Research Stream


Spencer Jackson
The University of Queensland

God Made the Novel: Political Theology in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Beginning with John Dryden's Restoration panegyrics to the king and ending with Maria Edgeworth's early nineteenth-century Irish novels, this project reinterprets the novelistic individual that is said to be one of the great secular innovations of eighteenth-century British literature as a fundamentally theological entity modeled after the at once mortal and immortal figure of the medieval king.

God Made the Novel: Political Theology in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Image: The King as Christ, Frontispiece, Eikon Basilike, 1648

The opposition of novelists and Tory Augustan poets in eighteenth-century studies has long served a Whiggish agenda; upon its basis, critics ranging from Georg Lukács to Ian Watt to Nancy Armstrong have read the novel as a secular product largely distinct from the theological and nationalist concerns of tradition-minded Augustans. Moving from the poetry of Dryden and Pope to the novels of Richardson and Edgeworth, this project constructs a new transgeneric and post-secular narrative of the novel’s rise in the eighteenth century. While indeed critical insofar as it undermines the secular claims of Anglo-modernity, this project is also a movement beyond the critical horizon. Dr Spencer Jackson exposes the imperial mythology that underpins both England and the broader idea of the West to which it helps give rise, but also argues for affirming the emancipatory possibilities that the dissemination of this imperial theology ironically makes possible. Hailing the example of Richardson’s Clarissa, Jackson calls for celebrating the persistence of theology insofar as it is the internalized divinity at the heart of the modern self that imbues modern subjects, from the eighteenth century to the present, with an absolute right to self-governance. In sum, this project aims to critique secularism and yet defend modernity.  

Related Publications
'Clarissa’s Political Theology and the Alternative Modernity of God, Death, and Writing'. The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. Accepted for publication, forthcoming.

'Never Getting Home: The Unfulfilled Promise of Maria Edgeworth’s Irish Tales'. Studies in Romanticism 50.3 (2011): 505–29.