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Contesting Cultural Authority

Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life


Frank Miller Turner


Cambridge: University Press, 2008 (first published in 1993).

£25 (paperback), xiv+368 pp.

ISBN-10: 0521068789, ISBN-13: 978-0521068789


Reviewed by Philippe Vervaecke

Université Charles de Gaulle-Lille-III



This collection of essays by Yale historian Frank Turner is the paperback reprint of a book initially published in1993. A work of impressive scholarship, the book intends to rescue a range of Victorian thinkers, among whom John Ruskin, Charles Darwin, John Henry Newman, Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, from the “amber” [38] in which they came to be trapped.

The book is composed of three parts, entitled “Shifting boundaries”, “Science and the wider culture” and “Moderns and ancients”. In the first section, Turner examines the categories used by historians to study Victorian intellectual life in four essays entitled “The religious and the secular in Victorian Britain”, “Victorian cultural apostasy”, “The crisis of faith and the faith that was lost” and “The secularisation of the social vision of British natural theology”. In the second section, composed of four chapters, Turner delves into the various challenges mounted by Victorian scientists like Francis Galton and men of letters like Thomas Carlyle against clerical culture, with two essays dedicated to the rise of a professional ethos and professional institutions among Victorian scientists. The last section consists of four essays on debates among Victorian specialists of classical Rome and Greece over Virgil, Lucretius and materialism, Plato and idealism and the fall of the Roman republic.

In the two first essays, “The religious and the secular in Victorian Britain” and “Cultural apostasy and the foundations of Victorian intellectual life”, which might both be read as a general introduction to the book, Turner’s main claim is that up until the mid-twentieth century, students of Victorian intellectual history on both sides of the Atlantic had tended to approach Victorian intellectual figures in a “static” and “ahistorical” way [39] that insufficiently took heed of their sheer unconventionality and disregarded how provocative their ideas were at the time. As Turner puts, borrowing a phrase from W.L. Burn, the study of nineteenth-century intellectual life was afflicted with “selective Victorianism” [8]. Much of this is due, Turner contends, to a misguided emphasis on secularisation, which caused “scholars of both political and intellectual history” to “[neglect] the intense politicisation of British religion and the increasing religiosity in British politics from the late 1820s” [25]. Turner does not wish to contest that the Victorian times corresponded to a secularisation of English culture, but he wants to insist on how much this process was far from “inevitable, unproblematic, or systematically steady” [35]. What he is up against is the teleological perspective of earlier scholarship, its “residual Whiggishness” [43] and its exaggerated emphasis on secularism and progressivism, which failed to take on board the “intellectual disarray” [49] which characterised Victorian intellectual life, especially in the second half of the century.

The chapter on “cultural apostasy” convincingly analyses how such eminent Victorians, such “monuments of the age” [49], as Newman, Ruskin and Darwin need to be viewed in fact, in the 1830s and 1840s, as rebels in their own right, each contesting within his own field the tenets of early Victorian Anglican culture. While Ruskin insisted on the role of the artist as “forging his own tradition” and placed subjectivism at the centre of artistic endeavour, thereby challenging the hold of classicism in the arts and letters, Darwin notoriously sapped the foundations of natural religion, and Newman, in his controversial readings of the Thirty-Nine Articles, “shifted the arena of religious controversy from outside the Church of England to combat within the Anglican Church itself” [54].(1)  

The parallel Turner establishes between the three authors is convincing and does much to give weight to his views on the process of “cultural apostasy” with which he associates them. The following passage clearly illustrates how Turner elaborates upon the similarities between those three “apostates”:

Just as the Protestant gloss on the Articles had circumscribed English religious life and the gloss on natural theology had limited speculation about nature, the critical gloss set forth in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses and prescriptively exemplified in the landscapes of Claude and Poussin had established limits of expression for artists. [64]

Turner’s parallel goes a long way to illustrate how the prevailing “church-directed” [153] culture of Anglicanism (the diversity of which he fully recognises) had to wrestle within new paradigms and to combat such apostates, and, especially regarding Darwin’s influence, why the “early Victorian alliance of science and moderate Anglicanism” [55] was to be shattered once his works were published.

In Part II, Turner turns to the question of the conflict between science and religion, with a section focused on Thomas Carlyle and scientific naturalism, a second one, entitled “Rainfalls, plagues and the Prince of Wales”, delineating controversies between men of science and churchmen over public prayers, and two final chapters in which Turner discusses the development of professional institutions within the scientific community and the rise of “public science in Britain, 1880-1918”.

