STRANGE GODS: LOVE AND IDOLATRY IN THE VICTORIAN NOVEL by Timothy L. Carens, Reviewed by Jessica Ann Hughes

By Timothy L. Carens
(Routledge, 2022) x + 200 pp.
Reviewed by Jessica Ann Hughes on 2022-09-19.

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Victorian culture was deeply religious. Recently, nineteenth-century scholarship has drawn increasingly nuanced attention to the strength of religious faith and practice even among Vicotirnas who disavowed various forms of Christianity. Reading Victorian fiction in light of historical theology and church history, Strange Gods enriches this body of scholarship by ambitiously examining how the Protestant fear of idolatry impacted marriage plots in nineteenth-century British novels. Drawing on sermons, religious tracts, and popular fiction, Timothy Carens persuasively argues that Victorian Protestants saw idolatry as an ever-present threat at home, not merely a pagan practice in heathen lands, and taught that anything or anyone could become an idol.

Consequently, Carens argues, the Protestant faithful needed to guard against loving anyone or anything more than God--be it a flesh-and-blood person, idealized romance, or even the aesthetic ideal of beauty itself. Over five core chapters that move from the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Carens shows how anxiety over potential idolatry leads to the failure of an expected marriage even in novels by writers antagonistic toward Protestantism--novelists such as Charlotte Brontë, Charles Kingsley, Elizabeth Braddon, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Thomas Hardy.

Drawing on a wealth of sources to explore Protestant discourse around idolatry in Victorian Britain, the accessibly written opening chapter recalls the ubiquity of the teaching that idols of the heart--such as a child, spouse, parent, money, power, even one's hair--can provoke the wrath and love of a jealous God, leading to the destruction of the idol as a way of both reprimanding and recalling the idolater.

The following five chapters treat various categories of idols. Just as the death of a child or a spouse frequently serves as a punishment for idolatry in Protestant life-writing and popular fiction, chapter 2 shows how the worship of a potential partner in Kingsley's Yeast (1848) and Brontë's Villette (1853) leads to the disappearance of that character. Since domestic ideology generally privileges companionate marriage, the threat of idolatry helps to explain why the marriage plot in these novels is derailed.

In The Doctor's Wife (1864), however, Carens finds that Braddon makes a case for one particular kind of idolatry: novel reading. While Protestant conduct manuals, sermons, and tracts decried novel reading as corruptive, a source of fantasy, or at best a waste of time, Carens shows that Isabel Gilbert's idolatry of novels in The Doctor's Wife works to strengthen her character and preserve her moral conduct (77). While the protagonists wrought by Kingsley and Brontë are punished for their idolatry, Carens contends that novel reading strengthens Isabel's personal commitment to her ideals and thus empowers her to reject the illicit advances of Roland Lansdell. Yet while Braddon is shown to challenge moral judgements that would simply condemn imagination, reading, and idealism, Carens might have further examined the tension between Isabel's rejection of Lansdell and Sigismund Smith's character, for this tension helps to generate Braddon's apparent ambivalence toward novels and reading.

In chapter 4, which is at once the most intriguing and least convincing part of this book, Carens argues that Eliot divinizes the sun in Middlemarch (1871-72). Really? Eliot makes the sun communicate positive energy in Middlemarch and celebrates sunshine in her life-writing, but do the passages Carens cites actually express sun-worship? While Casaubon is for a time idolaized by Dorothea, he fails as an idol when he proves unworthy of her worship. Furthermore, rather than constructing a cult of the sun, the solar imagery of the novel signifies--in Carens's own words-- a "humanist heaven...that acknowledges the divinity of human love, the sacredness of human relationships" (116). Such a humanist heaven is not, in the end, idolatry.

