Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
Victorians critics have deemed the nineteenth century in England “a crisis of faith.” In the face of dissatisfaction with the Church of England, people rejected organized religion and turned to alternative spirituality like Natural Supernaturalism and Corporeal Spiritualism. The motivation for this paper began with the questions: why were people leaving the church and what were they finding in these other spiritual practices? I argue that the question of belief, for Victorians, became a question of proof. Darwin’s 1859 publication On the Origin of Species presented a theory about the world through a scientific argument containing a hypothesis, evidence, and conclusion. The Church of England’s lack of empirical evidence paled in comparison to Darwin’s theory. Thus, alternative religions like Natural Supernaturalism and Corporeal Spiritualism used the natural world and the body to animate a spirit realm for visible proof of the divine.
Literature at the time added to the growing popularity of alternative religions. Olive Schreiner and Emily Brontë in their novels, The Story of an African Farm and Wuthering Heights, both highlight Natural Supernaturalism and Corporeal Spiritualism. Schreiner and Bronte’s main characters Waldo and Catherine Linton struggle with their faith and eventually accept values of spiritualism over traditional Christianity. Unconventional spirituality leads Waldo and Catherine, as well as secondary characters, to an intimate relationship with the divine. Whether speaking to the mountains or possessed by a ghost, characters in both novels are close to the sacred on an individual level. By incorporating narratives of both Natural Supernaturalism and Corporeal Spiritualism, Schreiner and Brontë reflect the ideals, curiosity, and ingenuity of the Victorian cultural imaginary.
O'Byrne, Holly, "Origin of Doubts: The Victorian Quest for Proof and Radical Manifestations of Spirit" (2020). English Honors Theses. 43.