as binaries, with secularism displacing religion. This study proposes an 'addition story': religion and spirituality’s reinvigoration through Victorian revivalism, which is represented in the Victorian novel through idolatrous experience. The religious revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain returned a primitive simplicity and emotive focus characteristic of the early, pre-institutionalised church to Victorian spirituality. Spirituality is centred on the individual and becomes a journey of discovery reflected in and modelled by the bildung found in the Victorian novel, rather than as ordered by the Established Church. Outside the bounds of institutional authority, idolatrous experience in the Victorian novel offers unconventional and unorthodox pathways to the transcendent through personal agency—an understanding of the heart’s own desires. In key Victorian novels, Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë, David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Salomé (1891) by Oscar Wilde, idolatry is a familiar trope; yet, more than simple metaphor, these novels centralise experience and suffering articulated through profound expressions of emotion and intensity in order to discover a pathway to the spiritual. Idolators in these novels experience ekstatis, an ecstasy obtained in suffering, which enables them to discover their paths to the transcendent — a path that leads not always to God but rather, the individual self. The experience of the idol, thus, thrives on a paradox of interwoven immanence (the here and now) and transcendence (life beyond death): an immanent being offers transcendent experience in the act of idolatrous worship. This paradox reflects the post-secular condition—a rejection of binarism in favour of a more complex intermingling of the secular and the religious. Charles Taylor’s framework adopted here offers a complex reading of Victorian spirituality, one that crafts a nuanced picture of faith in the Victorian novel and the Victorian period than has previously been offered. In this framework, idolatry shifts its meaning from sin and symbolic transgression to an important feature of personal agency and spiritual self-discovery.

KeywordsVictorian literature, idolatry, spirituality in nineteenth century literature
ANZSRC Field of Research 2020470504. British and Irish literature
Byline AffiliationsSchool of Humanities and Communication
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