Iain H. Murray's book, The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain, has a fascinating premise–that the sharp uptick in the popularity of novels in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly novels written by secularists both ambivalent and hostile toward Christianity and her moral and social norms, was the catalyst for the massive cultural shifts that British culture (and Western culture at large) underwent during that time. In other words, Murray argues that it was the subtle, worldview-shaping power of stories–not science or rational inquiry, per se–that shaped and defined the religious and sexual mores of modern society.
It's an unexpected argument, although it seems reasonable and intuitive once considered. But I remain unconvinced–not because I think Murray is wrong, but because he doesn't really explain why or how the fiction and authors he reviews directly support his thesis. This is an extremely short book, almost a pamphlet, and can be read in one sitting. Murray provides a some brief biographical info and analysis of Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Hardy, and to an even lesser extent Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. He shows that their personal lives directly rebutted their public statements about religion, morality and and human sexuality. Despite proclaiming that one can be happy without monogamy (or marriage at all, for that matter), satisfied by “free love,” and fulfilled by agnostic or atheistic philosophy, their lives were absolute wrecks and utterly failed to vindicate their worldviews.
All this is no doubt true, but there virtually no discussion of the contents of their novels, which I found curious. Beyond an introductory statistic about the skyrocketing popularity of novels in this era–and the correspoding decline in popularity of other literary forms–Murray simply doesn't present much evidence for his thesis. Knowing what I do about worldviews and how people develop beliefs, I am sympathetic to his conclusion. But with so little supporting content (in this book, at least), the argument is unconvincing.
With a more sympathetic perspective, pastor Douglas Wilson thinks this is a “good book for jump-starting your brain.” Wilson has some solid insights about how Murray illuminates the power of story and narrative in cultural development. In any case, it's a fascinating discussion of the impact of literature on society.