Strange Gods : Love and Idolatry in the Victorian Novel book cover
1st Edition

Strange Gods
Love and Idolatry in the Victorian Novel

ISBN 9780367525095
Published November 30, 2021 by Routledge
210 Pages 4 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

Despite frequent declarations of the sanctity of love and marriage, British Protestant culture nurtured the fear that human affection might easily slip into idolatry. Throughout the nineteenth-century, theological essays, sermons, hymns, and didactic fiction and poetry urged the faithful to maintain a constant watch over their hearts, lest they become engrossed by human love, guilty of worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. Strange Gods: Love and Idolatry in the Victorian Novel traces the concerns produced in Protestant culture by this broad interpretation of idolatry. In chapters focusing on Charles Kingsley and Charlotte Brontë, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Thomas Hardy, this volume shows that even supposedly secular novels obsessively reenact an ideological clash between Protestant faith and human love. Anxiety about adoring humans more than God frequently overshadows and sometimes derails the progress of romance in Victorian novels. By probing this anxiety and its narrative effects, Strange Gods uncovers how a central Protestant belief exerts its influence over stories about love and marriage.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Introduction: "Idolatry of the Heart"

Chapter 2 Breaking the Idol of the Marriage Plot in Yeast and Villette

Chapter 3 Idolatrous Reading in The Doctor’s Wife

Chapter 4 Following the Sun God in Middlemarch

Chapter 5 Worshipping Beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Chapter 6 New Goddesses: Carving Images in The Well-Beloved

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Timothy L. Carens is Professor of English at the College of Charleston where he teaches classes on nineteenth-century literature and culture. He is author of Outlandish English Subjects in the Victorian Domestic Novel and his essays have appeared in Dickens Studies Annual, Studies in English Literature, College English, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Nineteenth-Century Literature.


"In this tour de force examination of the cultural conflict between concepts of faith and love in Victorian England, Timothy L. Carens tackles the shifting meanings of idolatry in the rapidly secularizing culture of the nineteenth century. Protestant discourse, argues Carens, directs an ideal of love toward God alone; the emergence of idolatry in the context of worldly love—including domestic love—is tantamount to heresy. Emergent secular ideals such as companionate marriage and maternal love pose a challenge to a form of love reserved for God alone, and Victorian novels navigate this conflict. Strange Gods represents a significant intervention within Victorian studies, especially in its situation of secular and religious ideas both in opposition and in conversation, and in its check to modern readers’ insensitivity to evolving discourses of religion in Victorian cultural discourses."

-- Carolyn Dever, Dartmouth College


"Impressively researched and closely argued, Strange Gods: Love and Idolatry in the Victorian Novel, shows how Victorians’ romantic love was troubled by their fear of committing idolatry. Timothy L. Carens addresses novels by Brontë, Kingsley, Braddon, Eliot, Hardy, and Wilde, demonstrating how these powerfully influential accounts of passion intersect with theological dread. One could not ask for a more sympathetic, sensitive, or careful guide through the thickets of Victorian Protestant discourse, as Carens shows how the looming presence of a jealous deity casts human wedlock into the shadows in so many of the novels we thought we knew."

-- Talia Schaffer, Graduate Center, CUNY


"Timothy Carens’s Strange Gods fashions a unique approach to the subject of Christianity and Victorian literature, simply because it tries to look at love – both physical and artistic love – through the forgotten nineteenth-century Protestant notion of idolatry. It deploys unfamiliar Evangelical fiction and nonfiction to open up canonical and barely-canonical novels. The sheer variety of texts that the author uses – reviews, sermons, tracts, devotional verse, and children’s literature among them – provides a thick convincing setting for his readings, and makes them novel and satisfying."

--James Najarian, Boston College, Editor of Religion and the Arts