Into unorthodox London: the religious ethnography of Charles Maurice Davies

Watson, Sophie and Dodsworth, Francis (2012). Into unorthodox London: the religious ethnography of Charles Maurice Davies. Victorian Literature and Culture, 40(2) pp. 487–508.



The Rev. Charles Maurice Davies (1828-1910) was a prolific author, but he is most famous for his novels, Philip Paternoster (1858), Shadow Land (1860), Broad Church (1875) and ’Verts (1876), and for his journalism, written for the Daily Telegraph and the National Press Agency and collected and published as Unorthodox London (1873), Heterodox London (1874), Orthodox London (1874-75), and Mystic London (1875). Through this work Davies engaged in the great mid-Victorian debate about the permissible limits to unorthodox religious practice that was taking place within the Church of England. Davies’s journalistic works attracted as much criticism as his novels, but they have not been subject to the same kind of recent critical analysis. This is not to say that they have been ignored, because they are frequently utilised by historians to illustrate elements of Victorian religious culture. However, the Unorthodox London series has not been analysed on its own terms, with a view to explaining what Davies was trying to achieve with these texts, or how they relate to his other published output. In this article our aim is to illuminate this dimension of Davies’s work. The Unorthodox London series constitutes an amalgam of the genres of social investigation and sensational journalism, acting as a guidebook to the religious unorthodoxy of the city. We argue that this dimension of Davies’s texts provides an important indication of their wider strategy. These discourses point in two directions at the same time: towards the specific content of the religious practices being described and at the same time towards the kind of discourse being produced about them, urban ethnography, creating meaning through the process of analogy. Like other famous urban ethnographers of the period Davies was seeking not only to establish his own capacity to speak impartially on the subject, but he was also indicating that these religious groups were a distinct culture, already living a way of life beyond reach of the Established church. His work seeks to illustrate the futility of attempting to impose from above any particular vision of order for religious practice, and that this circumstance had perhaps developed because the church had largely ignored the needs of many people in their own communities by focusing on ritual and theology not on the social life of the religious.

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