Most sensible authors steer clear of religion when they write their novels. That has been the case for a very long time. Trollope, for instance, never once strayed into theology, even in his Barsetshire books. But there have always been authors, and there are more these days, who have foolishly decided to be theologians.
I was tempted by the Devil. Amazon told me I could have the collected works of H Rider Haggard on my Kindle for about £2. I succumbed. Goodness me, how I am regretting that decision. Haggard wrote one very good book (King Solomon’s Mines). But he wrote an enormous number of astoundingly bad books as well. Most of his Quartermain books are dire. They are nineteenth century Dick Francis (though not nearly as readable). The plots, as with Francis, are identical. A white woman is kidnapped by a barbaric tribe which worships a goddess who must be white. Quartermain rushes to the the rescue, often assisted by prophecies made by ancient witch doctors (they are always hundreds of years old). The white woman is rescued and the barbarians are slaughtered. But, before that happy ending, we are subjected to Haggard’s religious theories for hundreds of pages. For some reason, despite his adulation of all those ancient witch doctors, he sticks to his belief in Christianity. It is all a bit confusing.
Haggard’s religious sermons are even more tiresome in the novels set in England. I was particularly struck by the one in which our heroine is a beautiful and intelligent young woman who lost her faith when her young brother died. She then falls for a man who thinks her atheism awful. She, of course, changes her mind and becomes a Christian again. The reason for this re-conversion, we are told, is that women, however clever they may be, need men to guide them in these matters.
Trollope was, I venture to suggest, a wiser and much better novelist than H Rider Haggard. He knew that the church, particularly the Church of England, was a magnificent source of comedy and drama, but he also knew that taking any sort of stand on religious opinion would be dotty. It would be bound to offend as many readers as it pleased.
Modern authors, though in a much lazier way, see nothing wrong with tackling religion. Most, of course, are sensible and say nothing about it, but some are not so sensible. They tell us that their heroes are, because they are very clever, committed atheists. In Haggard’s day it was assumed that commitment to Christianity was essential. Now, the opinion of most publishers is that readers all accept that it is impossible to be intelligent and to believe in God.
Haggard was wrong. But modern publishers and authors are also wrong. It is a very rare novelist who is capable of writing intelligently about religion. They ought all to follow Trollope’s example.