GOD'S FUNERAL

By A.N. Wilson

Norton. 402 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Charlotte Allen

The British novelist A.N. Wilson, once an Anglican of the High Tory stripe, lost his Christian faith about a decade ago, but like many in his position he has not been able to let religion alone. He spent much of the 1990s writing biographies of the "historical" Jesus of Nazareth and the "historical" apostle Paul, embellishing the scanty historical record on these two personages with novelistic ormolu, such as his opining that the high priest's servant who got his ear cut off when Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane was actually Paul holding down a kind of day job before his Damascus-road conversion.

Wilson's latest work of religious nonfiction, God's Funeral, also explores the implications of loss of faith, but this time, fortunately, he has a full to overflowing record to work from, for his subject is the well-documented mass abandonment of belief in a deity among the great English writers, artists and intellectuals of the 19th century. The book's title derives from a poem of the same name by Thomas Hardy, who began his adulthood as a church architect and ended it as an atheist, convinced that the universe was not only indifferent to human fate but malevolent. Of God, Hardy wrote: "Uncompromising rude reality/ Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning/ Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be."

Hardy's reverse spiritual pilgrimage repeated itself over and over in the minds of many leading members of the Victorian intelligentsia: Thomas Carlyle; George Eliot; Karl Marx; Thomas Huxley (who coined the word "agnostic"); Matthew Arnold; John Ruskin; Dante Gabriel Rosetti; Algernon Charles Swinburne; and, in America, William James. These serious and gifted souls read Hegel, who told them that the universe was essentially self-creating and had no need of an external Maker; or they read Darwin, whose principle of natural selection offered a thoroughly naturalistic explanation for how the human species had come about; or they read the avant-garde theologians at German universities, who explained that the books of the Bible were not divinely inspired but mere collections of myths. When they had passed through their "Victorian crisis of faith" (Wilson's words), they did not feel liberated by their unbelief, but rather -- like Hardy -- weary and pessimistic and inexpressibly sad. "God's funeral was not, as many in the nineteenth century might have thought, the end of a phase of human intellectual history," writes Wilson. "It was the withdrawal of a great Love-object." Many of the disillusioned Victorians cast about for new, secular enterprises in which to invest their faith: duty with a capital D, art with a capital A, the gospel of progress, the survival of the fittest, social reform, the revolution of the proletariat, or such woozy spiritual/metaphysical/reincarnational concoctions as Theosophy.

Wilson clearly feels an affinity with the restless churchmen of this age who could no longer mount their pulpits and the lay men and women who could no longer honestly swear on a Bible. Their disaffection from Christianity mirrors his own, and their Age of Empire starchiness resonates with his residual Tory sensibility. Their dramas of collapsed faith took place against the dispiriting backdrop of 19th-century English religiosity: Barchester Towers-like bickering over incense and benefices at the top; ale-soaked apathy at the bottom; and, for the middle classes, a gruesomely strict evangelicalism that forbade even the most innocent pleasures. Wilson tells the story of the biographer and critic Edmund Gosse, whose obsessive Devonshire father deemed Christmas too "Popish" a feast to celebrate, and, when he caught the family servants eating a holiday plum pudding, snatched it off the table and threw it into the ashes. Just looking at the photographs Wilson has collected of these largely forgotten figures, with their stiff frock coats and their repulsively elaborate facial hair, makes one feel glad to be living now, not then. Wilson's book promises to be a tasty mutton joint: Eminent Victorians with even more Victorians.

Sad to say, it does not quite deliver. There are occasional flashes of literary apercu, as when Wilson focuses on Proust's stylistic debt to Ruskin; or on the zesty prose of Carlyle ("an extraordinary cocktail of bombast and jokes"); or on the sheer rhythmic and melodic loveliness of the poetry of Swinburne, now remembered, alas, for only a single line: "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath." (The poetry also bears witness, as Wilson points out with numerous examples, to Swinburne's very Victorian taste for flagellation, apparently acquired during his schoolboy days at Eton.) Every now and then Wilson proffers a good yarn, informing readers that Marx modeled his luxuriant beard on a newly excavated statue of Zeus, and that the Oxford don and classicist Benjamin Jowett, after listening to Alfred Lord Tennyson read one of his poems at excruciating length, advised him, "I should not publish that if I were you." To which Tennyson replied: "Come to that, master, the sherry you gave us at dinner was filthy." He can also be entertainingly catty: Of the free-thinking essayist George Henry Lewes, who lived with and sponged off George Eliot for 24 years, all the while encouraging people to believe that the wife he had abandoned for her was hopelessly insane, Wilson quips, "Ever since . . ., one feels, ugly female novelists have been setting up house in North London with pushy liberal-minded journalists."

As a whole, however, God's Funeral lacks the strong narrative spine that a work of complicated intellectual history demands, which would trace exactly how it came to be that scientific findings such as fossils, which do not shake the faith of many 20th-century Christians, rent the veil of their 19th-century predecessors' temple of religious belief from top to bottom. Even the individual chapters of Wilson's book are exercises in highbrow free association, rambling from anecdote to anecdote and character to character as it strikes his fancy. This, coupled with a condescending, mildly peevish tone, and page after page devoted to pondering whether some obscure academic was or was not a Hegelian, ultimately irritates rather than engrosses, as do fuddy-duddy sentences like this one: "Funny old Herbert Spencer deserves a mention."

Furthermore, there are signs of careless composition. Wilson includes only spotty biographical information on his subjects: birth and death dates for some but not others and, for a few, no first names, such as the mysterious "Sidgwick" who appears only once, on page 123 (he seems to be Henry Sidgwick, a Cambridge philosopher whose name is not exactly a household word nowadays). There are obvious errors. It is not Jeremy Bentham's "skeleton" but his taxidermically stuffed skin wearing his clothes that is on display at the University of London. Wilson states that the Gospels do not represent Christ's "obiter dicta," a legal term referring to language in a judge's ruling that does not pertain directly to the case at hand, when he surely must mean "ipsissima verba," Jesus's exact words.

In the end, Wilson seems as troubled and confused by God's apparent demise during the 19th century as any of the savants of that age who experienced it firsthand. The problem with God's Funeral is not that its author has not thought enough about his subject matter, but that he has too many thoughts about it that he has not yet sorted out.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor of Lingua Franca and author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."