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4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars

on 18 July 2017
Good read.
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on 19 January 2012
A book I regretted putting down every night before I went to sleep, this wonderfully informative, entertaining, erudite and unabashedly opinionated gallop through the Victorian crisis of belief reads like a conversation with a wit, effortless raconteur and compassionate friend. Mr Wilson's broad range and his fine analysis (both mischievous and empathetic) make this book an essential read in the days of Dawkins and the late Hitchins, neither of whom can hold a candle to WIlson's literary insight or understanding of the roots of faith. I am not a religious person and have lacked patience reading Newman and the like in the past: this book makes allows me a fresh critical perspective into what those of the more elitist, rather disdainful brand of faith and those of elitist, rather disdainful scientific bent have in common, and what their dogmas forget or sidestep in terms of human experience. Mr Wilson FTW - yo da man.
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on 30 April 2013
A.N. Wilson started training as a priest but realised before his time at St Stephen's House was done, that Anglican priesthood was not for him. A graduate in English of New College Oxford (where he taught for a while despite only getting a 2nd), he speaks with a very posh accent but writes easily consumable prose for the non-specialist reader nonetheless. The style is occasionally clunky and cliched but a passionate interest in his subject is beyond doubt.

Could this be the forerunner of more recent and popular books on related themes such as The God Delusion of Richard Dawkins, or God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens? Yes, but this book is not as hostile to religion as the famous atheists. Wilson retains a whimsical love of Christianity despite realising that none of its central dogmas can possibly be true. So, from the common Anglican perspective of solemn disbelief in orthodox dogma, Wilson enjoys exploring how thinkers, and especially 19th C literary ones, started to question Christianity.

Wilson is especially fond of Hardy and Tennyson but pours scorn on the third rate poetasting of Matthew Arnold. This is perhaps a good thing as Arnold's 'Dover Beach', somehow still a favourite in anthologies, has probably been taken too seriously in recent times. For instance, while telling us that love in a determined and material universe is without meaning and is clearly an illusion, Arnold also apostrophises it:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.

And, as Wilson reminds us albeit in a somewhat heavy-handed manner, Arnold's 'tide of faith' is an unhappy trope. If, as Arnold seems to be saying, science has forced faith into an irreversible retreat, tides turn.

But, unmindful of Wilson's reminders in 1999 that this poem is not really worth taking too seriously, Ian McEwan introduces it in the harrowing climactic scene of his 2005 novel about a neurosurgeon, A scene of working class violence morphs into a middle class poetry reading in a neurosurgeon's front room. Saturday, in which a chap with a psychotic condition shows up at the surgeon's London home and is prevented from committing atrocities to the surgeon's daughter by - by what? - by a poetry reading. Surely not that? Yes. And, even more astonishing, the poem which calms the savage mind of the would-be maniac is none other than Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach'. The almost assailant is soothed by the poem. He finds it 'beautiful'. What's going on?

Now Wilson and McEwan might seem superficially similar in their attitudes towards religion. Like Hitchens and Dawkins, both writers may be associated (for a certain time at least in Wilson's more wavering case) with the flourishing genre of atheism literature around the time of the 1999 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York by religious fundamentalists. However, Wilson's book predates that terrible event and also McEwan's novel. And while McEwan implies that 'Dover Beach is a poem not only of beauty but of transcendent truth and extraordinary insight, Wilson suggests that it's a bit silly. And while Wilson's close-reading of poetry is not always of the subtlest or profound, it should be praised for suggesting - especially in its last chapters- that the 'tide of faith' may, in ways Arnold does not perhaps intend, operate in a cycle and not in a line. And it is for this reason that God's Funeral presents more complex and more convincing picture than the similarly popularist but monolithically anti-religious writings of Dawkins and Hitchens.
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AN, whom I am liable to confuse with the equally prolific Peter Ackroyd, writes with unaffected relish; a single page gives us prolixity, eremitical, brusqueries. Despite the catchpenny title (actually a Hardy poem title) this is satisfyingly meaty and mulled over, neither dry nor populist, and clearly the fruit of loving research. (Why only four notices, I wonder?) 'One generation's dangerous liberal seems old-fashioned by the standards of the next, until belief has trickled away altogether and it is time for a hard-line religious revival.' The successive failures of the past catastrophic century can easily foster a cosy, woozy atavism (p169 top) - or what goes around comes around, comme dirait ma grande-mère - but there's fun to be had along the way. Chapter 7, ostensibly on George Eliot, horse-faced sybil of unbelief (touchingly, the Eliot-Lewes* ménage makes AN's spirits sink) kicks off with Millais and in the space of a few pages moves from Albert Schweitzer via Tolstoy (pp140-41, most illuminating**) to Feuerbach, 'stepping-stone from Hegel to Marx', amongst obscurer characters like Edward Lombe and Sir John Seeley

