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A Past Less Known
on 9 February 2014
England’s Eden takes as a base point the story of a specific English religious movement – the 1871 appearance of a Sussex farm-labourer’s daughter claiming to be the new Messiah – and uses it as both structure and background for a tour of belief, credulity and eccentricity in the Victorian age. As Hoare adeptly shows, with a Queen secluded in mourning for her dead husband, strange new technologies invading everyday life and high death rates among children and the young, the rise of spiritualism and religious experiment in mainstream British culture becomes a comprehensible attempt to understand and impose order on the world. As aristocratic households became obsessed by seances, spirit-writing and spirit-photography, the working class embraced the ecstatic dances of the Shakers, Girlingites, Jumpers and other ‘Christian’ cults.
Hoare is excellent on the links between apparently disparate groups of people, the shaky relationships between classes, the Victorian fascination with the production of texts and artifacts and the contagious nature of religious and spiritual sects. The somewhat chaotic ordering of the text mirrors the increasing and astonishing complications of the age although the story does have occasional lurches into confusion over names and communities.
Much of the book focuses on the links between England and America; the self-perceptions of Shaker emigrants as new Pilgrims, the possibilities the blank canvas of America offered for religious expression and freedom and the experiments in communal modes of living and governing that developed in the ‘New Eden’.
England’s Eden is an easy layman’s read, flitting persuasively from topic to topic. In the anti-heroine Mary Ann Girling – immortal, evangelist, stigmatic, female Messiah – Hoare has found a compelling figure to shape his story. Indeed one of the greatest strengths of the book is the depth of its characters, from Mary Ann to Ruskin to Edward Fitzgerald: "translator of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, lived as an eccentric recluse, sailing his yacht in a white feather boa…" Overall a brilliant and unusual study of Victorian Britain and her queasy complicated relationship with the United States.
The cover on the edition I have is much nicer than this one, by the way. Just looking at the picture of this one is making me mildly stressed.