England's Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia by Philip Hoare - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

False Idols

England's Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia


Fourth Estate 548pp £25

In his 1871 book Unorthodox London, or, Phases of Religious Life in the Metropolis, the Rev Charles Davies observed that ‘sect-hunting, like misery, makes a man acquainted with strange companions and familiarises him with strange experiences’. The nineteenth century saw the emergence of many curious religious communities – usually under the inspiring leadership of a fanatic, a despot, an idealist, or, quite often, simply a charlatan. Some seem now to have been prescient, even courageously radical forerunners of the fresh-air and New Age utopians of the twentieth century – others just desperate, misguided or exploitative. Among the divisions and subdivisions of groups such as the Shakers, the Peculiar People and the Family of Love, there were recurrent themes: communal living; religious rituals involving trance-like ecstasies; there is often an apocalyptic vision; the Book of Revelation is a key text. They frequently combined a lack of physical inhibition with rules of chastity, and could be disquietingly specific in their predictions for a sinful world: in France, the influential utopian Charles Fourier was convinced that eventually the world’s oceans would turn to lemonade; even today, the Panaceans await the Second Coming

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