Losing Their Religion

Marah Gubar

Rarely do we pity the pious Victorian patriarch. Why should we sympathize with the privileged men who stoutly believed that God had placed them at the apex of a “Great Chain of Being”? One of the many marvelous feats of Francis Hardinge’s gorgeously written novel The Lie Tree is that it secures some pity for the perpetrators of patriarchy while also viscerally conveying how unpleasant it was to live under their rule. How must these comfortably situated men have felt, she invites us to wonder, when astronomers, geologists, and other natural scientists began unleashing wave upon wave of evidence that contradicted everything they thought they knew about the history of the world and their place in it? And not just any evidence, but evidence that beggared belief, such as the gigantic skeletons of dragon-like beasts who had lorded over a landscape aeons older than the Bible suggested was possible? In that wilderness, man was conspicuous only by his absence.

 <i>The Effects of a Hearty Dinner after Visiting the Antediluvian Department at the Crystal Palace</i>, a cartoon published in the magazine <i>Punch</i> in 1855

Set in the intellectually tumultuous decade after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), The Lie Tree introduces us to Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a Victorian clergyman and renowned naturalist who serves as both villain and victim. During the first third of the novel, this iron-willed patriarch mistreats his wife, children, servants, and anyone else who gets in the way of his ruthless pursuit of knowledge about the natural world. Desperate to find evidence that supports his religious beliefs, he puts his 14-year-old daughter Faith’s life in danger as part of a risky plot to study a mysterious tree he has smuggled out of China. The cruelly ironic scene in which he demands her help on this dangerous mission—“Show me how clever you can be, Faith”—comes directly on the heels of a conversation in which he crushes her long-cherished dream of becoming a scientist by declaring that “A girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. … You will never be anything but a burden, and a drain on my purse.”

Even after her father mortifies her sense of self-worth in this scene, however, Faith cannot help loving, identifying with, and defending him, in part because she yearns to gain access to the world of knowledge that he inhabits and represents:

 

There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at the table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too. A few stale lessons from tired governesses, dull walks, unthinking pastimes. But it was not enough. All knowledge—any knowledge—called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen.

 

Knowledge-gathering is a guilty pleasure for Faith because the key authority figures in her culture believe there is something wrong with a girl who longs to think, talk, and work alongside boys and men. Showing rather than telling the myriad ways that women in Victorian England were belittled, squelched, and sidelined, Hardinge helps us understand why Faith has become an inveterate eavesdropper and fibber. Only by snooping and lying can she wriggle her way into the intellectual action, since etiquette prevents females in her culture from participating in after-dinner conversations, scientific expeditions, or even solitary walks in their own neighborhood. Built into the plot, too, are scenes in which the constraining norms of female fashion—spotless gloves, heavy skirts, the flimsiness of cheap mourning dresses—slow down female characters at critical moments or bear telltale traces of illicit actions or outings.

Even science itself throws obstacles in Faith’s path. When a local craniologist pompously informs her that research on the size of women’s skulls proves that too much intellectual activity will “spoil and flatten [the female mind] like a rock in a soufflé,” we cringe and fume with her, especially if we know that such sexist studies really existed, as historian of science Stephen Jay Gould documents in The Mismeasure of Man (1981).

Yet just as readerly wrath begins to peak, Hardinge flips the script by transforming the character who seems destined to be the villain into a victim. On the morning after he hypocritically relies on Faith’s guts and smarts while denying their existence, Reverend Sunderly turns up dead. Gradually, a narrative that had seemed like a straightforward historical fiction morphs into a nail-biting mystery, as Faith struggles to figure out how and why her father died. When she unearths his private diary, she is shocked to discover that the man whom she regarded as an inflexible pillar of piety has been secretly undergoing a painful crisis of faith. His misery at having “lived long enough to see the death of wonders” is intense:

 

Like many others, I have dedicated my life to investigating the marvels and mysteries of Creation, the better to understand the designs of our Maker. Instead, our discoveries have brought us doubt and darkness. Within our lifetime, we have seen Heaven’s lamp smashed and our sacred place in the world snatched from us. We have been dethroned and flung down among the beasts. … We are a blink of an eye, a joke amidst a tragedy.

