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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars

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.
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on 25 November 2016
Philip Hoare's book about the late Victorian rise in spiritualism and religious cults focuses on the sad story of the Girlingites. It's a wonderful, beautifully researched read that gives belated life to Mary Ann Girling and her almost forgotten followers, while placing them in the wider context of figures like Ruskin who ended up travelling along parallel pockmarked roads.
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on 2 May 2016
A very interesting and beautifully written book and very interesting. If you are interested in Victorian studies, this is a must, but it brings all sorts of ideas to life, it is really about every age and everyone who dreams of something outside reality. Fab.
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on 11 March 2005
The synopsis is fascinating, romantic and magnetic. The story of Mary Ann Girling and her bizarre sect begs to be captured in a well-crafted history. The author steps forward - in the shape of Philip Hoare - and spends five years researching these Victorian goings-on in dusty libraries and local collections. He sets to work on his PC and writes the book that is needed. But what a bizarre result! The text is padded-out with multitudinous cul-de-sacs - veritable brain-dumps of boring tripe - that make this book twice as long as it should have been. His self-indulgent style almost forgets the reader is present and we are subjected to a whos-who of Victorian names and connections that befuddles the brain and made me give up, dis-spirited, at Part III. But in the absence of any other Girlingite history, the book is grudgingly recommended - be prepared for a very long haul!
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on 18 November 2006
This extraordinary, evanescent account of utopian sects during the nineteeth-century is a tour de force. It is highly evocative of the work of W.G. Sebald - who has praised Hoare's work - and achieves something beyond history, travelogue, or memory. The story of Mary Ann Girling and the New Forest Shakers is almost unbelievable, but Hoare's impeccable research anchors his narrative in text which veers between fact and incredible fiction.

Highly recommended
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on 13 April 2007
I doubt if I'll read anything better this year. The first thing to say is how beautifully Philip Hoare writes; what a pleasure to read such clear and lovely English. But besides this, what really makes this book so special is the seamless way that the author weaves together his several narratives and I was very moved by his linking of a personal history to this extraordinary period. Strongly recommended.
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