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Chapter 11 - The Secular Turn in British Literature of the 1880s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 October 2019

Penny Fielding
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh
Andrew Taylor
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh
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Summary

This chapter argues that the British 1880s sees the emergence of powerful forces of political idealism, sceptical of evangelical calls to religious salvation but offering, instead, uplifting forms of ‘discursive Christianity’ in which high-minded routes to social salvation draw on Christian ideals but are modified to address the social problems of the day. The play of such a diffused Christianity is examined in the fiction of William Hale White (‘Mark Rutherford’). It then examines how George Gissing, with his commitment to realism in the novel, faces the aesthetic challenge of representing, authentically, political idealism, as expressed through polemic and forms of speech-making. Gissing’s solution is an ‘impersonal’ mode of presentation and an increasingly satiric treatment of vocal performance. Gissing’s scepticism about the limits of oratorical performance is seen as symptomatic of a wider artistic disenchantment with the strategies of Victorian high-mindedness, as in the satiric proto-modernism of late Hardy. In the light of the modernist diffusion of aesthetic and cultural detachment from the ethical and political imperatives of late-Victorianism into the inter-war period, it falls to later twentieth-century criticism to re-start serious evaluation of the innovatory character of the interplay of social, political and aesthetic life in the British 1880s.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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