Academic journal article Cithara

Roman Catholic Saints and Early Victorian Literature: Conservatism, Liberalism, and the Emergence of Secular Culture

Academic journal article Cithara

Roman Catholic Saints and Early Victorian Literature: Conservatism, Liberalism, and the Emergence of Secular Culture

Article excerpt

Roman Catholic Saints and Early Victorian Literature: Conservatism, Liberalism, and the Emergence of Secular Culture. By Devon Fisher. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. viii, 192. $99.95.

On the copyright page of Devon Fisher's wide-ranging monograph, the index of pertinent Library of Congress subject headings stretches to ten. Among these headings, quite appropriately, are "Anglo-Catholicism in literature," "Religion and literature-England-History-19th century," and "Secularism-England-History-19th century." More subject headings could profitably be added, for Fisher surveys fundamental aspects of early Victorian politics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and intellectual history as well as the era's religious complexity, and he examines works from genres as diverse as poetry, novels, tracts, saints' lives, travel narratives, and popular journalism. Fisher handles this omnibus of primary and secondary materials with erudition, grace, and admirable concision in supporting his argument. The result is an insightful and readable contribution to a burgeoning area of study, that of the pervasive influence of Roman Catholicism on British literature in the first half of the 19th century.

The place of Roman Catholicism in England had been a vexed question since Tudor times. Not until the late 18th century, amid passionate "No Popery" resistance, were laws enacted to relieve Catholics of a few of their social, educational, and religious restrictions. Fisher posits that along with the extension of rights to Dissenters in 1828 and the extension of the franchise as part of the Reform Bill of 1832, the granting of civil rights to Catholics in the Catholic Emancipation Bill of 1829 invigorated the forces of cultural conservatism and led them to examine, first, how this liberal expansion of rights to the individual had been allowed to occur, and second, how it might impact the English national character, historically linked to its Protestantism and to power vested in (Anglican) Church and State. The legalization of alternate belief systems implied their validity as ways for fully enfranchised English people to live, and this marked a critical shift in English mentality.

This sweeping conservative re-evaluation was carried on, of course, in theological and political discussion in elite circles, but it also manifested itself in more popular venues. Fisher suggests that representations of Roman Catholic saints, who pre-dated Anglican Protestantism and who were familiar to English people of all classes and religious backgrounds, became the site where layers of history and collective memory converged, and where modem anxieties about Catholicism and other liberal threats to historic Englishness played themselves out. Fisher states his book's intention: to "explore ... the early Victorian anxiety surrounding the Roman Catholic saints, reading their presentations of those saints as vehicles for a conservative cultural critique of what many at the time perceived as pervasive liberalism that had disrupted nearly every aspect of their culture" (2).

Fisher's introduction identifies ways in which saints and saints' lives offered exciting ambiguities to early Victorian writers. Fisher argues that although the doctrine of mediation-that saints can intervene with God on behalf of sinners-was troublesome even to writers most in sympathy with Catholicism, Victorian writers textually manipulated the saints to mediate instead between the English present and the English past, to demonstrate a unity of English identity across time (12-13). Likewise, Victorian writers used saints' lives to explore the question of authority. Fisher notes the Tractarians' earnest engagement with the debate over apostolic succession, and he suggests that historical variations in the process of canonization offered Victorian writers the chance to enter this debate by writing about saints-saints of former days might have been chosen through a formal top-down decision of Catholic hierarchy or they might have been lifted up by popular acclamation (13-14). …

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