The Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845-1961, by Ian Ker

The Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845-1961, by Ian Ker

Francis Phillips

THE CATHOLIC REVIVAL IN ENGLISH LITERATURE, 1845-1961
by Ian Ker

(Gracewing, 2003, 231pp, $39.95. Available from AD Books)

The six writers included in this most interesting study are John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh; 1845 was the year of Newman's conversion to Rome; 1961 was the year Waugh finished his masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.

Ian Ker asks the key question: what makes a Catholic writer? Rightly distinguishing between writers who happen to be Catholic and Catholic writers, he answers this question by selecting six authors whose religion was central to what they wrote, whether poetry, novels, criticism or essays. Thus Francis Thompson is excluded as although he was Catholic his poetry, including the powerful Hound of Heaven, was not distinctively informed by his faith; similarly, Edith Sitwell, a convert, wrote her poetry before her conversion.

Catholic artists are not trying to preach or write theology; their genius, like that of any artist, is peculiar to them; but because this most protean, beautiful and theologically powerful faith is central to their way of refracting their experience, it will necessarily infuse or inspire what they write.

Catholic "voices"

Fr Ker, a renowned Newman scholar and biographer, ably communicates his love, knowledge and understanding of these distinctive Catholic "voices" and his carefully selected quotations serve to stimulate a reading or re-reading of the whole text to which he refers.

With Newman, for whom the real Presence of Christ in the tabernacle made an overwhelming impact, Catholicism is seen as "liberating one from the prison of self" in contrast to Anglicanism, where subjectivity predominates. His novels, suggests Ker, are more substantial than their current neglect warrants.

In a fascinating analysis of Hopkins' poetry, his innovative "sprung rhythm", as the poet himself describes it, is seen by Ker as reflecting the ordinary rhythms of speech rather than the sonorous, stilted periods of Anglican prose writing - as if the poet is trying to distil the matter-of-factness of a priest's "craft" into his poetry.

Belloc, too, is shown as refusing "to separate the sacred from the secular"; for him, as for Hopkins, Catholicism fused the supernatural with the ordinary in a way that the reformed religion entirely failed to do.

Chesterton's greatness, Ker maintains, lies not in his poetry or novels, which are minor works, but in his "prophetic" books, such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, and in his biographical and critical writing, notably his superb study, Charles Dickens. Dickens, it becomes clear, was something of an alter ego for GKC who intuitively recognised the unconscious "Catholicity" of Dickens' vision, in which good and evil, rich and poor, beggars, villains and saints all jostle together in his colossal canvas, so reminiscent of the medieval Church destroyed by the Reformation.

As an example of Chesterton's perceptiveness, Ker gives an extract from his introduction to Dombey and Son, on the character of Toots: "Nowhere else does Dickens express with such astonishing insight and truth his main contention, which is that to be good and idiotic is not a poor fate, but, on the contrary, an experience of primeval innocence, which wonders at all things. Dickens did not know, any more than any great man ever knows, what was the particular thing he had to preach. He did not know it; he only preached it É that humility is the only possible basis of enjoyment; that if one has no other way of being humble except being poor, then it is better to be poor, and to enjoy; that if one has no other way of being humble except being imbecile, then it is better to be imbecile and to enjoy."

With Graham Greene, Ker argues convincingly that he never wrote so powerfully as during the period of his Catholic "quartet" of novels: Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, in which he brilliantly fused evil, Catholicism, cinematic techniques and the thriller genre.

Fallen man

A telling anecdote of a meeting between Greene and Evelyn Waugh in 1953 has Greene stating that he is planning to write a political novel rather than "always about God"; Waugh responded wittily, "I wouldn't give up writing about God at this stage if I were you. It would be like P.G. Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series."

For Ker, the tension between the order and discipline Evelyn Waugh craved and which he found in the Church and the satiric anarchy of his temperament, created a more permanent body of writing than Greene's murky world of fallen man, struggling with despair and sin (usually mortal). Others may disagree about this. Personally, I think Graham Greene's analysis of a soul, weak, tempted, cowardly, pitiable - I am thinking of the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, which Ker thinks his finest book - speaks more to the lost soul of modern man than Waugh's satiric and beautifully crafted novels.

I once confessed to a friend that I thought I lived imaginatively in "Greeneland". "Leave it immediately!", the friend ordered. Good advice - or at least, if one wishes to make an excursion to this sombre country, do it in the company of this excellent, well-argued volume.

It is Ker's achievement to demonstrate the subtle links between these writers and to illuminate for the reader how Catholicism, "at once so ancient and so new" as St Augustine says, can be a profound creative stimulus and not the strait-jacket that some would have us believe.

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