The figure of Kant looms surprisingly large. Surprising to me, anyway - but our ignorance in this country about 'the greatest metaphysician of modern times' is matched only, it seems, 'even or especially in intellectual circles up to and including our own day' by our ignorance of science. One would like to feel the situation has improved somewhat - but then we intellectuals are such busy, self-important and - be it said - easily distracted people! The stricture would not have applied to 'scrambling provincial' and self-educated polymath Herbert Spencer. AN's mocking yet sympathetic treatment of this ultimately rather sad figure (someone I'd always rather looked up to) is exemplary. His teeming oeuvre AN likens to 'an overcrowded canvas by Frith'. Another erstwhile hero of mine, that paragon of seriousness Matthew 'sweetness and light' Arnold, is likewise exposed as a foolish, blinkered snob, though to quibble about the sea of faith (because seas have tides) is simply demeaning - a sea may be any large body of water - and when AN says the poet 'appears not to have noticed this rather simple bidiurnal fact' it is he who emerges as the egg-bedaubed prat. The sea of faith has not 'gone out' (AN's term) but is receding (with poetic license Arnold says withdrawing); the lake is shrunken, drying up as we watch and, that shocking word 'roar' suggests, the process is audible to those with ears to hear. Were Arnold's antennae so wrong?

Nearly all the intellectuals who strenuously bolstered unbelief are now unreadable, AN assures us (like sexologists, one imagines, and for similar reasons, though not half as much as theologians of almost ANY period; the point is that rationalists, from Russell and Haldane on, or even before, those who take a godless universe as a given, are very far from unreadable) but he claims we still read Tennyson's In Memoriam. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper - though, striving 'faintly' for that elusive 'larger hope', Alf did stain the purple drapes with 'nature red in tooth and claw', one of unbelief's clinchers. (Did he who made the lamb make thee? Who else?) Christians would do well, too, to ponder AN's quiet words on page 132 about the historical Jesus

As AN points out, the study of Classics showed Victorians that 'not every generation has meant quite the same by God' (to put it mildly) and that even 'the sterner dictates of monotheism were.. quite a late development' - though it's surprising he doesn't both make more of the Greek Anthology and cite FitzGerald's Rubaiyat as the 19th century's key secular texts. The Swinburne chapter from which that quotation comes is a bit of a blind alley - Swinburne was even less of a thinker than Verlaine, who was no thinker, and as a debauchee a frank disappointment - though AN comes up with revealing and sympathetic paragraphs on Swinburne's family history, on William Johnson Cory and on Jowett. 'A confusion of the heart and head may lead sensitive minds into a desertion of the principles of Christian life.. because they are in doubt about facts which are really external to them.' Thus was AN enabled to find his way back to the fold ten years later

Yes, folks, it's AN's own tussles with God that lend this work its vigour. There are tantalising hints throughout of the change of heart that will eventually overtake him (following a surfeit of strenuously bolstered unbelief?); the book's the better for them. If AN has written another as good I'd like to know. The four-page demolition of Shaw (p301-4) is, simply, magisterial. The only weakness is that unaccountable Swinburne crush. Swinburne of all people - one just wouldn't have had AN down as the greenery-yallery type. The index is exemplary (see, for instance, the entry on Hume)

