Spirit Matters

Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain

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J. Jeffrey Franklin
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , March
     2018.
     288 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781501715440.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Victorian Britain, mainstream Christianity—whether in the form of the Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, or various Nonconformist Protestant denominations—held significant power and influence over the population. Its hegemony was however challenged by the forces of materialism unleashed by new scientific ideas and theories, most of all those stemming from Charles Darwin’s work on biological evolution. There were, in addition, some belief systems and frameworks that did not fall readily into either category: these included both imported Asian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Western-grown developments such as Spiritualism and Theosophy. As J. Jeffrey Franklin notes, Spirit Matters is a book about these “nonmainstream or heterodox religious and spiritual beliefs—what in the twentieth century would come to be called ‘alternative religions’—in nineteenth-century Great Britain” (xi). 

Franklin presents these alternative practices as a “third contestant” alongside mainstream Christianity and materialist science in the fight for the hearts and minds of Victorian Britons (2). This is a perfectly valid and sensible approach, if not a particularly novel one. It is reminiscent, for example, of the idea that “esotericism” represents a third category in Western society, alongside mainstream religion and accepted science, which has been promoted in the work of scholars like Wouter Hanegraaff. Hanegraaff’s more recent writing on the subject is, however, not cited in Spirit Matters, nor is the term “esotericism” scarcely employed at all. Indeed, this is a study that fits, at least in part, within the sub-field of the study of esotericism yet does not really interact with the broader literature on the subject, barring a few studies that focus specifically on select currents like Spiritualism or Theosophy. This perhaps reflects part of a wider issue whereby many scholars (particularly in the United States) are apparently unaware of the important developments in the study of esotericism that have taken place largely in continental Europe over the past decade. This unfortunate state of affairs leads scholars like Franklin to end up reinventing the wheel, creating categories which have already been formed and fleshed out in greater depth elsewhere.  

As a Professor of English, it is little surprise that Franklin turns to the literature of the period, and in particular the fictional literature, as the main source material with which he constructs his narrative. This is an interesting approach and is, as Franklin is well aware, not the only one available. To explain the religious milieu of the early nineteenth century, for instance, he turns to Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, while the second chapter focuses heavily on the writings of Edward Bulwer-Lytton as a case study. Specifically, he looks at the 1842 novel Zanoni and the 1862 novel A Strange Story, examining how Bulwer-Lytton balances the relationship between spirit and scientific enquiry. From the clearly occult to the evidently Anglican, Franklin then examines Anthony Trollope’s 1870 novel The Vicar of Bullhampton to discuss the boundaries that existed between the orthodox and heterodox in Victorian society. In the last chapter of this section, Franklin discusses the influence that Buddhism and comparative religion had on the theology of Matthew Arnold, a writer who regarded himself as a defender of Christianity.

The second part of Spirit Matters delves into an area that Franklin previously explored in his book The Lotus and the Lion, looking at the interpenetration of Christianity and Buddhism within the colonial context. His first chapter here discusses William Knighton’s 1854 novel Forest Life in Ceylon, a novel set in the island now known as Sri Lanka and which featured an extended dialogue between an Anglican and a Theravada Buddhist, each trying to convince the other of the validity of their own religious system. Franklin next turns his attention to Anna Leonowen’s 1870 work The English Governess at the Siamese Court, a somewhat fictionalised account of her time in the country.  

Part three examines what Franklin refers to as the “Turn to Occultism”. It kicks off with his discussion of how Victorian Britons coped with the growing development of Egyptology, specifically how they adapted to new discoveries about ancient Egyptian religion. As a case study, he looks at H. Rider Haggard’s 1889 novel Cleopatra, and the way in which it presents ancient Egyptian beliefs for a Christian audience. He follows this with a chapter on Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror Dracula, which brought the figure of the vampire into the British public imagination. Franklin argues that the novel’s presentation of the Transylvanian count as a “demi-immortal Oriental” resulted in interesting discussions about the nature of immortality and the soul. Franklin’s presentation of this as “occultism” is a somewhat unusual use of the term which, among scholars of esotericism at least, is usually reserved for those currents of esotericism which emerged in the nineteenth century, in part in response to the emergence of Enlightenment rationalism. In this sense, are Cleopatra and Dracula really part of a turn to occultism?

In his conclusion, Franklin turns his attention to something that is unequivocally regarded as occultism: Theosophy and to its influence on the twentieth-century New Age phenomenon. He argues that Theosophy and other forms of the “new occultism” succeeded in navigating the nineteenth-century clashes between ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ by dissolving the dialectic between the two and promoting the idea that there could be a “spiritual science” (186). 

Spirit Matters is a well-written and broad-ranging book, skipping as it does from colonial Ceylon to gothic horror. This expansive coverage presents us with a number of interesting case studies which may take readers out of their normal ranges of expertise; for example, scholars of esotericism might be introduced to scholarship on Buddhism which they might otherwise be unfamiliar with. This is, perhaps, the great advantage of this book, encouraging readers to see connections that they may not have previously considered. Despite its lack of engagement with the theoretical and taxonomic concerns of the study of esotericism, it would make a good volume for undergraduates and others who are new to the ‘alternative’ religious systems of Victorian Britain.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is a doctoral student in Early Medieval Religion at University College London.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Jeffrey Franklin is Professor of English and Associate Vice Chancellor at the University of Colorado Denver. He is the author of Serious Play, For the Lost Boys, and The Lotus and the Lion.

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