A. N. Wilson's Gentlemen in England (1985) is a very rare bird indeed in neo-Victorian fiction: it's a serious attempt to rework the novel of "faith and doubt," as the formulation goes. It's not an accident, after all, that Mrs. Humphry Ward (not yet Mrs. Humphry Ward) of Robert Elsmere fame makes a brief cameo appearance. Much neo-Victorian fiction is relentlessly secular, not merely in terms of its subject matter, but also in terms of its underlying assumptions: characters rarely have faith commitments; characters who do have faith commitments usually don't have "commitments" so much as ideological blinkers (and are frequently the resident villains); and the narrative points to a world-view that either disallows spirituality, disallows Western spirituality, or disallows spirituality anywhere outside a strictly private sphere. Along with Lillian Nattel's The Singing Fire (about late-Victorian Jews), Wilson's Gentlemen in England is a rare attempt to take religious faith seriously, in an Anglican sort of way.
The novel is classically Victorian, in the sense that, aside from an instance of shocking sexual violence, nothing of any great moment happens; the main action resides within the characters' sometimes hyperactive imaginative lives. By the same token, the novel also shows traces of Wilson's long-running interest in Walter Scott, for the plot involves a multigenerational clash of historical types: the now-ancient Regency dandies, out of place in a less morally forgiving era; the mid-Victorian genteel (and sub-genteel) classes, substituting the performance of domestic cheer and individual virtue for the actual thing; and the children in their late teens and early twenties, attempting to work out their own lives in the shadow of their parents, who will survive to see WWI. The first group is represented by Severus Egg, a failed poet now best known for his conversation, and his friend, the ostentatiously cosmopolitan Waldo Chatterway. Egg muses that he "had been born just early enough to see the excellence, all the light, all the fun, and just late enough to watch it all vanish, banished by lumpishness and self-righteous mediocrity" (40). Egg and Chatterway find themselves poised on a historical knife-edge between the empty joys of Regency social repartee and the equally empty miseries of Victorian moralism; possessing no "excellence" of their own, their historical outsiderdom is a proto-Wildean "pose" they use to confer a sort of cultural cachet upon themselves. (The appropriately-named Chatterway is primarily notable for getting himself banned from one social circle after another.) Their ostentatious disinterest in faith does not repeat itself in the next generation: Egg's son-in-law, Horace Nettleship, believes that his deconversion is the "great tragedy" of his existence (76), brought on by his geological researches; without his lost belief in God, Horace turns to domesticity for his salvation, but his wife Charlotte is merely bored by his struggles (79). A Casaubon type, Horace has spent years working on a monograph about volcanoes that does not appear to be nearing fruition. Indeed, his May-December relationship with Charlotte, now celibate, is nothing more than a sham, and they spend most of the novel acknowledging each other only in public. (Think Middlemarch if Casaubon had not had the good manners to die off early in the relationship.) Charlotte acts on her frustrations by fantasizing a passionate affair with the (again, mediocre, a "passable draughtsman"" ) painter, Lupton, a sort of sub-Alma Tadema/sub-pre-Raphaelite and ostentatiously bohemian artist...who is actually in love with Charlotte's teenage daughter, Maudie, something of a flibbertigibbet (not because she's stupid, but because she's a teenager). To make matters worse, Horace's and Charlotte's son Lionel, who acts out the novel's struggle of "faith and doubt" most explicitly, is now hanging about with exotic Ritualist types and wants to become (good heavens) a clergyman.
Again, in good Scott fashion, all of these people are fundamentally mediocre. Moreover, nearly all of them exist in a thought-world that is secularized, whether explicitly (Horace) or not (just about everyone else). Lacking faith, they craft alternative life-narratives intended to grant themselves magnitude, to elevate their emotions and experiences to near-transcendence. Horace's "great tragedy" is one such narrative, not much different in intent than the decline-and-fall story of British society imagined by Severus Egg. Charlotte writes herself into George Meredith's Modern Love at one moment (187), into a third-rate romance novel the next. (Maudie appears to be a slightly older version of Henry James' Maisie from What Maisie Knew.) Father Cuthbert, the charismatic but essentially vapid Ritualist clergyman, is a neo-medievalist fantasy of a monk, something cobbled together from the fantasies of "Sir Walter Scott or Bulwer-Lytton" (266). (His suspicious obsession with Greek homosexuality looks like a coy reference to the Anglo-Catholic character from Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh.) As in many Victorian novels critical of the "doubt" in the "faith and doubt" equation, these meaning-making strategies are all destined to fail, for they fix the mind on the world's transient pleasures; one thinks of the characters in Robert Buchanan's The New Abelard, who go to moral wrack and ruin once they substitute the rule of reason for that of divine law. Except for Lionel, of whom more in just a moment, not one of these characters manages to come up with any sort of psychological insight, any way of escaping the sheer mundaneness of their lives. Gentlemen in England epitomizes the ugliness of a life lived this way in Horace's enraged, frustrated rape of Charlotte (repeated more than once, the novel suggests), which reduces marriage to power relations and pure bestiality.
