[This review first appeared in Modern Philology (2013): 69-74.]

Illuminated initial A half century ago, when I first encountered Victorian literature as an undergraduate, my distinguished instructors presented it as an attractive protomodern age characterized by loss of religious belief. As Charles LaPorte correctly points out in The Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible, “MidVictorian poetry has always gratified historians of British secularization,” and its “scholars have equally relied on histories of decline and the so-called death of God” (1–2). Historians of British religion and Victorian culture, however, have done much to qualify the “the usual secularization narrative” so that it

should therefore be of interest to scholars of Victorian poetry and of Victorian literature more broadly that the moribund condition of nineteenth-century British Christianity now seems far less evident than it has seemed to us during most of the intervening period. . . . All parties agree that if Victorian religion declines at all before the twentieth century, it declines from a high tide in the 1850s. By this estimate, “Dover Beach” was written at the high-water mark of post-Enlightenment religion in Britain, the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of its famous “Sea of Faith” perhaps the sound of Arnold’s own ear pressed against a seashell. [2–3]

Timothy Larsen’s excellent A People of One Book, which should be mandatory reading for anyone studying nineteenth-century British literature and culture, offers numerous correctives to our general ignorance of how Victorian readers and writers from fundamentalist Evangelicals to “agnostics and atheists read, understood, and experienced the Old and New Testaments. As Larsen points out,

Much has been overlooked or distorted by a preoccupation scholars have had with critical approaches to the Bible. Liberal Quakerism and liberal Unitarianism, for example, tend to get backdated so as to obscure how thoroughly biblical even these groups were in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Likewise the rise of biblical criticism is so anticipated that figures who were typical of their times such as E. B. Pusey and C. H. Spurgeon are often painted as old-fashioned and obscurantist. As a corrective to this anticipatory haste to be out with the old and in with the new, it was revealing to observe how resistant to biblical criticism Josephine Butler—who is not usually thought of as behind the times—was even in the early twentieth century. Scholars focused on critical views of Scripture have neglected to observe that even a desire to write a hostile or iconoclastic work on the Bible is itself a tribute to the centrality of “the book” for the Victorians. Charles Bradlaugh thought that being a good atheist leader meant learning Hebrew and making one’s magnum opus a biblical commentary; T.H. Huxley introduced the notion of “agnosticism” not by a philosophical discourse on epistemology but rather in articles that were mainly explorations of the synoptic problem in New Testament studies. [297]

Larsen’s clear, strongly written book takes us through ten chapters, each of which uses a representative figure or figures to show how believers and nonbelievers alike found it “seemingly impossible simply to ignore or sidestep the Bible—everyone felt they had to go through it, whether by deploying it as supporting their views and cause or by defying it in a sustained, resolute, and concerted way” (297). Thus, E. B. Pusey represents Anglo-Catholics; Nicholas Wiseman, Roman Catholics; Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, atheists; and Catherine Booth and William Brooke, Methodists. Unlike much earlier work that scants the contributions of women, Larsen emphasizes women Bible readers. Florence Nightingale thus represents Liberal Anglicans; Mary Carpenter, Unitarians; Elizabeth Fry, Quakers; and Josephine Butler, Evangelical Anglicans. T. H. Huxley serves as the typical agnostic, and the enormously popular and influential Baptist C. H. Spurgeon represents “Orthodox Old Dissent.”

Throughout his heavily documented chapters, Larsen continually surprises the reader, often providing valuable correctives to standard views. Take, for example, his discussion of the Quakers, whose “theological diversity” most scholars have exaggerated:

The hegemony of evangelicalism was so strong in Britain, however, that the largest schismatic group broke away because its members wanted to be even more thoroughly evangelical and biblicist, the Beaconites (who tellingly referred to themselves as “Evangelical Friends”). Elizabeth Isichei, in her very thorough study Victorian Quakers, reveals that there is simply no non-evangelical from this period who could represent the Quakers: “All the eminent and ‘weighty’ Friends of the mid-Victorian era were evangelicals.” As to the one liberal schismatic group, it peaked it thirty attenders. . . . From the mid-1830s to the mid-1880s, evangelicalism not only thoroughly imbued the British Society of Friends, but there was literally no identifiable alternative within the denomination. [170]

