Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Pen and the Cross

Some of the most interesting work about Catholicism and English Literature in the last few years has come from French specialists. I shall write about Brian Sudlow's Catholic Literature and Secularisation in France and England, 1880-1914 another time but today I want to mention The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850-2000 by the recently retired Professor of French at King's College London, Richard Griffiths.

Griffiths is an interesting man. He is now an Anglican Priest and has written, among other things, a book about Poetry and Prayer for Lent. The best moments in The Pen and the Cross come when his sympathy for Catholicism, his French expertise and his knowledge of English Catholic Literature come together, as when he writes about Graham Greene and French Catholic writers.

There are also some wonderful surveys in this book. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Gerard Manley Hopkins which would be a great introduction to the poet's work for 6th Formers.

However, I have to take issue with some of his judgements about Catholicism and the 20th Century novel. Griffiths is clearly more comfortable with what he calls "the heady atmosphere of the build-up to Vatican Two" than he is with the hermeneutic of continuity and so he aligns himself with those authors who, like "Greene and Lodge have shown that a new, vital, more literary Catholic novel can be created on the basis of dialogue and uncertainty".

Evelyn Waugh, therefore, has a "very rigid view of Catholic faith and doctrine" and "his work is essentially a dead-end" while Greene "stands as a rock at the centre of the Catholic literature of his time". And, like Waugh, a number of other writers "entrenched themselves in a last-ditch defence of traditional values".

So Alice Thomas Ellis gets relatively short shrift, in part because of her "predictable sideswipes against the modern Church", and Muriel Spark is a flawed genius partly her Catholicism is "of a traditional type, untouched by the modern tendencies that we have seen in so many other Catholic writers of the period."

I would argue instead that it is precisely writers like Waugh, Spark and Alice Thomas Ellis who provide the basis for a Catholic literary revival. In the years since Waugh's death, Britain may not have produced its own Martin Mosebach, a literary heavyweight and champion of orthodoxy, but it is surely only a matter of time. 

I am not writing off writers like Lodge and Greene, whom Griffiths rates so highly, but I would want very strongly to challenge the suggestion that "traditional values" are dead. The accession of Pope Benedict XVI suggests very strongly that the theological tide, and with it (ultimately) the Catholic literary tide, has turned.

But I don't want to end with criticism of The Pen and the Cross. Despite a few puzzling omissions (like Rumer Godden), Richard Griffiths has given us a fascinating book which has left me wanting to follow up a great number of novels, poems and writers. Catholic English teachers and Catholic schools will certainly want to have a copy on their shelves.

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