“Rainfalls, plagues and the Prince of Wales”, an essay on public prayers, stands out as probably the best piece in the volume. It deals with the controversies which appeared in the columns of reviews concerning the practice on the part of Anglican bishops and Scottish presbyteries of appointing special days for prayers, for example when cattle plagues or cholera broke out, when harvests were threatened by long periods of drought, or when the Prince of Wales seemed about to die after contracting typhoid fever in the winter of 1872. The latter episode sparked the so-called Prayer Gauge Debate, set off by an article by Henry Thompson, “The ‘Prayer for the Sick’ – hints towards a serious attempt to estimate its value”, published in1872 in the Contemporary Review, in which Thompson “challenged the Christians of the nation to conduct an experiment to determine the physical efficacy of prayer” [151]. During the controversy, one saw the medical profession and scientists like Francis Galton and John Tyndall alongside liberal clerics like Charles Kingsley, all pitted against Anglican bishops and Presbyterian clergymen who issued calls for special prayers, which, in their opponents’ view, only served to consolidate ignorance and clerical dominance. In the views of the proponents of science, what was more desirable was the recognition that the methods of practical science should be pursued. This is a clear case of a clash between the traditional religious élites and the new “scientific priesthood” which was more and more seeking public support and recognition in the second half of the century. As the Prince of Wales eventually recovered, public ceremonies were staged on 27 February 1872 to rejoice during a day of national thanksgiving. Symptomatically enough, no fewer that fifteen hundred members of the clergy were invited to attend the service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s, but only twelve invitations were sent to medical men. In a point that further highlights how far the secularisation process was not that obvious in the nineteenth century and how much the rise of scientific rationalism was at best tentative in the Victorian age, Turner remarks that no such calls for special prayers had been issued in the eighteenth century by the Anglican clergy.

The final section consists in four essays dealing with Victorian classical studies and the way they provided material to contemporary debates. Chapter 9, “British politics and the demise of the Roman republic: 1700-1939”, offers a brilliant analysis of the way shifts in the historiography of the rise of Caesarism among British specialists of classical Rome reflected contemporary debates over the evolution of British politics from the Glorious Revolution to the interwar years. A second chapter, on the reputation of Virgil among Victorian classicists, allows Turner to highlight how much those academics saw Hellenism as a more novel and valuable pursuit than the more familiar study of Latin literature and history. Although these two chapters are excellent in themselves, they are nonetheless not as directly related to the rest of the book as the other two chapters on Victorian classical studies.

Indeed, one feels that there is far more relevance to the whole book, in particular to its ongoing concern with the conflict between science and religion, in the two essays on Victorian scholarship’s engagement with Lucretius and materialism and on “the triumph of idealism in classical studies”.

In the final chapter on idealism in Victorian classical studies, Turner analyses George Grote’s works on Plato and the debates to which they gave rise among Victorian classicists. Grote, a mid-Victorian Radical, rationalist champion of Athenian democracy, placed rationalistic emphasis on “the civic skills of the sophists, the logic and science of Socrates, and the searching examinations of received ideas presented by Plato’s dialogues” [335]. Grote, a Benthamite in his youth, also denied that historical facts could be discovered within myths, a remark that could implicitly be applied to the narratives of the Bible. In so doing, Grote came to be seen, as Turner says, as “an Anglican nightmare of classical studies gone awry”. Unsurprisingly, his works were later criticised by Matthew Arnold and Benjamin Jowett, who were bent on reasserting the centrality of idealism within Hellenism and to challenge Grote’s positivistic and individualistic interpretations. As Turner shrewdly remarks, “just as Grote had sought to make Plato conform to Enlightenment rationalism, Jowett sought to make him conform to German idealism” [353].

This last chapter constitutes a perfect illustration of what Turner promised to embark on in the early stages of the book, namely to contextualise Victorian intellectual debates, to highlight their byways and sideways and to point out how much empiricism, utilitarianism, naturalism and rationalism remained contentious intellectual standpoints. The chapter ends with the assertion that by the end of the century idealism, “a major force of cultural resistance to rationalism” [361], was the dominant philosophy, not just among classicists, but more widely within British universities. This, Turner suggests, serves as a reminder that many areas of Victorian intellectual life are “unexamined and underappreciated” [361].

This collection of essays will surely be read with much interest by intellectual and cultural historians. Nearly twenty years after its first publication, it remains relevant to any student of the development of science in Victorian Britain and to the clash between the two types of clerisy, one religious and the other secular, which vied for cultural and social supremacy. It is a work of impressive scholarship, with fresh insights into well-known works and excellent passages on lesser figures of Victorian intellectual life, and the two chapters on “Public science in Britain” and on “The conflict between science and religion: a professional dimension” stand out as ideal complements to Harold Perkin’s Rise of Professional Society.  

  One nonetheless regrets that the release of the book in paperback format was not seized by the author as an opportunity to publish a new introduction or a postscript. Since the first publication of the book, much has taken place in Victorian intellectual history: it would have been useful if Turner had attempted to take stock of the evolution of the field since the mid-1990s. To take just one example, discussion of Stephan Collini’s work on Victorian “public moralists”,(2) published in 1993, thus too late for Turner to make use of it when he wrote Contesting cultural authority, would have been very welcome. It would have been also very helpful to have Turner’s views on the numerous studies which have since then partly filled the gaps that he identified at the time within Victorian studies (among others, on British idealism, the interplay between religion and politics, and the intellectual and cultural life of non-conformity) and which as a prolific reviewer he has probably not failed to become familiar with in the meantime.


  (1) Turner’s more recent work on Newman, John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion (Yale University Press, 2002) has failed to convince some reviewers, who contend that Turner wrongly plays down the intellectual depth of Newman’s involvement in the Oxford Movement. See Christopher Zealley, "A Review Article: John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion". Anglican & Episcopal History 73-2 (June 2004) : 208-218. See also Simon Skinner, "History versus Hagiography: The Reception of Turner's Newman". Journal of Ecclesiastical History 61-4 (2010) : 764-781.

  (2) Stephan Collini, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930, Oxford: University Press, 1993.





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