All these thoughts were unspeakable torment to me.

 

Rather than allowing us to feel comfortably superior to Reverend Sunderly, Hardinge invites us to imagine how it would feel to undergo the kind of vertiginous shock that he has experienced. Suppose you truly believed that you had been created by God in his own image to rule over lesser forms of life. What an affront to your sense of self it would be to discover that a wild rumpus raged all over the earth for millennia before your kind appeared on the scene! What a comedown to admit that you evolved out of the primordial muck by way of the dog-eat-dog “survival of the fittest” known as “natural selection” rather than springing fully formed from the hands of God.

Real-life Victorians were eloquent on this subject, too. In May 1851, the cultural critic and Christian John Ruskin confided in a private letter to a friend that “[My faith] … is being beaten into mere gold leaf, and flutters in weak rags from the letter of its old forms. … If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.” Hardinge’s prose, like Ruskin’s, is studded with metaphorical gems. A cave opening gapes “like a cat’s yawn”; a pet snake “pour[s] like oil” out of its cage; and those pesky fossil hunters who chipped away so relentlessly at Ruskin’s faith do it by working out “how long it took rock to fold itself like puff pastry.”

science sometimes strips the world of wonder, but it also entrances us. It disillusions and illuminates, destroys and creates.

Reverend Sunderly’s diary makes vivid to us how disorienting it can be to lose confidence in a vision of the world that has grounded your perceptions and guided your behavior since earliest childhood. So, too, does the fact that his daughter reacts to his crisis of faith by having one of her own. Unlike the anachronistically feisty and feminist heroines of less realistic historical children’s fiction like the “American Girl” books, Faith has not remained unscathed by the misogynist culture she inhabits. She dismisses and even demonizes other women, including her own mother. And having dutifully followed her culture’s instructions to idolize the man who represents God to her, she reels from the double crisis of losing confidence both in what her father preached and in the man himself.

Indeed, Hardinge’s ingenious plot turns on the fact that Faith cannot easily slough off her old worldview. She has internalized beliefs and prejudices that hinder her from figuring out what happened to her father until it is almost too late. Determined to understand why he risked his own and other people’s lives to track down and study a mysterious tree, Faith loses her ethical moorings much as he did, mistreating the most vulnerable people around her because she is so set on finding out the truth. Because she’s our heroine, we sympathize with her loss of judgment, and, by extension, with his.

Hardinge’s treatment of the titular tree, meanwhile, transforms our sympathy into empathy by putting us in the same position as people whose worldviews are unsettled by unexpected and disorienting discoveries. Just like Victorians who came face-to-face with scientific findings that seemed more nightmarish than real (as the cartoons interspersed in this review illustrate), we as readers are confronted with a sapling whose bizarre, seemingly magical qualities cause some characters to associate it with the Biblical tree of knowledge and others to link it to “the stuff of fairy tales.” Whisper a lie to this tree, we’re told, and it will produce a fruit; eat this fruit, and you will be granted “knowledge of a most secret sort, and on a matter close to [your] heart.” The sudden intrusion of this apparently fantastic element into a meticulously realistic historical fiction is profoundly destabilizing. What sort of story are we reading here? How can we account for the tree’s marvelous qualities?

<i>A Little Christmas Dream</i> by George Du Maurier, published in the December 26, 1868 issue of <i>Punch</i>.

