'Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind': it would be hard to devise a more off-putting title for Gillian Sutherland's sympathetic account of the Clough family. It's slightly misleading too, because her book is not much concerned with religious faith. The history it presents is shaped by faltering Christian conviction among the liberal elites of the 19th century, and the pursuit of justice and progress that survived Christianity's decline. Sutherland wants to explore a humanist faith, a belief - as she puts it - in people rather than God. The heroine here is George Eliot, and F.W.H. Myers's familiar memory of Eliot's secular sermon in Cambridge, so serious that it has come to seem laughable, is evoked without irony: 'Taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the trumpet-calls of men - the words, God, Immortality, Duty - [she] pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.' Sutherland's point is that such forbidding sentiments were anything but a joke for the Cloughs. Duty and the service to which it led were the inevitable consequences of a disciplined vocation, a solemn price demanded by the emancipations of agnosticism.
LRB 19 October 2006 | PDF Download