Turning to Elizabeth Fry, the great prison reformer, Larsen explains that the Bible and Bible reading always remained central to her endeavors, that together they were “the magic ingredient in her acclaimed recipe for prison reform” (179), and,finally, that “the theme of ‘a people of one book’ is also reinforced by Fry’s assumption that Bible reading, or pointing people to particular texts of Scripture, stood above any sectarian strike or ecclesiastical dispute” (186). Another important corrective to widespread assumptions appears in the chapter on the “biblical Unitarianism” of Mary Carpenter and her father. Larsen explains that their emphasis on the centrality of scripture “did not lead her to denounce or even reject in toto the radical findings of modern biblical criticism—assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. Carpenter could have had every reason to see D. F Strauss’s Leben Jesu as a direct attack on the stance taken in her father’s magnum opus, An Apostolic Harmony of the Gospels (second edition, 1838).” Instead, she thought the German higher critic had done more good than harm because he had simply expressed what many had thought privately, which “led to much beneficial investigation of the subject” (144).

Perhaps most surprisingly, the Bible permeated the thoughts and expressions of agnostics and even atheists. Even though Besant (in Larsen’s words) thought the Bible “dangerous and despicable [and] . . . not a safe book to give to children, or even a sixteen-year-old” (79), her atheist essays show a remarkable knowledge of scripture:

Although Besant no longer believed in the authority of the Bible, when there was a biblical text that made her point, like a pious evangelical, she found it irresistible to quote her proof-text triumphantly. Thus, statements by Christ about his own identity cannot be used to bolster an argument for his divinity because he had said: “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” ( John 5:31). Freethinkers do not need to have all the answers provided in advance by revelation, because they “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). And so it goes on. When attacking Christianity and the Bible, Besant continually reaches for biblical language that would sound esoteric to many today. She can observe, for example, that she has “written Tekel on the Christian faith” (Daniel 5:27). She even condemns the God of the Bible as “a blood-craving Moloch” (cf. Leviticus 20:i-5). [77]

In the closing chapter, which discusses Charles Spurgeon, Larsen makes a point absolutely crucial to the understanding of the tone, imagery, and themes of much Victorian literature: “Outsiders to scripturally saturated spirituality often think of the point of the contents of the Bible for believers primarily in terms of issue of doctrine,morality, and behaviour, but for insiders a main feature of the Scriptures is that they are seen as a uniquely bountiful source of comfort, consolation, encouragement, divine promises, and emotional sentiments which correspond to their own” (269). Larsen’s book has major implications for studies, like LaPorte’s, that rest on the incorrect assumption that the higher criticism always led to spiritual crisis and abandoning the Bible. In fact, as Larsen states, “immediate, edifying encounters with the text by no means disappeared once biblical criticism had been widely accepted by scholars—or even ministers” (297).

Although LaPorte’s well-written The Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible first seems to promise that it will look at the ways Victorian religion permeates poetry, it turns out to be largely a rather old-fashioned study of the influence of the loss of religious belief on English poets—in this case, a loss largely due to the impact of the German higher criticism of Strauss, Schleiermacher, and Eichhorn. According to LaPorte, “changing nineteenthcentury perceptions about the Bible both stimulated the ambitions of the most prominent Victorian poets and conditioned their contemporary reception. Victorian biblical criticism often invoked the ‘poetic’ nature of scripture, and Victorian poets often took this language literally as in some sense paradigmatic of their craft” (231). LaPorte has an interesting if rather minor topic, one that does not seem to have provided enough material for an entire book, the primary indication of which appears in his many interesting, though not always central or even relevant, excursuses. To be sure, the extended discussions of Swedenborg and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mrs. Jameson and Robert Browning (but where’s Ruskin?), the comparison of Tennyson’s “Timbuctoo” and the earlier “Armageddon,” and his suggestive comments on Browning’s “Rabbi ben Ezra” are all fine, but they pad out rather than advance his argument.

