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Anglicans Online last updated 11 August 2019

A review for Anglicans Online
by Richard Mammana

A review of
Victorian Christianity at the Fin de Siècle: The Culture of English Religion in a Decadent Age
By Frances Knight

London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016. Hardcover, 294 pages. US$50.95.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, everyone now reading book reviews has experienced a fin de siècle: the changing not just of a year, nor even just a decade, but a century (and in our case a millennium). Yet the term fin de siècle still sticks with the tenacity of a barnacle to the end of the nineteenth century more than any other, and its cultural hallmarks: degeneracy, hope, renewal, cynicism, technological and engineering improvements, the loss of old certainties as European empires waited on the near edges of collapse, and incurable optimism and literary-artistic ferment against these complex backgrounds of mood.

Some Anglicans retain an ongoing cultural awareness of this period, which was a fruitful one for the steady advance of Anglo-Catholic ritualism in parish churches and the wider use of aesthetic aids such as fabric, incense, ritual—vesture, posture, gesture—to communicate ancient truths about Christian faith. We also remain indebted more globally to the social and socialist ideas that came out of this era: attitudes of Christian utopianism, religiously-inspired organization of labor, amelioration of the lives of prostitutes, factory-workers, dock-laborers, poor children, etc.

Frances Knight of the University of Nottingham—a distinguished and experienced scholar of English religion in the nineteenth century—turns her attention in the simply-titled Victorian Christianity at the Fin de Siècle: The Culture of English Religion in a Decadent Age to this period in a sustained and careful way over nine chapters in two parts. The first part is an examination of aestheticism and Christianity in London; the second explores religious contexts of the fin de siècle, in the same city. She finds “a small scale [but highly influential] London-oriented society, in which the ritual and culture of Christianity sometimes permeated the aesthetic movement, and the devotees of the aesthetic movement often revealed a fascination with Christianity.” Knight writes primarily on Church of England and Roman Catholic reactions, both progressive and retrogressive, within this moment, offering a comprehensive and interesting picture of religious responses to questions about art, unemployment, industrialization, social destabilization, music, politics, and a host of related concerns.

One of the great strengths of the book is its focus on what have become minor figures—A.J.A. Symons, Richard Le Gallienne, John Gray, André Raffalovich, Katharine Bradley, Edith Cooper, Baron Corvo—against the already vast literature surrounding Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde in this religious-aesthetic milieu. Knight is expert at identifying through the lives of these individuals the religious contours of a movement that has been generally examined through lenses of art and literature without deeper theological awareness. Mabel and Percy Dearmer, along with Charles Gore and F.D. Maurice, figure more latterly in Knight’s treatment as exponents of Anglo-Catholic Socialism who inherited the aesthetic principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement along with late-1890s commitments to widespread reform and the ushering in of the New Jerusalem on Earth.

Some dimensions of this broad story have been covered before in Ellis Hanson’s 1994 Decadence and Catholicism, as well as the aforementioned body of historical-literary work on Wilde and Pater, along with much investigation in Anglophone writing to the reception of Joris-Karl Huysmans. Knight acknowledges these projects and cites Hanson extensively, but pushes forward importantly and enjoyably to plumb this time in which “Christian traditions were stretched, expanded and moulded, but not to the point of breaking or irrelevance.” In so doing, she offers a rich opportunity to think theologically about social change in small groups of interconnected individuals who exercise a wide chronological and geographical impact through their writings and shared experiences. The old categories of antipathy between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism have now mostly passed away, leaving the early chapters with this narrative of national/racial betrayal connected to a sense of unfamiliarity. The residue is a happy one in which intellectual Christians explore adjustment and adaptation—the “changes and chances.”

AO staff member Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a parishioner and clerk of the vestry at Trinity Church, New Haven, Connecticut.