THE VICTORIAN AGE
G.K Chesterton devoted the first part of his book, The Victorian Age in Literature, to examining what he termed “The Victorian Compromise”. He was alluding to the spirit of pragmatism which was one of the chief characteristics of nineteenth century England. Yet the essence of the Victorian Conundrum, of which Chesterton was a perspicacious observer, had as much to do with ineradicable Contradiction as with pragmatic Compromise. The age of Victoria (1837-1901) saw the rise of Empire and also the rise of anti-imperial nationalism; it saw the apparent triumph of industrialism and yet also the rise of an entrenched anti-industrialism; it saw the triumph of capitalism and the birth of Marxism; it was the age of Darwinian science but also the age of Dickensian romance; it was the age of an emboldened atheism and yet the age of resurrected religion; it was the age of disillusioned agnosticism but also the age of returning Catholicism. It was all these things, a cacophonous clash of contradictions masquerading as compromise.
For most people perhaps, the Victorian Age was the age of Empire. It was the age of ascendant British Imperialism, culminating in the Boer War at the end of the Century in which the might of Empire, serving the powerful mining interests in South Africa, sought to crush the resistance of Afrikaans farmers. It was in 1900 at a meeting opposing the Boar-War that Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton first met, founding their friendship on a belief that John Bull was a bully. Yet he was a bully who had already had his day because, as the sun set on the Victorian Age, it was also setting on the British Empire.
There was, however, another Empire which made its mystical return to England during the Victorian Age. The Catholic Church, the mystical heir of the Roman Empire, rose over the Victorian horizon three hundred years after it had seemingly set forever over the distant horizon of Elizabethan England.
The Resurrection of Rome began with the Insurrection of Romanticism, the latter of which was a reaction against the supercilious presumption of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. As this Romantic reaction flowered into various forms of neo-mediaevalism, the Catholic Cultural Revival was born. Amongst the early converts was Augustus Pugin, who was received into the Church in 1833, and, as a leading light in the Gothic Revival, was responsible for the design of many new Catholic churches, most notably the new Catholic cathedral in Birmingham. His book, True Principles of Christian Architecture, published in 1841, did much to revive Gothic architecture in England.
Four years later, in 1845, John Henry Newman was received into the Church, arguably the most important convert of the whole Victorian period. He is widely considered to be one of the finest prose stylists of the nineteenth century and his many exceptional literary works include his quasi-autobiographical novel, Loss and Gain, published in 1848, which charts a young man’s path to Rome, and his masterful Apologia pro Vita Sua, published in 1865, in which he makes a stylistically beautiful and yet intellectually rigorous defence of the Catholic faith. Regarding the latter of these two works, Hilaire Belloc wrote that its importance “is due to the fact that it puts conclusively, convincingly, and down to the very roots of the matter, the method by which a high intelligence … accepted the Faith”. With the conversion of Newman the Catholic Church found itself back at the centre of English intellectual life for the first time in two hundred years.
A year after the publication of the Apologia Newman received a young man by the name of Gerard Manley Hopkins into the Church who was destined not only to become a Jesuit priest but to become arguably the greatest and most influential poet of the Victorian Age. Hopkins, however, was only the most illustrious of a long line of literary lights who converted to Catholicism during the Victorian Age. Others included Coventry Patmore, who would exert a considerable influence on the young C.S. Lewis, and many of the major poets of the fin de siècle including Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and John Gray. Aubrey Beardsley, the artist of the fin de siècle who in his short life became so important and such an influence on his contemporaries that Max Beerbohm dubbed the 1890s “the Beardsley Period”, was also received into the Church shortly before his death in 1898. Apart from Beardsley the most important figure of the fin de siècle was the allegedly incorrigible Oscar Wilde who finally consummated his lifelong love affair with Catholicism with his reception into the Church on his deathbed in 1900.
On 22 January 1901 Queen Victoria died. On the day of her funeral, Chesterton reflected on the nature of his patriotism: “It is sometimes easy to give one’s country blood and easier to give her money. Sometimes the hardest thing of all is to give her truth.” In the new century, Chesterton would give her truth and, in so doing, he would be following in the footsteps of Pugin, Newman, Hopkins and the host of others who had returned to the faith of their fathers and sought to persuade their fellow countrymen to do the same. For all its other claims to fame, the Victorian Age deserves to be remembered, first and foremost, as the age which gave birth to the Catholic Revival.