* A footnote on Lewes (Mr George Eliot). Bel Mooney reviewed Haight's life of Lewes for The Spectator when AN was literary editor there. Summing up her subject, Mooney observed: "All the jibes at Lewes -- that he was pushy, conceited, vulgar, over-energetic, and with one eye for the main chance -- make him a welcome and refreshing relief from such dour Victorian valetudinarians as Carlyle and Herbert Spencer. Lively, a polymath, Lewes reads like an early incarnation of Clive James." For some reason AN had it in for Clive James, and in his hands the passage became "Pushy, conceited, vulgar, over-energetic, and with one eye for the main chance: Lewes seems like a Victorian Clive James." He lost his 'dream job' in consequence but manages to recycle the slur here, again by skilful editing. What a rogue!

** AN has himself written a life. I especially liked Tolstoy's articulation of the 'two Gods' or forms of belief
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on 23 June 2012
You are an intelligent, well-educated and sensitive person. The progress of science and scholarship have made your continued belief in the doctrines you were brought up in impossible. Yet it is not so easy to renounce them. For a start many of those closest to you, still hold onto such beliefs, and would be hurt if you were to be honest. Another part of you is worried for the wider consequences on society were disbelief to become widespread. And finally you think there may have been moments in your life in which you were in contact with something beyond normal reality.

This more or less is the theme from which A. N. Wilson weaves a fabric from many individual Victorian intellectual lives. It is a theme, or some variant thereof, with which many of us in the 21st century can readily identify with. Indeed the surprising thing is how little things have moved on.

The material from which this fabric is woven is diverse, colourful and enlightening. I most readily identify with those such as William Kingdon Clifford and 'his sense that it [Christianity] was not merely mistaken but wicked, evil,....'. But the real joy in the book is the variety - such as the Catholic Modernists, Thomas Hardy or Thomas Carlyle. I was particularly struck by the tragedy of Herbert Spencer who epitomized an optimistic Victorian style of atheism, yet whose life and philosophy at the end was shown to be vacuous. I was personally struck by how Karl Marx was carousing in the Manchester on the profits off the backs of its slum dwellers - a generation or two before my ancestors were dying off from pthysis in those same slums.

This is a broad and rich book - one I shall certainly be rereading once I am a little better read than I am now.
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on 15 April 2000
is prefaced by Hardy's poem God's Funeral, printed in full at the start of the book.
This device, and the further quoting of it many times in the text, is a successful focus for a well-guided intellectual tour.
The bookish reader is driven to return to Hardy and Spencer, and also to make new 'friends' (in the author's cheerful conceit) of both Wilson himself and unknowns like George Tyrrell of the 'Modernist Catholic' persuasion.
The non-bookish reader will not, I should think, get past the first chapter, or indeed past the cover and the well-chosen photographs; this is a dense book, and enjoyable to read, but it is for the thoughful and leisured reader who is prepared to commit time and attention.
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on 13 September 1999
This beautifully written book traces the lives of those who lost or rejected the Christian faith in the nineteenth century. A.N. Wilson's chracteristic wit ensures that there are as mnay funny moments as there are serious - e.g Herbert Spencer, who had to use ear-plugs at dinner parties in case anyone said anything interesting. This book brings many half-forgotten thinkers back into view, such as Beatrice Webb, William James, and Swinburne. Despite the apparent pessimism of the title, Wilson is sympathetic to the experience of religious faith, and perceptive on the disappointments and difficulties of its loss. A fascinating read.
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on 27 March 2016
As much a history of Victorian england as on atheits and agnostics of that period. And VERY funny and droll as A N Wilson always is
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on 29 January 2016
Brilliant service! 10/10
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on 23 May 2015
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