By contrast, Lionel's pilgrimage to Father Cuthbert's medievalist monastery, which leads to disillusionment when the monks have a spiritual vision in which he cannot share, is the beginning of a journey towards authentic faith. Lionel anxiously thinks to himself that the "momentary certainty" he experienced when he heard Father Cuthbert is gone, but this certainty turns out to be merely one more version of the self-involved fictions constructed by the other characters. As Jenkinson, the Master of Lionel's Oxford college, explains, this strategy reduces faith "to the level of what can be seen and touched and tasted" (373), which confuses "faith" with "knowledge." Rather, Jenkinson argues, knowing that we cannot ever perfectly know the world through our empirical experience of it, faith is "what we give on trust to ourselves"; faith begins not from some outside force demanding it, but from the individual's acknowledgment that some things are beyond "the evidence of our own senses" (373). In other words, faith starts with the "belief that there is something outside ourselves" (374)--the moral lesson that has eluded every other character in the novel. Horace Nettleship's "great tragedy" thus turns out to be an error, insofar as he confuses an inability to know with certainty with an inability to have faith. Far from being a tragedy, it is bathos. (Perhaps misreading his own genre, he literally falls down the stairs at the end of the novel, breaking his ankle instead of his neck.) Jenkinson's indictment of people like Horace is brutal: it's perfectly possible to "live" without faith, "[b]ut you can only live like a pig" (374). Egg, Chatterway, Lupton, the Nettleships--all are pigs, wallowing in muck of their own devising, incapable of escaping the banalities of their own imaginations.
Thus, if the novel is neo-Victorian in its vision of a Victorian world that has already secularized itself, it is firmly Victorian in its message that the purely secular life is a life not worth living. Moreover, it is equally Victorian in its admiration of "masculine" (as opposed to muscular) Christianity, here embodied in the cameo appearance by Arthur Stanton. Stanton, "strikingly handsome and manly" (383), is simultaneously devout and tolerant ("it isn't our calling as Christians to approve or disapprove" ),as well as anti-threatrical ("[t]here was no waving about of the arms, no swirling of the eyes" ). This self-disciplined but attractive body exemplifies faith at work, insofar as the discipline emerges from selflessness instead of concentration upon the self. Stanton's understanding of Christianity, as now shared by Lionel's old friend Gutch, is simply "to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and old, the prisoners and the dying" (387). Masculine Christianity is active, "practical" Christianity, in which the self is entirely given over to the needs of the weak and helpless. This Church, Lionel thinks, consists of "men entirely dedicated to the worship of Christ in the breaking of bread, and the service of Christ in the least of his brethren" (388); it is devoted, that is, to finding out Christ in everyday life and in community with the poor, not in relegating religion to a strict time-table of morning and evening prayers.
Gentlemen in England is not strictly an anti-Robert Elsmere; in fact, despite celebrating Anglo-Catholicism in the end, the novel is not interested in doctrine per se. For Lionel's conclusion about the nature of Christianity is roughly identical to Robert Elsmere's conclusion, insofar as both demand that religion exists only as it is practiced in a full community, including its poorest members. At the same time, while the novel certainly does not endorse literalism, it also rejects Robert Elsmere's post-Unitarian movement beyond the possibility of incarnation. In a sense, Gentlemen in England tries to recover Victorianism from itself, rescuing the possibility of faith from narratives of overwhelming doubt. The novel ends with Lionel and his discover of faith, after all, not the victory of the materialistic middle generation or of the fragile dandies.