The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961: Newman, Hopkins, Belloc, Chesterton, Greene, Waugh, by Father Ian Ker, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.
Father Ian Ker, distinguished theologian, literary critic, and biographer, has not been idle since the publication of his acclaimed life of John Henry Newman in 1988. Books, articles, and reviews have flown from his facile pen, the latest of them now before us in the form a set of loosely conjoined essays devoted to the Catholic Revival in English Literature from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
Assembling a sestet of writers whose dates describe an arc between the Oxford Movement and the first stirrings of the Second Vatican Council, Ker explores a rare moment when Catholics seemed to dominate a world generally inhospitable to their moral and sacramental preoccupations. These writers are a varied bunch—so miscellaneous, in fact, that it is hard to imagine them together anywhere other than in a church, and a very broad church at that. As individuals complex and contradictory, as a group they seem so eccentric that even shared Catholicism strains to contain them.
In order of treatment, Father Ker’s revivalists are Cardinal Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. Allowing for taste and personal preference, it is an impressive roster. Another author might have chosen another list—Francis Thompson, Robert Hugh Benson, Coventry Patmore, Christopher Dawson, Maurice Baring, Muriel Spark, and J.R.R. Tolkien for instance; or (for fun) Alfred Austin (England’s worst Poet Laureate until the present one), Frederick Rolfe, “Baron Corvo” (decadent aesthete, homosexual fantasist, failed seminarian, and oddball), Edith Sitwell (eccentric collector of eccentrics), and Arthur Conan Doyle (less Hound of Heaven than Hound of the Baskervilles, bizarre combination of Stonyhurst and the Ouija Board).
On the whole, Father Ker’s list of writers constitutes an obvious First Eleven. It is also good that his powers of exegesis match his powers of selection. This is a fine book, warmly recommended, full of sharp insight and telling quotation. The reader will not concur with every judgment (which is, indeed, one of the book’s pleasures) and one or two editorial errors creep in, but these niceties apart, it is a highly accomplished piece of work. Learned, witty, and humane, it will give much pleasure to specialist and generalist alike.
The trick, with such a group, is to recognize contradictory impulses within each man as well as between them en masse. Think of Newman. Saintly and sensitive, the greatest prose writer of the nineteenth century, he was also a religious controversialist of fierce and frightening power, never happier than when, Johnson-like, he was arguing for victory. Think also of Hopkins, another study in contradiction. Agonized and lonely, miserable in Irish exile yet somehow displaced even in his native land, he was also a poet of rare originality, touched with the capacity to match his soul-struggle with new and complex metrical forms and to express, strikingly and memorably, the mysterious gift of creation and man’s unworthiness in the face of it.
Then consider Belloc, all dishevelment and defiance. Pugnacious and combative, Catholicism’s happy warrior but given to melancholy and a vinous nostalgia for a vanished chivalric Europe, he was loyal to his Church, his family, and his friends, unyieldingly hostile to any who opposed them. The name is not far wrong. Hilarity and Bellicosity were his abiding characteristics. Or think of his friend Chesterton, a genial genius but tinged with sadness (indeed, briefly, madness) that the world did not see. He was a one-man bundle of most of the creative categories, being successful as poet, novelist, journalist, biographer, playwright, philosopher, and artist. His greatest work of art, of course, was himself: angelically innocent yet worldly-wise, playing to perfection the jester joking that too much solemnity missed the playfulness of God. Paradox was not a verbal trick (or tic) with him but an expression of a deeper metaphysics.
Consider also, in this catalogue of the hard-to-catalogue, Graham Greene. Less ludic than Chesterton, in fact incapable of any simple joyfulness that might have relieved the grim world of whiskey priests and Viennese racketeers, Greene was surer of the existence of hell than of heaven. (The surety came from having seen it, in Mexico and Haiti and in his own rackety private life.) Greene, it was once said, resembled a saint pretending to be a sinner whereas Evelyn Waugh, our final figure, resembled a sinner pretending to be a saint. That overstates the former’s virtue (much in Greene’s life was genuinely disreputable) but it catches something of the latter’s boozy tartuffery. A writer of huge gifts but a difficult man to deal with, he was funny, dyspeptic, preposterous, and absurd. At the end of his life, bloated with drink and at odds with the two worlds he loved—the Church and England—death came as the only friend he had. You must remember, his widow explained to a sympathizer after the funeral, he cannot be any happier than he is by being dead.
Thus did the Catholic Revival in English Literature come to an end—pining for release, spent and broken, calling back a world destined never to return. The arc from 1850 to 1960 turned out to be a dying fall. Callista: A Tale of the Third Century gave way to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a tale all too obviously of the twentieth; Loss and Gain became gain and loss; The Dream of Gerontius paved the way for Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Newman and Elgar made room for Rice and Lloyd Webber: a journey with maps we have all taken to cultural extinction. Perhaps Waugh was right to reach so regularly for the gin bottle.
Father Ker, acknowledging the heterogeneity of his group, makes no claim on his own part to comprehensiveness. “This book is not meant in any sense to be a survey of the Catholic literary revival,” he says, instantly undoing the work of the title. That is a happy fault, if fault at all. Surveys can be dutiful, plodding and pedestrian: all dates and plot summaries and potted biography. Besides, to write a history of the Catholic Literary Revival is to presume that there was such a thing in the first place.
