The Best of Brit Lit

A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: Religion all over the world becomes more American, the prostitute economy of Georgian London, and the dark interests of novelist Dennis Wheatley.

Religion Goes Global

The standard European view of religion in the United States is that it is exceptionally powerful by contrast with the drift away from the churches in the rest of the industrialized world. No, say John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their book God Is Back : “For the first time since the dawn of the modern era, the world seems to be moving decisively in the American rather than the European direction.” Ever-greater numbers of people throughout the world profess adherence to one religion or another. But, as Jonathan Benthall argues in his TLS review of God Is Back and other recent examinations of this theme, it is unclear how much this shows a genuine resurgence of faith, the need for shelter from the “hurricane of capitalism,” or an investment in a new kind of market. In Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s explanation, the United States has embraced pluralism and free choice rather than state fiat; people take cover from market excess under the canopy of religion; and since there appears to be an inverse relationship between the generosity of the welfare state and the success of religion, the more generous the secular welfare state, the more it will “crowd out” religion-based charities and reduce the demand for religion in general. Western Europe’s generous welfare provisions make it the exception today—but for how long, as welfare provisions come under pressure?

Dirty Georgians

According to one estimate of the numbers of prostitutes who walked its streets, Georgian London was “a heady mixture of 1970s Amsterdam and 1990s Bangkok,” writes Stella Tillyard. Economic expansion, according to Dan Cruickshank’s book The Secret History of Georgian London, was heavily dependent on the sex industry. If a client paid too small a fee, the woman might place the offending banknote on a slice of bread and eat it, or so goes one of the many well-told stories in the book. The exact numbers in the trade, however, are more controversial, argues Tillyard. We know a great deal about attitudes to and the practice of adultery in the 18th century but relatively little about what Cruickshank suggests was the purchase of sex on a massive scale. The evangelicism of the 1860s may have played a part in its decline.

The Saintly Dennis Wheatley

An enthusiastic later user of prostitutes was the novelist Dennis Wheatley. As Ronald Hutton describes in the TLS, he despised Christianity but instinctively associated sex with the Devil. In the words of Wheatley’s new biographer, Phil Baker, this allowed allowed him ”a classic puritan double take” in his novels, lushly describing the orgies of Satanists and their sexual degradation of beautiful women while deploring them and having his heroes rescue his heroines from similar fates. His novels showed Satanism as the hidden force behind communism, avant-garde art, black power, the working class, and everything else he hated. They also made him a very rich man.

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Peter Stothard is the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war and On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy which will be published in January.