Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft is Fellow & Tutor at Sidney Sussex College. She was Research Associate on the ERC-funded CRASSH project Bible and Antiquity in 19th-century Culture (2015-2017).
Simon Goldhill, FBA is Professor in Greek literature and culture and fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at King’s College, Cambridge. He is a former Director of CRASSH (2011 to 2018).
Q: Ruth and Simon, what is your book Victorian Engagements with the Bible and Antiquity: The Shock of the Old about?
The nineteenth century is often understood as an era of heightened historical self-consciousness: the first century to be aware of itself as a century. The past really mattered to the modern Victorians. This is an era in which the ideal of a ‘classical education’ flourished, but was also under scrutiny as a viable method for moral and cultural formation. It is also a period often characterised as a forward-looking ‘age of progress’, infatuated with its own evolution and efforts at innovation. In this book, a number of contributors from a variety of disciplinary perspectives come together to cast new light on these Victorian preoccupations with the past and the present, and how encounters with time shaped Victorian self-understanding. We show how despite the great emphasis on progress and cultural achievement in this period—as well as the Victorian fascination with modernity, technology, and travel—it was in fact a critical engagement with the past, through the twin lenses of the Bible and Antiquity, that changed how Victorians understood the world and their place in it.
The key thing that all essays in the volume come together to demonstrate, is that Victorian encounters with the past can only be properly understood when we keep in mind the interaction between the theological and the classical in this period—the interface between attention to the Bible and the study of Antiquity.
Q: What drew you to the subject and what do you find particularly interesting about it?
The volume came together on the back of a major ERC-funded research project at CRASSH, on The Bible and Antiquity in Nineteenth-Century Culture, for which Simon was the PI. The essays themselves are contributions not only from among the research team and its directors, but also from visiting fellows as well as Cambridge colleagues who became involved in this multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary project.
As a whole, the team were drawn to this subject and motivated to investigate it on a number of levels. There was the joy and excitement of unravelling just how important both the bible and classical antiquity were, together, for Victorian self-understanding, and interrogating these connections in well-known figures from M.R. James to Matthew Arnold, and from William Gladstone to F. D. Maurice. There was also a shared interest in exploring how modern self-understanding and modern conceptions of time and space were constructed. We see this in the volume particularly in the chapters dealing with Victorian travel and tourism, politics and communication, and with the distinctively Victorian obsession with cultural roots and origins. And members of the team were also drawn to the question of how the classical and Biblical past becomes central to Victorian self-understanding across a range of media and genres. Over the course of the research project, we also spent time and attention thinking deeply about material culture. In the volume, there are essays on Victorian art, sculpture, architecture, theatre, literature, and archaeological practices. This reflects the interest of the project as a whole in considering how the classical and biblical past features heavily in Victorian explorations of modernity and identity across a range of media and genres.
Q: Around which themes did you decide to structure the book, and to what end?
Our book has six big themes, corresponding to six different sections in our table of contents. The first section of the volume, ‘Antiquity’s Modernity’, considers the relationship between the texts of classical antiquity and Christianity. It asks: what are the genealogies of cultural value that encouraged Victorian scholars to see their origins either in ancient Greece or the Bible? How did Victorian Christianity negotiate the lure and authority of Greece? The second section, ‘Making the Past visible’, brings a consideration of Victorian visual art and sculpture to the fore. The essays here demonstrate how the intertwining of the classical and the biblical is integral to Victorian representational strategies. And in the Manchester Jubilee Exhibition of 1887, we see how Victorian anxieties and hopes about cultural progress also entail a looking back to a biblical and classical past which lives on in the present. From here, the third section of the book resumes this theme of materiality and the spectacular, by asking how the theatre of Oberammergau became for tourists and critics alike a vehicle for discovering a Christian past. We also see how architecture could form the landscape of Victorian encounters with the past, through a focus on the building of a modern church in Rome. The book’s fourth section—Travelling the World—features a study of Protestant travellers to Rome, and specifically St Peter’s Basilica, which includes the remarkable testimony of the former slave, Frederick Douglass. This study asks: how did the gaze of the tourist engage with the history of religion? This section also incorporates a study of a globetrotting voyage taken by the eldest sons of the Prince of Wales in 1882. We see here how the education of royal princes into the religious diversity of empire was a journey in time as much as space, and the development of a strategy of rule through the soft power of royal spectacle. The fifth section of the book, entitled ‘Manuscripts, Morality and Metaphysics’ turns back to the interplay of theology and culture that grounds the previous sections, by considering how theology and biblical scholarship negotiated the demands of historicism, and how discoveries made by scholars destabilised the way that biblical texts and authors of antiquity were understood. The sixth and final section of the book—‘Intellectual Superstars’—then turns to look at how the newly flourishing fields of literary criticism and historiography awkwardly negotiate their disavowals of Christianity and religion in general.
Q: In your view, wherein lies the book’s main contribution to our appreciation of Victorian self-understanding, and how the Bible and Antiquity were central influences on this?
Across the book, we come to see how valuable collaboration across disciplines and specialisms can be. Our mission is to demonstrate how two areas—classics and theology—dominated the education of the Victorian elite and were right at the centre of Victorian cultural anxieties. But because of the disciplinary siloing we see in the modern academy, it is difficult to stage a conversation within any one discipline (be it Victorian studies, theology, art history, intellectual history, or classics) that will be able to properly represent the interweaving of the Bible and Antiquity in the Victorian mind. Here then, and through its multi-disciplinary contributions from its many collaborators, the book is able to take a broad series of questions—emerging from art history to theology, and from history to cultural studies—into an established conversation about Victorian self-understanding that is alive among Victorian Studies scholars, and intellectual historians of the 19th century.
Q: What would readers be surprised to learn about in your book?
Just how obsessed Victorians were with the past, and how much the pasts of classical antiquity and the Bible mattered to them. Could these two pasts be reconciled? Were they equally important genealogies of cultural value? Readers may be surprised to discover how such questions could explode into national crises of self-understanding. You could lose your job and be publicly pilloried for suggesting that Moses could not have been heard by an audience of several hundred thousand Israelites in the desert! You could have your salary withheld for indicating that the Bible could be read like any other book. An archaeological dig at Troy could be so exciting that the archaeologist’s national tour in Britain had each lecture introduced by the Prime Minister.
Victorian Engagements with the Bible and Antiquity: The Shock of the Old is published by Cambridge University Press.