Wednesday, 24 November 2010

One sees great things from the valley ...

This a photo of a stone seat in the grounds of the school where I teach. The school lies in a valley and so an enlightened nun or headmistress chose a quotation from G.K. Chesterton's 'The Hammer of God' to adorn the seat: "One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak."

The story from which the quotation is drawn deals with the dangers of spiritual pride, the dangers that come from cutting oneself off from the messiness of the everyday world. This was not Father Brown's besetting sin: by immersing himself in the world, he not only came to understand his flock but also came to be a master detective.

'The Hammer of God' is a great detective story which provides English teachers with all sorts of opportunities. The Innocence of Father Brown, in which it can be found, was published in 1911 and so usefully falls before the National Curriculum's 1914 cut off point. I, for one, would love to teach some of the Father Brown stories to GCSE students. They're cheap too. You can get a good selection of Chesterton's fiction at a very reasonable rate and the Father Brown stories even cheaper.

After years of neglect, Chesterton is being taken seriously once again. This is good news for us all.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

What if they find us?

This book was recommended by one of my Year 7 (11 year old) students and it's quite a find: a powerful story from a mainstream publisher which shows Catholics in a very good light.

What if They Find Us, first published as Guardian Angel House in Canada, is based upon the experiences of Kathy Clark's Hungarian Jewish mother and aunt who were saved from the Nazis by the Sisters of Charity in Budapest. The book is part of the 'My True Story' series but it is actually an imaginative reconstruction of the time in fictional form. The book is very well researched and could easily be taught alongside other war literature for children. For all those reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for example, it would be a great companion piece.

There is a great deal of suspense in this book: Kathy Clark has created real narrative drive, introducing new characters at suitable intervals and leaving us with some well-judged cliffhangers. We really want to know how the children's life in the convent will develop.

As you might expect, there are some terribly sad and moving moments too but it is the faith and heroism of the nuns and children that really shines through. It can be difficult to find good books for our Catholic children. Here's one I'd heartily recommend.

Kathy's website can be found here. As you can see, her British publishers spelt her surname wrongly on the cover of her book. You can order a study guide to What if They Find Us? here.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Preparing for Advent

As Advent draws close it might be worth thinking about what alternatives there are to yet more versions of A Christmas Carol. There are some interesting Christmas stories out there which bust stereotypes. 

Willi Chen's Trinidadian Christmas stories, for example, provide a welcome break from the usual Victorian fare. Alexandros Papadiamandis who has, albeit rather misleadingly, been described as Greece's Dostoevsky also wrote some interesting short stories set during different moments of the liturgical year, including Christmas. A good story for younger children - it makes a good assembly - is Frank McCourt's Angela and the Baby Jesus.

If you are looking for something longer or spikier for older students you could try Alice Thomas Ellis's The Birds of the Air or Mr Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos.

Anyone else got any suggestions? 

Friday, 12 November 2010

Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings was an interesting poet. She wrote many wonderful poems, some of which dealt explicitly with her Catholic faith. Some of her work, like 'For a Child Born Dead', could be extremely hard-hitting but she also wrote wonderful poems of celebration, as can be seen in Praises. You can hear her reading a couple of her own poems here and read some of her poems here or here.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

11th November

It is perhaps worth pointing out that I don't believe that it is the job of the Catholic English teacher to give priority to books by Catholics. However, I do believe that Catholic authors have something special to offer and that it would be curious at the very least if Catholic English teachers and Catholic schools did not draw attention to the work of their co-religionists.

War literature is a case in point. I shall be teaching or recommending many war novels and poems this week, most of which have very little if any connection with Catholicism. However, I am heartened by the fact that some of the finest novels about World War II, the Sword of Honour  trilogy, were written by Evelyn Waugh and deal explicitly with issues of faith. 

Another Catholic author who has been making a name for himself recently (and winning prizes) is William Brodrick, a former Augustinian friar, who talks about his life and work here. His 2008 novel, A Whispered Nameis a very welcome addition to the corpus of First World War literature.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

'Measure for Measure' - a Catholic play with a Protestant ending?

A whole raft of critics have recently shown an interest in Shakespeare and Catholicism. Alison Shell, Professor of English at Durham University, for example, has argued that "the relationship between Shakespeare and Catholicism is an interesting one which has often been underplayed; that Shakespeare's life and works can usefully be discussed in the light of it; and that Shakespeare may well have come from a Catholic family, though this need not imply that he was a Catholic himself." It may, incidentally, be worth pointing out that Shell is an Anglican and so has no Catholic axe to grind.

Other critics have also emphasised the importance of seeing Shakespeare in his Catholic context. Thomas Rist , for example, has written some interesting books and articles about Shakespeare and Catholicism while Manchester University Press has published books about Theatre and Religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare  and Secret Shakespeare: Studies in theatre, religion and resistance .

Given all this interest, what do we make of Measure for Measure, a play about a nun (and a friar, or a duke disguised as a friar) in Catholic Vienna?  According to Ernest Honigmann in Shakespeare. The 'Lost Years' (Manchester, 1985), p.123, Measure for Measure "activates latent active anti-Catholic feelings - while at the same time it manages to present a Catholic point of view persuasively from the inside." Alison Findlay , writing from a quite different critical perspective, comes up with a similar conclusion: "To regard Measure for Measure as anti-monastic satire, where Isabella's ideas 'are meant to differ sharply from those of a largely Protestant audience', fails to take account of the ways in which women might share her point of view because of religious or feminist sympathies."

In many ways Isabella is indeed the play's most interesting character, which, on the face of it, is rather surprising. Shakespeare's ability to give the marginal a voice is, of course, part of what makes him great but Isabella was not only a woman but a Catholic and not only a Catholic but a nun.

The big question is whether she can remain a nun after the play ends: the Duke, still dressed as a friar, twice proposes marriage and Isabella remains silent both times. As Arthur F. Marotti has argued, this is the dramatic crux of the whole play. Does Isabella abandon her vocation for marriage or does she hold out? Is this a Catholic play with a Protestant ending, where the foolish Catholic woman realises the error of her ways?

Or is it, more subversively, a Protestant play with a Catholic ending? Catholic Vienna, as depicted in this play, is rampantly dissolute: a 17th Century Protestant audience would have lapped it up. But Isabella doesn't give them the answer they would have wanted. She remains silent. The play remains ambiguous. The Catholic option is still open.

Siegfried Sassoon

This picture shows Sassoon as he is usually remembered but it's worth also remembering that he lived for many years after World War I and that he became a Catholic in his last years, as discussed in this podcast from Downside and this one from the same conference. It's very difficult to get hold of his last (Catholic) poems but now might well be a good time to resurrect them.