Like Trollope's The Way We Live Now, "Why I Go to Church," which appeared in the January 23, 1875 Punch, mocks a society in which religious observance no longer depends on belief. The woman's reasons show that Church attendance is primarily a social event:
Because my bonnet is the loveliest in the village, and it is a duty to show the country girls what a really tasteful thing in dress means. Because one likes to look at other people's bonnets and dresses; and nothing but seeing could make one believe what execrable taste most English girls have!
Because Charlie is sure to be there, with that inevitable white flower and fern leaf in his button-hole (the ridiculous fellow!), and Mamma will probably ask him home to lunch.
Because it's Sunday, and it would look so strange to stay away.
The society in The Way We Live Now displays a similar lack of religious belief: Mrs. Yeld's discussion with Mr. Barham concerning church and religion reflects the attention she pays to the way others' look rather than what they believe: "She spoke of the poor of Beccles, being very careful to allude only to their material position. There was too much beer drunk, no doubt, and the young women would have finery. Where did they get the money to buy those wonderful bonnets which appeared every Sunday?" (I,154). Mrs. Yeld's observation of the young girls' fineries and bonnets suggests that she "likes to look at other people's bonnets and dresses". Furthermore, that the girls wear "those wonderful bonnets" affirms that the girl attends church because her "bonnet is the loveliest in the village".
Lady Carbury's presence at Church similarly reflects a social rather than a religious purpose:
Lady Carbury always went to church when she was in the country, never when she was at home in London. It was one of those moral habits, like early dinners and long walks, which suited country life. And she fancied that were she not to do so, the bishop would be sure to know it and would be displeased. She liked the bishop. She liked the bishops generally; and was aware that it was a woman's duty to sacrifice herself for society. [I,158]
Lady Carbury goes to church not because she adheres to certain religious beliefs, but because she likes the bishop, she sees it as her duty to sacrifice to society, and it is the thing to do in the country as are early dinners and long walks. Furthermore, the narrator explicitly asserts her ignorance concerning religion: "But Lady Carbury might be all the easier converted because she understood nothing and was fond of ambitious talking" (I,179).
Mr. Melmotte takes his place among characters who favors a religion for reasons other than religious conviction: "To catch the Protestant, -- that is the peculiarly Protestant, -- vote and the Roman Catholic vote at the same instant is a feat difficult of accomplishment; but it has been attempted before, and was attempted now by Mr. Melmotte and his friends" (II, 52). By donating to Roman Catholic charities as well as Protestant, hence by appealing to both churches, Mr. Melmotte strives to increase his chances of Parliamentary election. The novel never reveals whether he is Protestant or Roman Catholic, and even hints that he is Jewish. But for Mr. Melmotte, his religious beliefs, whether he has any, are of no concern, as long as he gains a seat in Parliament.
Not only does Trollope portray a superficially religious society, but moreover mocks men of religion such as Father Barham. Mr. Barham reflects on the vulgar fashion in which Mr. Melmotte treated him, yet debases his own religion when he chooses to believe Mr. Melmotte a Roman Catholic:
The man had not declared that he was not a Roman Catholic. He had shown himself to be a brute. He has blasphemed and cursed...Father Barham, with a simplicity that was singularly mingled with his religious cunning, made himself believe before he returned to Beccles that Mr. Melmotte was certainly a Roman Catholic. [II, 58]
Roger Carbury voices Trollope's attack on the lack of true religious belief, the same concern the Punch article mocks, when he asks: "Do we say our prayers in them [churches] when we have built them?" (II, 45). That Roger Carbury should be one of the only characters who recognizes the loss of true religious belief in English society highlights Trollope's concern.
Last modified 1996