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English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 50.1 (2007) 50-72

Catholicism and Ideal Womanhood in Fin-de-Siècle Women's Poetry
F. Elizabeth Gray
Massey University

It has been said that the cultural move toward transgressiveness pervades the literature of the fin de siècle: "in the poetry of the late 1880s and 1890s, the desire to resist conventional boundaries—whether of poetic form, sexual identity, or social mores—appears everywhere."1 Most critics have fitted the treatment of Christian religion in the literature of the period into this trajectory of transgression; generally, critical attention has tended to focus on the ways the language and symbolism of the church were taken over for unconventional or sacrilegious purposes.2 Catholicism's appeal to the Decadent poets has been variously documented—but devout adherents of the church, too, were writing poetry. While the Roman Catholic faith in late-Victorian England was indubitably politically and socially conservative, it helped produce refigurings of the role of woman that are both original and provocative.

Within the whirl of the areligious hedonism that in most accounts characterizes the fin de siècle, the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth in fact saw a gathering of considerable social and creative force amongst Roman Catholic writers in London. Calvert Alexander writes: "While the Catholic Revival was not, in its origin, a manifestation of the 90's, it is quite true to say that its life was quickened, its influence augmented, either simultaneously with or as a result of the many enthusiasms let loose by the last two decades of the nineteenth century."3 Problematically, the majority of literary critics have tended to concentrate on those other enthusiasms and (very occasionally) on the ways Catholicism was refracted by those movements, rather than hypothesizing that "influence" might have gone both ways, or turning the focus on how these movements may have been refracted by Catholicism. These fin-de-siècle years saw an impressive centralization [End Page 50] of some of the most critically and financially successful writers of the day: the old guard of Aubrey de Vere and Coventry Patmore; the once-destitute and ever-shaky Francis Thompson; the sprightly young Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, and Alfred Noyes; and, floating about, the delicate, Decadent Lionel Johnson. The Catholic Literary Revival, a movement that defies description as either mainstream or "radical," centered in literal and symbolic ways on womanhood. For at the center of this group, in different but no less significant ways, were two highly successful and highly regarded women writers: Alice Meynell and Katharine Tynan; at the outskirts, leaving and rejoining the circle as she crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, was the beautiful and aloof American Agnes Tobin. The relationships and interconnected works of these artists focus attention on important questions about the literary, religious, and romantic influence that Catholic women writers had on each other, on their cultural moment, and on constructions of female identity, community, spirituality, sexuality, and leadership.4

The influence of Christian religion on the fin de siècle's contested categories of gender deserves reassessment, and the contribution of Catholicism in particular should be more closely examined. Focusing on the work of three women poets linked by religion, self-defined literary roles, and intimate friendship, this article will explore how the feminine and artistic ideals were written and rewritten in ways quite distinct from contemporaneous "transgressive" versions. The discussion will focus primarily on the poetry the women wrote in the combative fin-de-siècle years between 1890 and 1914, years that also saw the period of greatest intimacy between the friends, and I will argue that the close friendships characterizing this coterie of coreligionist writers significantly shaped their rewritings of ideal womanhood. Examining the ways this group of Catholic women poets constructed themselves and each other by means of a Catholic-inflected womanly ideal, and analyzing the poetic, political, and psychological complexities attending these constructions, will offer further illumination of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 50-72
Launched on MUSE
2007-01-22
Open Access
No
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