Within religious discourse, idolatry replaces a deity by someone or something else as an object of worship. The sermons, tracts, and fiction Carens examines presuppose that the Christian God is more worthy of worship than anyone or anything else. Even though the Christian God no longer prevails in the novels of Wilde and Hardy, these novels assume, Carens argues, that something is more deserving of worship than is either the self or one's own creation. But in Middlemarch, the love of human beings for each other is represented as an object of ultimate value. Rather than exemplifying idolatry, this conception of love--following Ludwig Feuerbach--turns all gods into ideals that humans have chosen to worship. If Eliot is correct--that true divinity is found in human beings--the idol is not her humanist vision but rather the lesser, more primitive god of Christianity.

Turning first to Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and then to Hardy's The Well-Beloved (1892), chapters 5 and 6 return to Carens's initial focus on the anxieties generated by worshipping inappropriate objects, especially the self or one's own creation. In exploring those anxieties, both chapters clarify their respective novels' ambiguous narrative structures. The chapter on Wilde is particularly helpful. In the end, despite its embrace of beauty, hedonism, and self-worship, Dorian Gray seems to repudiate the worship of Dorian and enunciate what looks suspiciously like a moral. Yet Wilde's novel, Carens argues, is driven by the psychological and aesthetic tension between the lure of idolatry and the dangers of worshiping anyone or anything. Carens thus explains the ambivalence of the novel's conclusion, which neither celebrates beauty as the ultimate good nor simply rejects such aestheticism.

Carens's analysis of The Well-Beloved convincingly concludes his study. Coming at the end of the nineteenth century, Hardy's novel perfectly illustrates both the fear of idolatry that shaped Victorian marriage plots and the devastating effects of worshiping one's own creation (and, by extension, one's self), even though that devastation is no longer understood as a form of divine wrath.

But is this concern with everyday idols a uniquely Protestant concern? While charges of idolatry were commonly made against Roman Catholics, Catholic writers such as John Henry Newman and Cardinal Wiseman also treat excessive love as idolatrous in their sermons. Before concluding that fear of idolatry is exclusively Protestant in the Victorian era, we need more scholarship on the rhetoric and theology of idolatry in the various forms of Victorian Christianity.

Even before the Victorian period, fears about the idolatry of excessive love drove Protestant as well as Catholic discourses. Is there, then, a particular emphasis on the intersection between idolatry and marriage in the Victorian period, and might this help us better understand the changing psychological and relational (as well as theological) landscape of the nineteenth century? And if there is a renewed concern for idolatry, what role might the novel play in driving it? The chapter on Braddon hints that novels and novel reading might have provoked a particular concern over idolatry by making heteronormative romance desirable. Moreover, in moving through various idolatries--from the idolatry of a potential spouse, to the idea of a spouse, to human love, to beauty, to one's own creation--the book implies that companionate marriage (with its promise of an ideal spouse) might increase concerns about idolatry, not just because it entails the worship of one's spouse but also because it assumes an elusive and impossible "ideal" marriage. Establishing this connection would further our understanding of how the companionate marriage model shapes both the novel and modern attitudes, expectations, and ideals for marriage.

Finally, Strange Gods repeatedly characterizes the God who punishes idolatry as specifically the God of the Old Testament. Such Marcionism would be heresy to most of the religious writers that Carens cites. For while modern scholars tend to see the Old Testament God as the essentially wrathful antitype to the New Testament God and Jesus, God is not so portrayed by Victorian Christians, historic Christian orthodoxy, and the New Testament. Better understanding of how Victorian Christians understood their God--as one who both punished idolatry and died on the cross--will help us better understand how the Victorians understood themselves and the world as well how they thought about religion. In turn, continued research on Victorian religion will help to illuminate the role of literature in shaping cultural values and practices.

With lucid prose and clear argumentation sufficiently accessible for advanced students, Strange Gods takes Victorian religion seriously, and thus makes a solid and important contribution to literary scholarship. By showing how religious thinking about idolatry shapes the marriage plot, this insightful and provocative book charts yet another way in which Protestant narratives, theology, and psychology inform the novel.

Jessica Ann Hughes is an assistant Professor of English at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon

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