New Directions in Religion and Literature: Jo Carruthers on Englishness and Religious Identities

By | May 28, 2012

In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden the children sit in their newly restored garden, bursting to express their sense of celebration. Ben the gardener suggests they sing the Doxology hymn, even though ‘He had no opinion of the Doxology and he did not make the suggestion with any particular reverence’. The children imitate a church ritual as Dickon insists they take off their caps with Ben ‘half-resentful’, ‘as if he didn’t know exactly why he was doing this remarkable thing’. The company sings the verse repeatedly, and Ben finally joins in, ‘staring and winking and his leathery old cheeks were wet’. Because it is written in full in the novel, the reader is also impelled to perform the Doxology internally:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,

Praise Him all creatures here below,

Praise Him above ye Heavenly Host,

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen. (p. 234)

Written in the 1670s by Church of England Priest, Thomas Ken, the explicitly Trinitarian hymn is nonetheless vague enough to fulfil the childrens’ less specific sentiments. At the heart of this quintessentially English story of simple joy in nature, then, is a dormant Protestantism that is awakened through its ritual enacting.

The garden trope itself is both English and Protestant, a reworking of a recourse to Eden and the desire to return to prelapsarian innocence and authenticity. In his Identity of England, in a chapter on Englishness and the country garden, Robert Colls notes that the garden in this story is ‘recuperative of the spirit’, a vitality that for David Gervais is tellingly English and identified in the Wordsworthian ‘healing power’ of nature. A Protestantism that ‘makes sense’ and yet impels ‘no particular reverence’ lies at the heart of the recuperative English landscape in The Secret Garden and secular myths of Englishness alike. In the garden scene Protestantism is occult: magical, vague and beyond apprehension. It is occult in Englishness too. It acts magically, its workings unseen, inexplicable and mysterious to the English themselves.

In England’s Secular Scripture Jo Carruthers shows how the English simple life communicates a specifically Protestant impulse of simplicity that has a dual force. Innocent, straightforward and reviving, the garden heals the children emotionally, spiritually and physically, turning them into active and vibrant English children. The garden trope promotes an appealing simple life of spiritual sustenance, then, but it also presents an island state that’s safe and secure, manicured and controlled. The garden’s boundaries enclose and protect those inside, strengthening the group’s identity. While the garden works to attenuate identity, it also creates a boundary against the undesirable. Zygmunt Bauman cites the trope of gardening (alongside architecture and medicine) as a practice ‘in the service of the construction of an artificial social order, through cutting out the elements of the present reality that neither fit the visualized perfect reality, nor can be changed so that they do’. The alien threatens, he claims, ‘by blurring the boundary of the territory itself and effacing the difference between the familiar (right) and the alien (wrong) way of life’. The garden is, then, a space that specifically keeps out those identities that threaten those inside.

Jo Carruther traces mythologies of English simplicity to their emergence in the literature of Reformation England and identify the continuation of the oppositional force of early Protestantism in secular myths. The English are simple, straightforward, basically honest, self-possessed, phlegmatic, self-controlled and rational; governed by law and constituted by rights dating back to Magna Carta, they are fundamentally free. This book makes central that first term, simple, and argues that, as a principle and an aesthetic (for the two are inseparable), simplicity – located in the English landscape – enables and sustains wider English characteristics. And it is simplicity that is a peculiarly Protestant aesthetic and concept. As the Introduction to the book outlines, simplicity while seemingly innocent and benign is an aesthetic and concept that perpetuates a Reformed antagonism and that informs an equally oppositional sense of English identity.

The rest of the Introduction introduces the book’s intellectual context. Beginning with a brief discussion of debates over Englishness and outline the centrality of aesthetics to the approach to English identity, it moves on to give a brief history of the significance of simplicity before and within the English Reformation that provides a context for the more detailed literary analysis of Chapter One. A detailed definition follows for ‘Secular Scripture’, a term that gestures towards the relationship between secularism, religion and rationalism, and the centrality of English literature to enduring versions of English identity. The Introduction closes with an outline of the key methodological concepts: the relevance of the concept of mythologies and how it explains the persistence of a Protestant force within a secular aesthetic of simplicity; and the interrelation between aesthetics and viscerality and their implications for the continuity of English identity.

You can read the full Introduction to England's Secular Scripture by clicking on the preview button to the left. To find out more about this excellent book visit our website.

Jenny Tighe

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