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This article is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.

Suburban Ebenezers Donald Davie

Clyde Binfield, So Down to Prayers. Studies in English Nonconformity, 1780-1920, Dent, £8.50.

VICTORIAN NONCONFORMITY has become a favourite field for our social historians. And very properly too: Clyde Binfield's notes to this very entertaining sequence of studies give some idea of the wealth of documentation available, which one or two books and numerous research dissertations have barely begun to make use of. This can only mean that until very lately there has reigned even inside the scholarly community an ignorance which it is not enough to call complacent-which must have been, one cannot help thinking, somehow 'inspired', certainly prejudiced. In fact of course in the educated public at large these prejudices are as strong as ever, and a very little introspection will identify them in each one of us: we think that nonconformist lives and attitudes in Victorian England were drab and predictable, hypocritical, self-satisfied and blinkered, though at times grotesque enough to provide a little high or low comedy. Two years ago a justifiably though dangerously indignant book by Valentine Cunningham, his Everywhere Spoken Against, showed how these prejudices, along with others more vulgar (for instance as to the sexuality of pastors and deacons), have been disseminated and sustained through generations-how Dickens, to take only the gravest instance, consistently perpetuated scurrilous stereotypes taken over from eighteenth-century literature and particularly eighteenth-century theatre. It is a shocking story, because thinking in stereotypes is always shocking, and imagining in stereotypes is even more disgraceful-never more so than when ...


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