Saturday, 3 July 2010

Gothic Horrors

The Gothic is an extremely popular A Level option, partly because it's so much fun to teach, but it does raise interesting questions for the Catholic English teacher because of the apparently inextricable link between the Gothic and anti-Catholicism.

There are many books and articles which address this issue, the most significant recently being Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture by Patrick R. O’Malley. Marina MacKay has also written an extremely interesting article about ‘Catholicism, Character and the Liberal Novel’ [Twentieth Century Literature, Vol.48. No 2 (Summer 2002), pp.215-238], in which she argues that anti-Catholicism is a feature of some of the most celebrated works of English fiction, mentioning Villette and Northanger Abbey as two key examples. 

However the foundational anti-Catholic, Gothic text is clearly Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (also available here). 

Fortunately, the Gothic did move on. According to Victoria Nelson in ‘Faux Catholic: A Gothic Subgenre from Monk Lewis to Dan Brown’ [boundary 2 34:3 (2007) Duke University Press], the Gothic divided into three separate strands during the 19th Century: the anticlerical, the supernatural, and the romantic. Nelson's article perhaps doesn't reach the heights of MacKay's but it does suggest a useful point of departure for English teachers. Much useful work has been done on providing Catholic responses to The Da Vinci Code (including articles here and here) but I wonder if placing Dan Brown's work in its historical, anti-Catholic context makes the point rather more effectively than answering his fictional claims point by point. 

O'Malley's book is particularly useful in providing a historical context for studies of the Gothic. As he points out: "in its ideological structure, the English Gothic novel, though it typically represents Catholicism, is fundamentally a Protestant genre." This is not a matter of complaint but a description of a crisis in the very notion of a British Protestant identity, as the development of the Oxford Movement, the high-profile conversions to Catholicism and the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy ensured that Catholicism, far from being a relic of the past, instead "erupted into the present".

What is more, rather than being a foreign perversion, as suggested by Monk and others, Catholicism "may rather be endemic to British history, culture, and religion . . . the skeletons in the closets – and cloisters – of Britain’s (and Ireland’s) past". 

And what a horrifying thought that would have been.

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