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Eighteenth-Century Women and English Catholicism
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It always comes as a surprise when the nocturnal erupts into broad daylight.

–Michel de Certeau

When the pauper Mary Arrowsmith was found dead at Derwent Bridge in Walton, Lancashire in 1747, authorities discovered a Catholic catechism in her pocket. She had inscribed it “Mary Arrowsmith her book.” Death has a way of bringing what has been hidden to light, and this episode suggests much about the hidden persistence, and persistent hiddenness, of Catholicism in eighteenth-century England. The discovery of Arrowsmith’s body occurred a mere two years after a failed Jacobite invasion of Great Britain. Anti-Catholic sentiment had risen to an all-time high between 1744 and 1746, stoked by Dissenting and Anglican propaganda campaigns. Printed pamphlets, sermons, and books recycled long-standing fears associated with the consequences of an imagined Catholic resurgence: tyranny, religious persecution, suppression of free thought, plots to aid England’s enemies, and atrocities against innocents. Indeed, anti-Catholic texts so saturated the book market that the bookseller Ralph Griffiths observed that printers lost money by having “glut[ted] the publick with pieces of that Sort.” In Lancashire and elsewhere, mobs attacked Mass-houses, yet Arrowsmith’s possession of the Catholic catechism seems to signal a willingness to pursue Catholic doctrine beyond the stereotypes of the popular press. The catechism, a key genre of religious instruction and doctrinal inculcation, points to an assertive, if furtive, Catholic presence supported by the printing and distribution of Anglophone texts in what sometimes has been regarded without qualification as the Protestant territory of mid-eighteenth-century England. Arrowsmith’s signature animates this haunting presence, rendering it visible through female agency and an attenuated form of discursive ownership: “her book.” It hints at Arrowsmith’s desire to register membership in a legally suppressed faith community whose activities were often confined to private forms of expression and instruction, typically fostered by reading. Indeed, the episode reminds us that in the wake of anti-Catholic repression, English Catholicism had become a religion of forbidden books and covert reading habits.

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Figure 1. 

Converte Angliam, engraving and etching, circa 1685. Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The essays in this special issue of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature examine imaginative work by both Catholic and Protestant English women during the long eighteenth century as they wrestled with Catholicism’s ineradicable presence. Missing here are accounts of women’s anti-Catholic activity, exemplified by writers like Mary Wollstonecraft. Instead, the writers discussed respond to the Catholic presence with varying degrees of sympathy. Some of these women followed the path of Mary Astell, whose undeniably Protestant credentials did not prohibit her from recognizing the value of convent life for certain women, even as she held Catholicism itself at a distance. Others, like Ann Radcliffe, probed England’s officially banished Catholic legacy, exploring and even questioning the accepted truths propagated by popular culture. Still others went about the business of educating themselves and their children in the Catholic faith or even joined English convents. They vary broadly in their religious affiliations and affinities, but for each, England’s Catholic past might be said to haunt her writing or artistic endeavors, requiring careful attention and interpretation if its presence is to be properly understood. In this sense, these women’s varied interactions with Catholicism constitute the kind of cultural self-analysis examined later by Michel de Certeau. Insofar as the appearance of a dead body holding a Catholic catechism signals a cultural return of the repressed, so too does the frequent appearance of Catholic activity in eighteenth-century English women’s imaginative work signal an eruption of the “nocturnal” into “broad daylight.” Though nothing more is known about Mary Arrowsmith, her appearance in the historical record asks us to consider what other and more ample inscriptions eighteenth-century English women made regarding their respective relation to Catholicism.

In the popular imagination, fear of the return of the repressed English Catholic past often fixated on unruly women actively advancing Catholicism’s cause, participating in its sexual corruption, or succumbing to the temptations of Machiavellian papist operators. In popular prints, such as the anonymous Converte Angliam (1685), a wolf...

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