English literature has been deeply touched by religion, says David Twiston Davies
A History of English Literature by Michael Alexander, Macmillan, £12.99
It is strange to think that the more selfproclaimed dragon-slayers insist that we have entered a post-literary, postChristian world, the more contradictory evidence continues to loom. Michael Alexander begins by assuming that his readers will like and be curious about literature, a truth that can easily verified by observing the number of books being read on trains. He then shows how Christianity was not only a vital factor in the evolution of English from Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Norman French; it remains a vital, if no longer all-important, element today.
Professor Alexander is no class warrior, fervent nationalist or member of a small army dedicated to an abstract social theory. Nevertheless, as Berry Professor of English Literature at St Andrews, he recognises the changes unloosed by the introduction of devolution as well as the importance of the English language worldwide. Inevitably, he concentrates on the literary tradition nurtured by England, but he notes that the best English poetry of the late 15th century was produced by the Scots priests William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas. and that the best drama from the 18th century onwards was produced by Irishmen — Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw and Beckett.
He points out the origins of drama in the mystery plays, which were first performed in church, ponders the implicit hope in the sub-plot of King Lear and considers the effects of Protestant theology on the black themes of Jacobean tragedy.
After more than 150 years of sporadically violent religious change, 18th-century Englishmen were understandably reticent about their beliefs. But religion was still a key element in the sparkling verse of the Catholic Alexander Pope, who sheltered behind deist inclinations, as well as the the inspiration for the Wesleys' hymns. Even Horace Walpole, who had a gentlemanly indifference to religion, was uncomfortable when confronted by the . outright godlessness of Enlightenment France.
After noting that Jane Austen was the first woman since the medieval mystic writer Julian of Norwich to tower over her contemporaries, Professor Alexander shows how Christianity remained a constant concern of the Victorian Age. It suffused the work of Cardinal Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins, while loss of faith haunted the verse of Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough. No major novelists openly proclaimed their non-belief until Thomas Hardy, who gave up fiction for verse after attacking the double standards of Church, law and God.
The loss of Christian general knowledge makes James Joyce and T S Eliot . no easier for most ordinary readers to understand, yet the work of two of the 20th century's most popular novelists, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, could not be imagined without their Catholicism. For all the speed of technological change today, we are still concerned primarily with how we live life, evade and then cope with the approach of death and the. hereafter.
This book deserves a much wider readership than the students who doubtless will listlessly turn his pages. Some will find the order of Professor Alexander's narrative slightly unusual, but he outlines his story with deftness, mature wisdom and a dry sense of humour. Best of all, he has an eye for apposite quotation, such as Swift's Verses on the Death of Dr Swift in which the poet imagines how his smart London friends at cards
Receive the news in doleful dumps The Dean is dead (and what is trumps?) ...
Six deans they say must bear his pall.
(I wish I knew what king to call.)