Virginia Barton

Victorian matters of life and death

Catholic Herald, 15 May 1991   

 

Review: The Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology by Michael Wheeler (CUP, £35)

 

Princess_Beatrice_mourning

It must be said that this is a book for the serious student or specialist in English literature. Mere mortals outside that magic circle may well gasp and flounder.

The author, professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, has published two other volumes concerned with Victorian fiction. This book is learned, crowded, solid and serious. The layman would do well to taste it a sip at a time, notebook and dictionary to hand.

We know that the Victorians were obsessed with death. The Queen, for dozens of years arch-mourner for her beloved Albert, set the tone: almost perpetual gravity, a smothering of dark garments, rigorous commemoration of anniversaries, colossal monuments, a near morbid collection of casts – hand, foot, face. Mourning was fashionable, comme-il-faut.

Can this impenetrable blanket of sorrow mean there were serious doubts about life after death? Had the age of reason and the explosion of science seriously undermined belief in the resurrection and life everlasting? The torrent of literature, pamphlets, tracts, sermons and the like, may have been an attempt to bolster faith in life hereafter.

Or was this deluge of devotional publications a sign of genuine religious conviction?

Michael Wheeler draws upon a vast range of sources to illustrate his theme: poetry, epitaphs, letters, as well as novels and the tracts etc. mentioned above.

The first half of the book covers the “four last things’’; the second contrasts the “broadly liberal theology” of Tennyson and Dickens (in In Memoriam and Our Mutual Friend) with the “Catholic authority” invoked in Newman and Hopkins The Dream of Gerontius and The Wreck of the Deutschland).

The author’s discussion is inspiring and led this reviewer to read Hopkins’ poem again with fresh and exciting insights. Frank Kermode has described this book as “. . . the standard work on these aspects of nineteenth century belief, and especially as they are reflected in literature.”

 

 

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