For some, this is to presume too much. Each of those upper-case letters contains a claim and begs a question. How English? How Catholic? How exclusively Literary? In what sense a Revival? Six Authors in Search of a Play is all very well, the critic might argue, but is Catholicism really the drama that defines their putatively shared journey? Is membership of the church bond enough to turn these variegated scribblers into a set, a movement, a crusade?
The question is not trivial. After all, if some of the writers themselves fit uneasily into the box marked “Catholic,” it is all the more problematic to make a Catholic coterie of them, a group self-consciously representative of a tradition and a manner of thought. Thus Chesterton wrote some of his most “Catholic” books before he became a Catholic; Waugh’s earlier novels (extensively summarized by Father Ker) seem hardly Catholic at all; Greene claimed to be a writer who happened to be Catholic rather than a Catholic writer, the distinction itself exquisitely Catholic, worthy of the best manuals for confessors.
Father Ker knows this, of course, cheerfully recognizing the difficulty but assuring us that it need not detain us too long. In this he is probably right. The Church is a big place—none bigger—and it has room for strange bedfellows. Only pedantry or a particularly otiose positivism would deny the coherence of the group either as English or Catholic. Questions beyond that are quibbles.
Yet what was the Catholicism each has in common? It had to do, surely, with the sheer tangibility of the Church as a concrete reality, a thing more than an idea. To be Catholic was to be a member of the Church, the two inseparable and coterminous. It was to be part of a great corporate body, utterly democratic throughout time and space, a vast throng of congregants in the same cathedral, at one in belief, tradition, devotion, and sacramental and symbolic imagination. It was to make public, and to make in public, the most private desire—to be at one with God.
Listen, for example, to Greene, who saw what Archbishop Laud called the “beauty of holiness” in the unlikeliest of places. “I have no sympathy with those who complain of the wealth and beauty of a church in a poor land,” he wrote:
For the sake of another peso a week, it is hardly worth depriving the poor of such rest and quiet as they can find in the cathedral here. I have never heard people complain of the super-cinemas—that the money should be spent in relief—and yet there’s no democracy in a cinema: you pay more and you get more; but in a church the democracy is absolute. The rich man and the poor man kneel side by side for Communion; the rich man must wait his turn by the confessional.
Or listen to Belloc, for whom there was no such thing as “Christianity” (an “imaginary” religion, he called it) or even “Catholicism,” which sounded too much like an abstraction or theoretical proposition. It was the Church or nothing:
There is and always has been the Church, and various heresies proceeding from a rejection of some of the Church’s doctrines by men who still wish to retain the rest of her teaching and morals. But there never has been and never can be and never will be a general Christian religion professed by men who all accept some central important doctrines, while agreeing to differ about others…. The Catholic Church was from Her origin a thing, not a theory. She was a society informing the individual, and not a mass of individuals forming a society…. Here is the corporate tradition which made Europe: the Thing which is the core and soul of all our history for fifteen hundred years… [God reveals Himself to the world] through a corporation—a thing not a theory—an organism by which He may continue to be known for the fulfilment of the great drama of the Incarnation.
Or listen to Newman: “I could attend Masses for ever and not be tired,” Willis, the Catholic convert in Loss and Gain observes.
“It is not a mere form of words—it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is, not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble.”
Examples could be multiplied but the point is clear. In their different ways, Father Ker’s six writers gave voice to the doctrine that all Catholics hold—that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, the expression, in Time and beyond Time, of the work of Eternity. The Word made Flesh dwells among us yet. The Church’s sacramental life is the life of Christ Himself, a miraculous sharing and self-giving, a gift beyond price to a pilgrim people at once journeying towards heaven and, in another sense, already there.
They had an easy intimacy with mystery, these six, as all Catholics must have who take their church seriously. With Chesterton, for instance, the intimacy was with the mystery of goodness. With Greene, on the other hand, it was with the mystery of evil. Think of Chesterton’s insight in Orthodoxy that the task of the philosopher—of every person—is to be at once at home in the world yet utterly amazed by it. One must “somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly.” “We do not fit into the world,” he said, but see, rather, “the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural.”
The same apprehension of the sheer gift and goodness of being, the strange loveliness of all creation, permeates the work of Hopkins, great poet of landscape and “inscape.” But think, too, of Greene, wrestling with malevolence and losing. His derelict characters reach their private Golgothas too broken even to hope for redemption, often refusing when freely offered it at the last. Greene in his own life came to resemble them, once for instance declining an invitation from Padre Pio (now a saint) because he knew such a meeting would require him to reform his life. He called his memoirs Ways of Escape. Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven should have reminded him there is no escape.
Yet in a more important sense the Church is not prison but liberation. It is the way of escape—from the cell of the self, from the solipsist nightmare, from the grubbiness of materialism, from the overwhelming fact, in every age, of sin and sorrow. For Hopkins, the church was a heaven-haven. For Belloc, it was freedom from “the isolation of the soul.” For Chesterton, it was salvation from being a child of his own time. For Waugh, it was “an island of order and sweetness in an ocean of rank barbarity.” For Newman, it was emergence from darkness to light. Without God, he wrote, “we are pent up within ourselves. We need a relief to our hearts…that they may not go on feeding upon themselves; we need to escape from ourselves to something beyond.” That “something beyond” is God. It is also, mysteriously, His Church on heaven and earth. Examining six of its members, Father Ker has written a splendid book.