Timothy Larsen's Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (OUP, 2006), which discusses the reconversion experiences of working-class Victorian secularists, argues against the well-known "crisis of faith" narrative in Victorian studies. Larsen complains that--if one asks Victorian intellectual historians, anyway--"[t]here might have been hordes of earnest Christians running around trying to keep people from enjoying themselves, but thinking Victorians, at any rate, generally abandoned orthodox faith--or so the impression is left" (2). As is so often the case, however, English professors bear much of the blame for this "distortion":
The theme of a crisis of faith can loom as large in their own field as people in that discipline wish it to or decide that it should: no corrective is being offered here to another discipline. What is being observed, however, is that a distinction needs to be clearly made between a theme in literature or English studies and a judgement regarding what a historical period itself was actually like. And the crisis of faith does loom very large indeed in English studies. (5)
Larsen's evidence for this looming consists of a no-longer accessible syllabus for UIUC's ENG 210, which (if the name in the URL Is any indication) was being taught by one of UIUC's Romanticists; the Victorian volume of the Oxford English Literary History (2002); the late Richard D. Altick's Victorian People and Ideas (1973); Basil Willey's two Nineteenth-Century Studies volumes (1950 and 1956); A. O. J. Cockshut's The Unbelievers (1964); and an anecdote from Joss Marsh (1998). For some reason, the list then segues briefly into ecclesiastical and intellectual historians (Anthony Symonds, Owen Chadwick, Richard J. Helmstadter and Bernard Lightman, Gerald Parsons, A. N. Wilson [no offense, but...not the same type of historian, surely?]), before returning to English with "Robert Wolff's Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England (1977), Elisabeth Jay's Faith and Doubt in Victorian Britain (1986), and R. L. Brett's Faith and Doubt: Religion and Secularization in Literature from Wordsworth to Larkin (1997)" (9).
I'm not going to disagree at all with Larsen's larger claim that the "crisis of faith" ought to be having its own crisis right about now, but it's not altogether clear to me that Larsen quite succeeds in assigning blame to the average English professor. To begin with, his final three choices are a little strange. Jay's book is an anthology with the usual contextual introductions and Wolff's is a massive editor's preface to Garland's (handy) "Novels of Faith and Doubt" series; neither one counts as "literary studies" (9) in the sense that Larsen intends. And Brett's argument, as far as I can tell, is somewhat different than the title suggests (e.g., he isn't opposing religion to secularisation [31-32]). More seriously, however, Larsen stacks the deck by his choice of texts. Counting the syllabus, only three of the ten appeared within the past decade (and Larsen adduces Marsh's book for its anecdote, not its subject matter). And they're all wide-ranging surveys. Surveys are useful when you're trying to identify general trends, because they often rely heavily on received wisdom. In fact, surveys of whatever type tend to be intellectually conservative, intentionally or otherwise, if only because the writer (or instructor) has to cover a lot of space in a little time. But for that very reason, surveys often suffer from "lag time" in terms of their relationship to what's going on elsewhere in the field: in monographs, articles, dissertations, and so forth. It would also be nice to know why these surveys and not, say, the Victorian volume of Hoxie Neal Fairchild's Religious Trends in English Poetry (1957), which, if lit crit is at issue, would seem more relevant than Cockshut's book. (Or, for that matter, J. Hillis Miller's The Disappearance of God.)
It's possible, I think, to construct an entirely different narrative about Victorian literary studies, in which faith exists at the center, with doubt coming into play but not at the core of things. One could start with Joseph Ellis Baker's The Novel and the Oxford Movement (1932), Andrew Landale Drummond's The Churches in English Fiction (1950), and Margaret Maison's Search Your Soul, Eustace (1961). Then, moving to the 1970s, Valentine Cunningham's Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel (1975) and Elisabeth Jay's The Religion of the Heart (1979). More recently still, Thomas Vargish's The Providential Aesthetic in Victorian Fiction (1985). And then, the positive explosion of interest in the past decade or so, ranging from monographs on single authors or families thereof (e.g., Diane D'Amico's Christina Rossetti , Marianne Thormahlen's The Brontes and Religion , Lynda Palazzo's Christina Rossetti's Feminist Theology ) to more general studies (e.g., Michael Wheeler's Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology , Christine L. Krueger's The Reader's Repentance , Royal W. Rhodes' The Lion and the Cross , Cynthia Scheinberg's Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England , Susan M. Griffin's Anti-Catholicism and English Fiction ).
In fact, though, that second narrative exists in tension with Larsen's "crisis of faith" narrative. Or, to put it differently, there has always been doubt about the crisis of faith. When I was dissertating, one of my readers gently pointed out that I was attacking a trend that, while nevertheless real, was neither a) the trend or b) a trend spanning all time and space. One of the problems with hacking through the scholarly undergrowth is that there's just so much of it; now that we're in the age of electronic databases, our search terms limit what we find in all sorts of unexpected and inadvertent ways. Things get even more complicated when the undergrowth in question does not belong to your own disciplinary backyard (Larsen is in theology, not English). I continue to feel ongoing angst about accurately situating my own project, which keeps tumbling over into territory I don't normally occupy.
It would be interesting to think about the faith/crisis of faith narrative dynamic in terms of the research imperative: do something that hasn't been done before (Marsh's anecdote is about precisely that, as it happens). Fill the gap, as they say. And, as I said above, there's the conservatism of surveys and encyclopedias, which frequently err on the side of what everyone agrees on instead of what everyone debates. I wouldn't be surprised if the next decade sees the slow erosion of the survey-level crisis of faith, especially given the appearance of classroom-oriented books like Mark Knight's and Emma Mason's Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature.