Both Carlyle and Rossetti function in the context of Victorian Christianity. Both were raised in religious families, but the two took drastically different spiritual routes in their adult lives. Carlyle was educated at Edinburgh University in the hopes that he would become a clergyman, but it is apparent that his studies there actually led him away from his faith. It was at the University that he read the works of such skeptics as Hume, Voltaire, and Gibbon (Norton Anthology 940). By the time he was twenty-three he had abandoned his Christian faith. A considerable amount of "Characteristics" deals with learning to live in the spiritual void left after the loss of faith; apparently he never really solved the problem for himself, and remained an unhappy man throughout his life. He attempted to forge a personal religion for himself from the tattered remains of his childhood Calvinist faith, German philosophy, and his own observations (Norton Anthology 942). He definitely believed in some kind of divinity, as this passage from "Characteristics" illustrates:

Remarkable it is, how everywhere the eternal fact begins again to be recognized, that there is a Godlike in human affairs; that God not only made us and beholds us, but is in us and around us; that the Age of Miracles, as it ever was, now is. [Norton Anthology 963]

Though a certain air of optimism lingers about that passage, Carlyle fails to form a truly unified structure of his ideas of divinity in "Characteristics." Carlyle himself embodied what he termed to be the primary symptom of a sick society (as well as the possible cure): the self-conscious, self-questioning critic.

Rossetti, on the other hand, not only remained with the Christian faith of her childhood, but became more involved with it as time passed. At one point she associated herself with the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Church of England (Norton Anthology 1501), and after that lived her life by extremely strict Christian rules. In fact, she rejected the two most earnest suitors she had because they were either improperly or insufficiently religious. Rossetti's faith is apparent in her poetry; "Goblin Market" is rife with Christian imagery. In a significant way, however, she broke with the tradition of Christian literature by creating a female type of Christ in the Character Lizzie, who sacrifices herself for her sister. This fairly radical act points the way toward Christian feminist literature and criticism in the future.


Victorian Overview Thomas Carlyle

1990