Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age

Anderson, Kathryn Murphy

Donald E. Hall, ed. Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age. Cambridge UP, 1994. $54.95 hc. xii+244 pp.

The “muscular Christian” movement, as Donald Hall writes in his introduction, “[associated] physical strength, religious certainty, and the ability to shape and control the world around oneself… [For] muscular Christians, the male body appears as a metaphor for social, national, and religious bodies, while at the same time it attempts to enforce a particular construction of those bodies” (7-8). The movement was frequently associated with Charles Kingsley, although Kingsley preferred the term “manliness” to “muscularity” (9). The essays here primarily consider Kingsley but also cover work by his daughter as well as by Thomas Hughes, George MacDonald, and others.

Muscular Christianity acknowledges its debt to Norman Vance’s The Sinews of the Spirit. The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought (Cambridge UP, 1985) and J. A. Mangan and James Walvin,s Manliness and Morality: Middle-class Masculinity in Britain and America 1800-1940 (Manchester UP, 1987), but endeavors to apply more recent trends and techniques of cultural studies, using both close textual reading and historical scholarship (10) to look at the wider influence of muscular Christian ideas and to consider muscular Christianity’s “use of the body as a site for the contestation and resolution of socio-political conflicts” (5).

This is a very stimulating collection, particularly for its elucidation of the pervasive influences of the muscular Christian movement and for the ability it gives readers to trace resonances from this movement to the present day. David Rosen’s essay briefly considers Robert Bly as a twentieth century descendent. The Promise Keepers, a recently-founded American organization for Christian men that focuses on restoring men’s “traditional role” as head of the household came into national attention after these essays were compiled, but its debt to the muscular Christian movement is clear.

Essays by Donald Hall and David Rosen provide excellent and resonant investigations of the meaning and origins of “Christian manliness.” Rosen traces the notion of heroic virtue from Rousseau through Carlyle. His essay and Hall’s chronicle ways in which upper class Victorian men’s anxieties about the new roles of women and members of lower classes caused them to articulate new forms of manliness that wouldn’t be coopted by feminist and Chartist activists. Rosen and Laura Fasick address, from somewhat different perspectives, Kingsley’s activism in the English women’s movement and his concern with fighting for women’s rights while articulating the essential traits that designated the sexes’ responsibilities towards each other to stabilizing society. Rosen explores Kingsley’s determination to embrace his (hetero)sexuality, the “sacredness of the animal aspect of humanity” (25). Rosen (as does Hall) also chronicles ways in which “violence, like sex, becomes a sanctified force of male behavior, a definitive quality of ‘real’ men” (26).

Several essays consider how the muscular Christian movement manifested its proponents’ anxieties about class, nationalism, colonialism, and race. Hall uses Pierre Bourdieu and Raymond Williams to explore how Christian Socialism appropriated metaphors of an English national body to teach members of the lower classes how to deserve the fulfillment of their political demands: “the central agenda of the Christian Socialist movement, one that . . . remains a telling component of muscular Christianity-[is that of] calming and educating the lower classes with the promise of rendering them ‘fit’ for freedom” (47). Dennis W. Allen’s reading of Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays considers tensions between “the latent incompatibility of the values of physical prowess and spiritual aspiration that combine to form muscular Christianity and . . . between the ideal of democratic equality that underlies Hughes’s Christian Socialism and his implicit assumption of a middle-class perspective in the novel” (114).

Writing on Christian muscularity’s influence on Victorian thinking about empire and nationalism, C. J. W.-L. Wee and David Faulkner focus on tensions and inconsistencies over colonialism and race, Wee on Kingsley’s novels Alton Locke and Westward Ho! and Faulkner on Charles Dickens’s unfinished Mystery, of Edwin Drood. Wee examines Kingsley’s failed attempt to articulate a consistent history of English culture in which both primitive tribal English origins and modernity are privileged. Wee argues that, in Westward Ho! “Kingsley proceeds to relocate the source of primitive vigor within pre-industrial Elizabethan England, during which a dynamic Anglo-Saxon spirit coalesced with a nationalistic Protestantism to form a triumphant national identity” (68). Faulkner suggests that Dickens foregrounds current issues in imperialist policy by using thematic doubling to show “irreconcilable tensions” between domestic and foreign identities in the novel (181).

Several essayists point out ways in which Kingsley made use of Darwin’s theories about human origins, and about man’s consequent place in the spiritual and material worlds. In an illuminating essay, Laura Fasick considers how Darwinism and other trends in scientific thinking influenced Kingsley’s articulation of gender, particularly regarding his growing conviction about the “complimentarity” of men and women’s contrasting and divinely instituted roles. John Pennington reads George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie as chronicles of Curdie’s Darwinian evolution into a “spiritually strong” (135) muscular Christian; these novels articulate MacDonald’s conviction that spiritual strength is tested and proven through a process parallel to Darwin’s notion of material evolution.

Essays in Muscular Christianity consider other manifestations or rereadings of this mindset. In the only essay that explores the presence of Christian muscularity in America, Susan L. Roberson argues that Kingsley would have found several points of contact with the younger Emerson’s wrestlings with his destiny, his uncertain physical strength, and the institutional church. She also contrasts Emerson’s more Calvinistic drive to deny his physical urges with Kingsley’s emphasis on physical desire as a Godgiven gift. Patricia Srebrnik addresses Kingsley’s daughter’s reinscription of muscular Christianity in her novels (written under the name “Lucas Malet”). Srebrnik sees in her work articulations of differences with her father over her unconventional life, her conversion to Roman Catholicism, and her relationship with a younger female relative.

It is surprising that there is not more here on the homoerotic in muscular Christianity, although the muscular Christian movement was characterized by a valorization of ostensibly heterosexual desire. Rosen’s essay traces the evolution of Kingsley’s privileging of heterosexual marriage over celibacy. James Eli Adams’s essay on intersections between Walter Pater’s homoerotic aestheticism and Kingsley’s heterosexist muscular Christian discourse importantly articulates points of contact between these seemingly divergent movements.

In his introduction, Donald Hall writes of his conviction that the “convergences” of the muscular Christian movement remain today and of his hope that this volume will address “readers from a wide range of disciplines” (12). Muscular Christian ideas are relevant to scholars concerned with gender studies, cultural studies, and the interactions between religion and other cultural phenomena in more recent literary periods in both England and America.

Non-specialists in Victorian literature would be interested in learning more about the audiences and publication histories of these works and about the muscular Christian movement’s relationship to more familiar Victorian and later 19th century phenomena such as Pre-Raphaelitism. There are allusions for which non-Victorians will need contextualization, perhaps the most important being the recent discovery “about the scandal that nearly destroyed Pater’s career at Oxford in the 1870s” which is not described in sufficient detail in Adams’s essay for a non-Victorian to understand its significance (222).

Although as multivalent as the movement they address, these essays cohere very well, frequently cross-referencing each other’s arguments to clarify points of contact and difference both between the critical approaches represented here and between the muscular Christians themselves, rendering the collection here much greater than the sum of its parts.


Copyright West Chester University Oct 1997

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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