Even as various narrative loose ends get ingeniously woven together into a satisfying solution to the mystery of what happened to Faith’s father, our questions about the lie tree remain unanswered. This is not an authorial cop-out, but rather a sign of how seriously Hardinge takes religious, Romantic, and philosophical concerns about the nature of science. Instead of dismissing Reverend Sunderly’s worry that new knowledge might strip the world of wonder, Hardinge stresses how bleak and brutal life feels to characters who lose their faith. She also reminds us that Romantic artists such as John Keats—no great fan of Christianity—shared this concern. Her sensuously inventive descriptions of the lie tree frequently allude to Keats’s Lamia (1820), a poem that famously questioned the rationalism of overeager scholars keen “to clip an Angel’s wings” or “unweave a rainbow” into its prosaic component parts. “Do not all charms fly,” Keats inquires, “At the mere touch of cold philosophy?”

By the time the word “scientist” came into common use in the 1830s, Mary Shelley had already painted a devastatingly critical picture of overambitious male explorers and experimenters in Frankenstein (1818). Hardinge follows Shelley’s lead by setting her opening scene on a ship and undercutting the seductive myth of the solitary man of genius pursuing a glorious quest for knowledge. In place of Captain Cook’s grand Endeavour or Darwin’s Beagle, she gives us an unromantic little mailboat “chugg[ing] its dogged way through the waves, greasing the sky with smoke.” In place of a solitary seeker of objective truths, she gives us a harried family man dragging along his wife and children as he flees rumors that he has faked his most famous find: a fossil that “proves” that angels once walked the earth. Here and in later scenes set at an excavation site, Hardinge incorporates the insights of contemporary scholars who study how personal beliefs, professional ambitions, and social prejudices shape scientific inquiry.

And yet, The Lie Tree also extols the enticements and triumphs of science. To venture into the prehistoric cavern that’s being excavated, Faith realizes, is to undertake a thrilling form of time travel. Marveling at how this experience transports her to an era when woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats roamed the earth, she reflects that “the past was all around her. She could smell it. It did not feel dead. It felt alive.”

Faith’s determination to become a natural scientist despite all the obstacles society sets in her way stems from her deep appreciation of the puzzle-solving power of observation and experimentation. For this reason, when a credulous character proposes toward the end of the story that science cannot account for the lie tree’s odd properties, Faith strongly demurs: “Just because something has not been rationally explained does not mean it never will be! They used to think flint arrowheads were elf-bolts! The Angles thought Roman ruins were built by giants!” Hardinge’s choice of name for her heroine, it turns out, is not merely ironic: even though Faith has been made painfully aware of the foibles, failures, and misdeeds of other naturalists, including her fallen idol of a father, she nevertheless retains her faith in science.

Science does sometimes strip the world of wonder, Hardinge allows, but it also entrances us. It disillusions and illuminates, destroys and creates. And because science is also a social activity conducted by fallible human beings, objective inquiry is an ideal to humbly strive for rather than arrogantly take for granted. Hardinge’s decision to withhold the truth about the lie tree enables her to celebrate a heroine who is both committed to seeking out scientific truths and capable of recognizing her own limitations and biases. When Faith has access to the lie tree, she never stops trying to figure out its properties and powers. But when it disappears, she admits that the evidence is too “inconclusive” and her own objectivity too “compromised” for her to pass judgment on its nature.

It is thus no accident that Faith’s most vivid childhood memory of fossil hunting on the beach recalls Sir Isaac Newton’s famously modest description of doing science: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all before me.”

We don’t generally associate this kind of humility with the Victorian patriarch. Yet consider how the clergyman and novelist Charles Kingsley responded when Darwin sent him an advance copy of Origin of Species. In a remarkably gracious and open-minded letter of thanks, Kingsley pronounced himself eager “to know & to learn from [you],” even as he acknowledged

 

that if you be right, I must give up much that I have believed & written.

In that I care little. Let God be true, & every man a liar! Let us know what is, and … follow up the villainous shifty fox of an argument, into whatsoever unexpected bogs & brakes he may lead us, if we do but run into him at last.

 

The truth is out there, even if we human beings are imperfect instruments for finding it.