Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Catholicism and the Novel

In recent years Pope Benedict has had a lot to say about Catholicism and literature, focussing primarily on the way of beauty, the via pulchritudinis - see here, here, and, for a contextual discussion, here - and mentioning poetry more often than the novel.

And it is not just his speeches either: just before Christmas it was a poet, José Tolentino Mendonça, rather than a novelist who was appointed as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture.

There are many possible reasons for this focus on poetry - perhaps, one might speculate, poetry is a more obvious vehicle for the Way of Beauty than the unruly novel - but it does leave the relationship between Catholicism and the novel somewhat unexplored.

Some writers and critics would have us believe that the novel is fundamentally uncatholic. George Orwell, for example, famously asked "how many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.'' ('Inside the Whale')

And more recently Valentine Cunningham, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, claimed that novels "have rights to that designation only insofar as they display their origins in and their debt to the Northern European Protestant matrix; they have, as it were, the matching DNA."

However, as Peter Marshall has pointed out in The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction, Orwell's claim "is difficult to endorse historically, partly because the Reformation was not noticeably in favour of free minds or autonomous individuals, and partly because some of the best early examples of what we now think of as novels - Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605) or Hans von Grimmelhausen's Simplicissimus (1688) - were the work of Catholic authors."

And the same is true in later centuries: it doesn't take long to find highly significant novels by Catholic authors - like Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed - even before the great Catholic literary revivals of the 20th Century.

Or we could go further back into literary history. Margaret Anne Doody challenges the views of critics like Ian Watts (and Valentine Cunnigham) by arguing, in The True History of the Novel, that the origins of the novel can be found not in post-Protestant England but in classical antiquity.

Nonetheless, it certainly is possible to see the novel as a secular or Protestant form that has been taken up and shaped on occasion by Catholics, to see it, in Georg Lukács's famous phrase, as "the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." Unlike The Divine Comedy or the Arthurian legends, say, the novel tends to deal with the struggles of individuals in this very human world.

But does this matter? How are we to analyse the novel from a Catholic perspective? These are complicated issues which I shall attempt to explore in my next post.


  1. I just discovered your blog and linked it on my blog roll. Very interesting. In the "Idea of the University" didn't Newman rather regretfully admit that English literature was so predominantly Protestant? Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Stephanie.

    Newman did indeed write that "English Literature will ever have been Protestant" but I agree with G.K. Chesterton, who responded (in 'The Thing'): "English literature was English a long time before it was Protestant."