Dissertation Project

“A Sacramental Moment”: Victorian Liturgical Medievalism

What is time? Following Boethius, Chaucer counters time with an eternity understood as the “perfect possession of interminable life.” In Hardy’s poetic cosmos, time is a monster that reduces everything to dust and “devour[s] our prime.” Subjective experience of time can be one of drudgery and antagonism, an inescapable phenomenon that is always less than an imagined eternity. When reading these same authors with the insights of liturgical theology, however, we find that time is the medium of encounter composed of George Eliot’s “sacramental moment[s]” where we are invited to greet the human other with dignity.

My interpretive framework draws out theological implications contained in liturgical allusion. Often, we read liturgical allusions as giving a sense of the sacred, profaning the sacred in a subversive way, or merely reminding the reader of religious practice for an affective purpose. Each of these readings is accurate and productive, but I propose that we need to read more deeply by turning toward the underlying ritual purpose that enables these other readings. A funeral or wedding from a specific ritual tradition carries the liturgical theology of that tradition with it, perhaps even more strongly when the ritual is rejected rather than revived. When a poet incorporates a liturgical echo into a text, whether as a parody or straightforward allusion, the function of that liturgy and its temporal assumptions influence the text.

This dissertation examines the importance of ritual in the Victorian reception of the past. Specifically, I focus on how the Victorian obsession with liturgical structures and objects for secular/literary purposes reveals the nature of their view of time. I begin with a chapter presenting Chaucer as a medieval model of liturgical time that endures through the Victorians, and end questioning how the central purpose of a liturgy (communion with the divine other through a human community) both remains consistent and changes through use by secular Victorian writers. Understanding the use of liturgical forms in Victorian texts enables a more nuanced view of literature than the secularization narrative provides and informs the way we currently receive the Victorian past or wield medieval discourses ourselves.