Challenges to religious authority : criticism of the Church of England as expressed in three Victorian novels : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English at Massey University
The opening chapter of this thesis describes the Church of England as it existed in the first half of the nineteenth-century. The close liason between the Established Church and the State is emphasised as is the involvement of the Church in many areas of Victorian life. Because, to a large extent, the Church is the Clergy the lives of many clerical representatives of the Church are discussed - and are found, on the whole, to be lacking in dedication. The three novels continue the method of examining the Church through depiction of its clergymen. Each novel presents a different challenge to the Established Church. Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, is critical of the Church because it misuses its Authority in its subjugation of women and finds false justification for this in scripture. Elizabeth Gaskell, in a covert way critices the Church by comparing it unfavourably with Unitarianism. George Eliot, in Middlemarch is deeply sceptical of the supernatural grounds for the Authority of the Church. She finds Authority in religious humanism. At the time the Church considered that its many problems were found either within itself due to its polarisation into Low and High Church, or else from without as the Dissenters and Roman Catholics increased in numbers. These three novels, however, consider problems which, although hardly of concern at the time, have since become major issues for the Church and its Authority.