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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Catholic Literature

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Catholic Literature

Nineteenth-century Catholicism, long ignored, is enjoying a renaissance among scholars, who have noted its centrality not only to political discourse, but also to hot-button issues ranging from poetics to gender identity.  Richard Griffiths’s The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850-2000 is the first wide-ranging survey since Thomas Woodman’s Faithful Fictions: The Catholic Novel in British Literature (1991), and covers poetry as well as fiction.  The book is both conversational and opinionated, emphasizing major authors (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, et al.), with a decided preference for nondidactic literary approaches.  Brian Sudlow’s Catholic Literature and Secularisation in France and England, 1880-1914, narrower in scope, draws on secularization theory (especially the recent work of Charles Taylor) to analyze how figures such as Leon Bloy, J. K. Huysmans, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc challenged secular attitudes to such topics as sexuality, economics, and social organization.  Maureen Moran’s Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature analyzes not only how Protestants (and Jews) shaped sensationalist representations of Catholicism as a morally and spiritually depraved religion, but also how Catholics appropriated and subverted such literary hysteria.  In particular, Moran focuses on how Catholicism posed problems for Judaeo-Protestant concepts of the nation-state, whether by undermining conscience or by subverting the very notion of a bounded national identity.  Similarly, Maria LaMonaca’s Masked Atheism: Catholicism and the Secular Victorian Home analyzes how Protestant and Catholic women writers both constructed and critiqued gendered notions of domesticity, working through major themes in anti-Catholic discourse (anxieties about the Eucharist, the confessional, Mariolatry, apparitions, and so forth).

More unusually, in Roman Catholic Saints and Early Victorian Literature: Conservatism, Liberalism, and the Emergence of Secular Culture, Devon Fisher argues that saints’ lives (as written and read by Anglican, Protestant, and Roman Catholic authors) engaged with important debates about denominational boundaries, national identity, gender, and sexuality.  Although Victorian Protestants were generally loud in their attacks on “Mariolatry,” the Virgin Mary also inspired a number of more thoughtful, and sometimes proto-feminist, appropriations.  In Our Lady of Victorian Feminism: The Madonna in the Work of Anna Jameson, Margaret Fuller, and George Eliot, Kimberly VanEsveld Adams draws on contemporary feminist theology to analyze how authors working within very different religious frameworks used Marian imagery to imagine women’s spiritual and cultural roles.