Lecture 24: The Victorian Age in Literature

In 1913 the Home University Library published Chesterton’s The Victorian Age in Literature. But the editors emphatically declared that the book was not being offered as “an authoritative history of Victorian Literature” but only as Chesterton’s “personal views” on the subject. Apparently someone with personal views cannot write an authoritative history. In other words, an author cannot be an authority.

In spite of this handicap, the book was hugely successful, with multiple reprintings. One reviewer, however, while admiring the book, still expressed his irritation at “Chesterton’s obsession with religion.” (Again, authors should not have opinions, though critics may.) The reviewer’s irritation enabled him to miss the whole point of the book: that we cannot understand the Victorian writers without reference to their traditions and creeds – especially the traditions and creeds that they have rejected. Chesterton says religion “was the key of this age as of every other.”

The literature of 18th century England was revolutionary, but the politics were not – the opposite of what happened in France. Whereas the peasants revolted against the aristocracy in France, the only political revolution in England, says Chesterton, was the victory of the rich over the poor. Puritan theology was rejected but Puritan practices remained in all their stiffness and exclusiveness and “phosphorescent and corpse-like brilliancy.” Though the society tried to maintain a moral face, underneath was a heartless philosophy known as Utilitarianism. Chesterton calls this great gap between theory and practice the Victorian Compromise.

Darwin rose to prominence, not because of his ideas were scientific but because Utilitarianism was the “philosophy in office.” This philosophy was responsible for “atheist industrialism” and the worship of wealth. Utilitarianism was already whispering about breeding the poor, hinting at infanticide and murmuring at “the folly of allowing the unfit to survive.” It was in this context that the great writers of the Victorian era wrote. Almost all of them reacted against Utilitarianism, but from a variety of perspectives and with a variety of results. They knew something fundamental had been lost from their society, and they were trying to grasp it, but most of them had an incomplete understanding of what it was. Thus Ruskin “wanted all the parts of the Cathedral except the altar.” And the Pre-Raphaelites “used medieval imagery to blaspheme medieval religion.” And Henry James sought the supernatural, but found it only in its tragic and diabolic forms. And Thomas Hardy “was a sort of village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot” (a line that so shook Hardy that he railed against Chesterton for the rest of his life, even on his death bed – which more or less proved the truth of what Chesterton had said, even if he himself had to play the role of the idiot to Hardy’s atheist.) It was only John Newman and the Oxford Movement who “patiently unraveled the tangle of Victorian ideas” and went all the way to embracing the whole of the lost historical faith.

Yet Chesterton has even higher praise for Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Dickens, he says, was the most human of the Victorian writers and most truly sympathized with the desolate and the oppressed. And Stevenson more than anyone was responsible for the breakup of the Victorian compromise, pointing to its deficiencies, “urging the neglected things,” and telling the tale that so vividly epitomized the problem: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The misunderstood moral of this story is not that man can be cloven into two creatures, one evil, one good, but that he cannot. Evil does not care about good, but good still cares about evil. “Man cannot escape from God.” Man’s good conscience, planted in him by God, will rip him apart if tries to give free reign to evil.

What Stevenson revealed was the loss of the sacramental. The two equally deficient philosophies of materialism and spiritualism developed at the same time and mutually abhorred each other. But soul and substance must be together. A ghost is not a man. A corpse is not a man. Only a sacramental religion combines the two in their just and perfect balance.

We cannot really understand the Victorian era unless we go back to the breakup of Catholic society. The multiple heresies that pulverized Catholicism were not merely religious but cultural and political and artistic. The old order was never replaced with a new order, but only with continued reactions against the old order. Chesterton says the later Protestant-types kept the Protestantism but did away with the Christianity. The Victorian Age began under the godless philosophy of Utilitarianism; it ended in the god-defying philosophy of Decadence, where men engaged in vile behavior not because they did not know it was wrong but because they did know it was wrong. “The decadents utterly lost the light and reason of their existence.”

Chesterton’s analysis of Oscar Wilde and the Decadents is, not surprisingly, very applicable to the contemporary homosexual subculture, which is attempting to incorporate itself into the cultural mainstream. It never quite succeeds because there is “a sense of just falling too short or just going too far.” In other words, it is not normal. It misses the mark because there is something fundamentally wrong about it. In spite of its appeals “with an excessive to strain on our sympathy,” it is “poised on the edge of a precipice of bathos.”

The Victorian revolution in literature led to independence and eccentricity and eventually anarchy. Though the writers rejected Utilitarianism, too many of the leading intellectual lights gave in to an agnosticism that enveloped them in a dark atmosphere of doubt. Darwin made the Victorians “muddle-headed” not only towards God but towards Man. The new ideas were all empty, and nothing could keep “the growing crowds of agnostics back from the most hopeless and inhuman extremes of destructive thought.”

It is a chilling and deadly accurate prophesy. We have seen all those “hopeless and inhuman extremes of destructive thought.” We have seen them in the flesh. We have seen more destruction of humanity than in the entire history of the world. But before it happened, we were warned about it. In 1913, in a slim book of literary criticism, G.K. Chesterton wrote eloquently about the coming Culture of Death.

This book is currently out of print.

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