The five chapters that follow LaPorte’s introduction discuss the Brownings, Tennyson, Clough,and George Eliot. His best chapter, that on Clough’s Dipsychus, stays closest to the poetry and draws heavily on previous critics, whom the author generously and graciously acknowledges. The discussion of Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King, in contrast, is quite weak—in part, one suspects, because he doesn’t seem to know the relevant books by John R. Reed and James R. Kincaid. Moreover, LaPorte repeatedly gives the impression of someone who really doesn’t like The Idylls and turns to it despite its “faux-chivalric themes” and “ersatz medieval world” (71); he also mentions Malory’s “winning medieval naivete´” (76), the “patchwork fabric of the poem” (81), and its “dreamy faux-medieval air” (82). His frequently condescending prose often reads like that produced by the very worst of nineteenthcentury critics. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to get what the poem’s about. Both In Memoriam and The Idylls dramatize Tennyson’s main theme that faith, however essential, is necessarily a tenuous, subjective, nonrational matter. In other words, he has moved far, far beyond the issues raised by Strauss. But whereas In Memoriam ends as a comedy with a happy outcome, The Idylls, a mythic depiction of the decline of the West, shows what happens when people lose faith and fail to keep faith. The problems with this book go much deeper than a dislike of Tennyson and an insensitivity to his poetry. The Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible is a book whose author could have benefited from reading Larsen. At first I thought to write that it is unfortunate that A People of One Book did not appear earlier so LaPorte could have taken advantage of it, but I’m not sure that would have helped an author who has done so little to take advantage of scholarship central to his topic. LaPorte, who writes as if no one has written about the Victorians, Victorian religion, and Victorian poetry, seems completely ignorant of work done during the past three decades, such as G. B. Tennyson’s Victorian Devotional Poetry (1981) or articles, dissertations, and books on the ways biblical typology, prophetics, and apocalyptics affected British poetry during the reign of Victoria. He thus includes Mary Wilson Carpenter’s Imperial Bibles, Women’s Bodies but not her Landscape of Time: George Eliot and the Apocalyptic Structure of History (1986), a book essential to his chapter on the novelist. Similarly, he cites an article by Linda Peterson but not her other articles, or her dissertation on Browning and typology, that undercut his entire approach to The Ring and the Book. Ever since George Monteiro’s seminal article on the use of biblical imagery in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” (text), a number of authors have demonstrated that the poet uses commonplace types to solve the interpretive problem created by the dramatic monologue. Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) long ago demonstrated the intrinsic difficulties that first-person narration creates in identifying the author’s point of view, but Browning clearly identifies the guilt or innocence of characters by their use or misuse of scriptural types. For example, the villainous Count Guido Francheschini represents himself as an innocent, selfless man by dramatizing himself as Christlike. But when he refers to “God’s decree, / In which I, bowing bruised head, acquiesce” (4.1410–11), his inept allusion to Genesis 3:15 declares that he is, in fact, far more like Satan than like Christ. This is not a minor point in relation to LaPorte’s argument, since if Browning thus indicates exactly how to interpret Guido and other central characters, LaPorte’s central thesis about interpretation falls apart.

Anyone who has recently taught undergraduate and postgraduate students soon realizes that they know so little of the Bible that Victorian readers and writers would consider them illiterate. Three decades ago I pointed out that when we modern readers fail to recognize biblical allusions and the interpretive practice common in the Victorian years, we deprive many works of a large part of their context. Having thus impoverished them, we then find ourselves in a situation comparable to that of readers trying to understand a poem in a foreign language after someone has gone through their dictionaries deleting words. Larsen’s excellent book has the potential to begin to remedy this cultural illiteracy that places such barriers between us and the Victorians.


Mary Carpenter. George Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History. Chapel Hill: U.of North Carolina Press, 1986.

LaPorte, Charles. The Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. 284.

Larsen, Timothy. A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 326.

Monteiro, George. “The Apostasy and Death of St. Praxed's Bishop.” Victorian Poetry 7 (1970): 209-18. [text in the Victorian Web].

Peterson, Linda H. “Biblical Typology and the Self-Portrait of the Poet in Robert Browning.” Approaches to Victorian Autobiography. Ed. George P. Landow. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979.

Last modified 3 July 2014