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Review: The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain

T. David Gordon

The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain, by Iain H. Murray. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, viii+104 pages, $8.69, paper.

Iain H. Murray has recently written an interesting little monograph entitled The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain. The book contains chapters on Robert Louis Stevenson (pp. 9–26) and Thomas Hardy (pp. 27–48), but also mentions other novelists and literary critics from the nineteenth to early twentieth century whose lives engaged theirs and whose writings and influence were similar (Leslie Stephen, W. E. Henley, Edmund Gosse, Sidney Colvin, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, et al., pp. 49–58).

Both Stevenson and Hardy were reared in pious homes. Each, however, abandoned the faith of his family; neither could love a wife and so had troubled marriages, and each lived fairly dissolute lives. In their writings, and those of the others mentioned in Murray's book, agnosticism and immorality were promoted. Part of Murray's thesis is that we have over-stated the role of science in explaining the religious and moral decline of Great Britain, and have understated the role of such literary figures.

After surveying the lives and influence of such figures, a fifth chapter enumerates "General Lessons" to be learned, among which are: that such changes happen gradually and deceptively (59–60); that these littérateurs were every bit as responsible for moral and religious decline as were the scientists of their era (61–63); that these authors took on an increasingly instructive mantle, attempting to lead others to what they regarded as a truly happy life (64–66); and "words can be dangerous" (67–76). The book concludes with an interesting chapter, "Is Christianity Fiction?" in which a readable apologetic is articulated, focusing on the historical question of how something like Christianity could have emerged when and as it did if it were not true.

As with everything from Iain Murray's hand, this book is readable and interesting. His vignettes of the debased lives of such influential figures are reminiscent of Paul Johnson's Intellectuals (1990), though much less foreboding. Readers will appreciate Murray's avoidance of sensationalism or voyeuristic detail, as much as they will concur with Murray's estimate that these figures led trebly tragic lives--tragic for themselves, for their own generation, and for their heritage.

At the same time, some readers will join me in wondering if Murray's concern is merely for the tragic abuse of fiction by these authors, or whether his concern is for fiction per se. He says it is not the latter: "It is not my belief that the writing of fiction is wrong in itself" (vii). Yet several lines of evidence appear to be in tension with this disavowal. First, the sub-title suggests otherwise: "How Fiction Changed Britain." It would have been fairly easy to have sub-titled the book "How Secular Fiction Changed Britain," or "How Immoral (or Amoral) Fiction Changed Britain," if that were all Murray intended. Second, the fourth of his general lessons is: "Words can be dangerous, as even the Greek poets were aware: 'Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners' (1 Cor. 15:33). A description of the dissolute, and their irreverent language, does injure" (68–69, emphasis his). Third, while indicating that appropriate fiction can be found in Bunyan, Milton, or in Cowan and Guinness's Introduction to the Classics (vii), he mentions no Christian authors during or since the time he describes, such as, Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, or G. K. Chesterton.

If Murray is in fact denigrating the reading or writing of fiction (and the evidence from his book is, as I say, in tension on this point), I would respectfully disagree, along the lines of Sir Philip Sidney (1595), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1840), C. S. Lewis (1961), and others. Lewis, in his An Experiment in Criticism, thought that sin had made us self-centered, and that this self-orientation impoverished us. Reading literature, we are permitted to see with other eyes, and to escape our self-imprisonment:

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality...Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.

... to go out of self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this.

Similarly, Shelley understood human nature rightly when he recognized that charity itself, the primary virtue, requires our being able to enter the lives of others imaginatively, in order to sympathize, in order to care, in order to help:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.

Additionally, I would argue that there is a special value to reading the imaginative literature of unbelievers, because it has the potential to create greater compassion for the darkness that surrounds and pervades their lives. When I first read The Stranger by Albert Camus the darkness of his vision was palpable, and I recall feeling great compassion for him, a feeling I have experienced also with Joseph Conrad, and with contemporary novelists, such as Cormac McCarthy.

But Murray is definitely on to something here. The common notion that Darwinian science, and it almost alone, has dragged down the West needs the complementary insight that Iain Murray provides here. Much of the literature of the same era colluded with the secularizing tendencies of Darwinism, and Murray has deftly and briefly exposed that collusion in this interesting volume.

T. David Gordon
Grove City College
Grove City, Pennsylvania

T. David Gordon, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, is Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant, May 2009.

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