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Elizabeth M. Sanders Genres of Doubt: Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Crisis of Victorian Faith (McFarland, 2017, 177pp, $65.00)


Reviewed by Carrie Lynn Evans (Université Laval, Québec)

Much has been written about the particular qualities of the nineteenth century that fostered new directions in fiction, such as the Industrial Revolution’s influence on the scientific romance. Much has also been written about the state of religious doubt during the Victorian period, which saw something of a paradigm shift as revelations from the nascent biological sciences, the ground-breaking publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), and exposure to the breadth and variety of religious belief from around the British Empire began to filter down to wider public awareness. Surprisingly, not much has been written about the intersection between Victorian doubt and the genesis of speculative fiction in particular – a vacuum which Elizabeth Sanders’ Genres of Doubt persuasively fills.

Sanders revisits familiar, representative works from the period, organizing her analysis around how they exemplify particular responses to or strategies for dealing with the problems raised by the new questioning of the supernatural. In this way, then, she manages to find a new approach to well-worn texts and lays out a useful methodology for interpreting the theme of religious doubt that could be fruitfully applied beyond the scope of these particular genres. Her first chapter looks at early science fiction, examining how Frankenstein (1818) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) express disappointment with the perceived imperfections (or outright absence) of the supernatural, paternal care promised by Christianity. Many scholars read these works as cautionary tales about man’s scientific hubris, which assumes the reader’s confidence in the moral authority of the Christian worldview to mete out natural consequences for transgressions. By shifting the focus onto doubt, Sanders makes a compelling argument for understanding the titular scientists as analogous to a creator god. From this perspective, to present them as flawed and negligent father figures becomes a critique of such a god; their creations (and, by extension, the doubtful Victorians) can be understood to be expressing an appropriate sense of disillusionment and abandonment.

Sanders’ second chapter turns to some of the earliest examples of modern fantasy novels, including George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872), Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863), and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884). She argues that these works refuse religious allegorical readings, and demonstrate a marked presence of doubt by interrogating the role and viability of a sense of enchantment for modern Victorians. In setting those who believe in the story’s magical conceit against those who do not, the novels explore the factors influencing belief, consider alternate ‘ways of knowing’, and examine what value or hindrance credulity may present. Whether the author shows doubt to be a prideful mistake (MacDonald), the result of ambitious desire rather than reason (Kingsley), or a logical tool for shrewd believers (Abbott), Sanders makes clear how these three authors gesture toward a common desire to encourage their readers to express patience and compassion for those grappling with religious doubt. Of particular interest is Sanders’ observation that the threat of magic’s departure is a theme commonly found even within fantasy’s enchanted settings – as much true of today’s examples as it is of these early texts – which she connects to the idea taking hold during this period that associates belief with immaturity and skepticism with an intellectual coming of age.

Chapter three examines Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) as sites of urban Gothic fantasy that give expression to fears about potential consequences of the waning influence of Christianity, namely, how a society without the protection of a supernatural god might deal with the more concrete threat of evil. In these novels, enchantment invades and disrupts the familiar, rationalist setting of modern London but, according to Sanders’ reading, the supernatural is presented as merely another realm of the as-yet-unknown, whose eventual discovery by scientific method is inevitable. For example, she reads Dracula’s persecutors’ use of a plethora of religious artefacts, in which wooden stakes and garlic are equally as efficacious as crucifixes and holy water, as evidence of the novel’s instrumentalization of religion. As with her first chapter, Sanders rejects the more obvious interpretation of these novels as cautionary tales about the consequences of giving in to sinful temptations and offers compelling evidence for her approach. Where the religiously inspired authors of her second chapter portray enchantment as connected to love and a sense of awe, the respective atheistic and scientific mind-sets of Stevenson and Stoker instead portray religion as pageantry necessary for regulating the darker impulses of society, but devoid of any deeper power.

Sanders then goes on to consider Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and a handful of works from William Morris published during the 1890s, all notable for their efforts to avoid any kind of engagement with religious themes. Building on existing scholarship which sees these texts as representing efforts both to critique and escape the rigid, rule-based society of Victorian England, she suggests that the important feature is how they frame the enchanted landscape as almost completely disconnected and irrelevant to the real world, a unique development that indicates the authors’ underlying sense that Britain’s unbelief in the supernatural was by this point both inevitable and irreversible. Sanders’ argument is strengthened by her observation that this kind of other-world setting infused with nostalgia for a distant past that never actually existed, such as we see in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954-5) and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (1996- ), continue to be the most common and popular types of fantasy we see today.

Genres of Doubt is in good company alongside the few others that have examined the relationship between Victorian literature and reason, realism and religious doubt. Sanders evidences her analysis of a subject matter that only continues to grow in influence and relevance in today’s landscape, resulting in a book that is of value to readers interested in the relationship between science and faith or a historical view of artistic responses to growing atheism, in addition to Victorian literature scholars.