Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature

Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature

Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature

Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature


Exotic, corrupt, and dangerous, Roman Catholicism functioned in the popular Victorian imagination as a highly sensationalized and implacably anti-English enemy. Maureen Moran's lively study considers a wide range of key authors- including Charlotte Brontë, Robert Browning, Wilkie Collins, and George Eliot, as well as a number of non-canonical writers- to give a detailed account of the cultural tensions between Catholics and Protestants. Moran shows that rather than representing a traditional religious schism, the demonizing of Catholics resulted from secular fears over crime, sex, and violence.


Faith of our Fathers! living still
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword:
Oh how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene'er we hear that glorious word.
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

—Father Frederick Faber, 'Faith of our Fathers'

[Persecuted] by the sword, the gibbet, the rack, and the flames… men, women,
and children were burned [by Catholics] before slow fires, pinched to death with
red-hot tongs, starved, flayed alive, broken on the wheel, suffocated, drowned,
subjected to all kinds of lingering agonies.

—Henry H. Bourn, Words of Warning respecting the Jesuits

This book is about an imaginary landscape: a sensationalized 'geography' of Roman Catholicism constructed and widely circulated in Victorian culture. This is a contentious space. It is the site of Protestant defensive battles and Catholic countercultural skirmishes over denominational authority in a society outwardly aligned with Christian principles but increasingly reliant on science and material evidence to validate 'truth'. This terrain of extremes is characterized by linguistic extravagances and plots of crime and violence, of persecution and intrigue. Its signposts are images of confinement, torture and deviance. It is a world peopled by victims and oppressors, law-givers and rebels. Many Janus-faced creatures are found there, too –the brave who are also sinister, the respectable who harbour malign and secret intent. Embedded in discursive and non-discursive practices of all kinds–lectures, sermons, essays and journalism, prayers and hymns, travel journals, private correspondence and public declamations, canonical literary works and the penny pulps, cartoons and art reviews, architectural styles and liturgical rites, laws and parliamentary debates–the territory of Catholic sensationalism can be glimpsed in both the secular and religious domains . . .

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