Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the absence of a compensatory faith even in mankind itself, a secondary faith arguably derived from faith in God, A. N. Wilson’s characters lose their ability to navigate a hostile world with lasting, meaningful relationships. Neither science nor art can fill the vacuum left by the impotence of a church whose incessant message is fidelity and perseverance.

Wilson himself has commented that the novel’s subtitle, “A Vision,” has great significance for understanding its setting and theme. Because the novel clearly emulates the trappings of a traditional Victorian novel, Wilson suggests that he added the subtitle to “establish the right mood by giving the book an old-fashioned touch.” Moreover, Wilson points out, there is, as in many Victorian novels, an actual apparition in the story, and this focuses the reader’s attention on “how we see the phantom world,” or the supernatural realities constantly at one’s elbow but constantly eluding one’s senses.

In the novel’s climactic scene, Wilson offers his readers an ironic reaffirmation of the faith that Matthew Arnold once declared would be displaced by poetry and literature but lingers still. Lionel, turning finally to the life of the spirit and discarding the life of the flesh, and Maudie, her innocence about the world still intact, make contact with that world of phantoms at Dover Beach.