Book Review:

Spirit Matters, by J. Jeffrey Franklin

Reviewed by Jongkeyong Kim

Texas Christian University

Review of J. Jeffrey Franklin’s Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain, Cornell University Press, 2018. Hardcover. 288 pp. ISBN: 1501715445.

Jeffrey J. Franklin’s book Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain invites the reader to his historical survey of various ways that New Age religious alternatives sprang from the oscillation between orthodox Christianity and scientific materialism during the Victorian period. Spirit Matters brings two inquiries to the fore: was traditional religious belief throughout the nineteenth century antithetical to scientific materialism? And how did the wide spectrum of religious variations of orthodox Christianity succeed in advocating Spirit in spite of the radical challenges of materialism and contribute to Spirit being “reborn in the subsequent century as widespread sociocultural phenomena called ‘New Age’” (xvii)? While seeking out answers to these questions, Franklin examines the cultural contexts of the emergence of diverse alternative religions, ranging “from heterodox Christian beliefs to European esotericisms to new ‘scientific’ spiritual movements to Buddhist doctrines adapted to Western beliefs, among many others” (xii), in conjunction with his close reading of literary works of the same period. The cultural historicism that Spirit Matters draws upon is cogently contextualized in the diverse literature, including religious study or theology, the Gothic-romance novel, and travel writing, by various British authors—Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Anthony Trollope, Matthew Arnold, Anna Leonowens, William Knighton, H. Rider Haggard, and Bram Stoker. These writers’ works, grouped under four parts of Spirit Matters, unfold the ways orthodox Christianity gave rise to various alternative religions in a response to the materialization of Spirit starting in the 1840s.

The first three chapters in Part 1, “Challenges to Christianity and the Orthodox/Heterodox Boundary,” illustrate how the boundary between orthodox Christianity and heterodox began crumbling. Franklin reads Bulwer-Lytton’s metaphysical novels of the 1860s —Zanoni and A Strange Story—and examines how mesmerism and spiritualism helped Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott to formulate Theosophy in 1875. Then, Franklin counterargues against a presumed dichotomy between spiritual and material while analyzing a religious hero in Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870). In the same thread, Franklin revisits Arnold’s Literature and Dogma: An Essay Towards a Better Comprehension of the Bible (1873) and traces the influence of Buddhism and comparative religion on Arnold’s “semi-Christian Buddhism” in his seeking “rational” Christianity (67).

The second part of the book, “The Interpenetration of Christianity and Buddhism,” flashes back to the moment when the British Empire and Christianity encountered Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Thailand through two travel writings—Knighton’s Forest Life in Ceylon (1854) and Leonowens’s The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870). The “bidirectional interpenetration of Christianity and Buddhism in a colonial context” in Forest Life in Ceylon (86) lies at the center of Franklin’s recount of how Christianity attempted to make itself appeal to Buddhists in Ceylon. Meanwhile, Franklins also notes that Buddhism in Sri Lanka, in the process of protest against Western colonial rule, was translated into a more approachable alternative to orthodox Christianity in the West (114). By the same token, The English Governess depicts the paradox for many Westerners “between the ‘bad Buddhism,’ the nihilistic opponent of Christian faith, and the ‘good Buddhism’ by which even Christianity might be instructed” (135). For Franklin, the narrative—a hybrid of memoir, Gothic romance, and comparative religious study—represents Leonowens’s irreconcilable psychic schism caused by the contradictory fatherhood of the Siamese King Mongkut: a king of abusive patriarchy and a Buddhist master who enlightened her with a way of reading the Bible through the self-abnegation of an old Buddhist monk (135).

Part III, “The Turn to Occultism,” analyzes the religious/spiritual struggle of the late Victorian period, represented in Haggard’s Cleopatra (1889) and Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Franklin argues that the crisis between spiritualism and materialism attributed to the increasing failure to reconcile “the truth-telling authority of orthodox Christianity and that of scientific naturalism” (142). For instance, he reads Cleopatra as a cultural document representing the mournful demise of ancient Egyptian spirituality defeated by Roman/British materialism and Stoker’s Count Dracula as a symbolic character of the “demi-immortal Oriental” embodying the “inversion of the traditional Christian body/soul dichotomy” (164). Franklin’s insight into the prescribed yet unsettled “happy endings of orthodox belief and dominant social order” (181) in Cleopatra and Dracula helps the reader imagine “how deeply late-Victorian culture longed to retain spiritualism within materialism and, at long last, to resolve that age-old dichotomy” (181).

In the last part of Spirit Matters, “The Origins of Alternative Religion in Victorian Britain,” Franklin argues that the emergence of hybrid religions and the formulation of the New Age spiritualities in the twentieth century are in debt to the two central elements of the new occultism at the fin de siècle—“the dissolution of the spiritualism-versus-materialism dialectic” and “the formation of a spiritually self-determining modernist subjectivity, an occult self” (186). More importantly, he expounds three primary themes of the “new occultism”—syncretism, immanence, and modern subjectivity—persistent in New Age spiritualities. Through its engagements in various sociopolitical issues during the late Victorian era such as antivivisectionism, women’s suffrage, and Irish nationalism, to name a few, he proves its value (200). In closing Spirit Matters, Franklin draws attention to his affirmation of Victorian Theosophists’ aspiration: “One’s individual progress toward the divine . . . only can occur if in unity with the progression of the community, the common good, toward a more compassionate, egalitarian, and peaceful world in a better future, a New Age” (211).

The originality of Spirit Matters undoubtedly comes from Franklin’s keen analysis of the intertwined religious, cultural, and national discourses on orthodox Christianity in relation to the formulation of alternative religions fostered by the scientific skepticism about Christian Spirit. He argues that “in the nineteenth century, science saved Christianity, materialism saved spiritualism, and vice versa” (18). The extent to which religion and science are imbricated provides the reader with an image of a swinging pendulum called religious science when he writes, “Both the scientific naturalists and the Christian defenders had their own science and their own religion, and both claimed to be able to reconcile, if not harmonize, the two” (18). With a closer and careful look into “reasonable grounds for viewing agnosticism and even scientific naturalism itself as religious positions” (18), Spirit Matters introduces its twenty-first century readers to “pervasive, diffuse, and richly various discourses of spiritualism versus materialism as crucial cultural work” of nineteenth-century Britain (18).

-20 Oct. 2020