- Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature
Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a significant constellation of books devoted to the place of Catholicism in nineteenth-century British literature and culture. Among those with strong literary allegiances, there have been (to name only a few) Ruth Vanita's Sappho and the Virgin Mary (1996), Ellis Hanson's Decadence and Catholicism (1997), Kimberly VanEsveld Adams's Our Lady of Victorian Feminism (2001), Frederick S. Roden's Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture (2002), Susan Griffin's Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (2004), Michael Wheeler's The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in Nineteenth-Century Culture (2006), and Maria LaMonaca's Masked Atheism (2008). To this, of course, could be added those accounts of nineteenth-century Catholicism that ground themselves more specifically in traditional historical methods, published with some regularity since the end of the nineteenth century itself. As Maureen Moran suggests at the end of her vigorously argued and wide-ranging Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature, the surprise should not, perhaps, be the recent proliferation of such studies but rather the relative dearth that preceded them, a dearth encouraged by an academic culture for which religion—especially a [End Page 236] religion like Catholicism—seems fundamentally opposed to "liberalism, secularism, rational science ... and other progressive, non-religious outlooks" (284, quoting Turner 6). The cultural studies approaches that could most add to the complexity of our understanding of nineteenth-century religious belief and practice have been, in some ways, most suspicious of religion's reactionary politics:
The mapping of texts and authors on a faith-doubt continuum replicated the twentieth-century cultural myth endorsed by historians: that Victorian society grounded our own modernity through the move to a more "enlightened," non-spiritual understanding of the world. The embedding of critical and cultural theoretical discourses in the academy has certainly put paid to such grand narratives. Nonetheless, these traditions of intellectual activity have tended to eclipse the importance of religion to the Victorian literary imagination.(285)
That is particularly unfortunate, Moran correctly insists, since "the saturation of nineteenth-century culture by Christianity and its denominational variants makes religion always and everywhere a presence" (3).
As the list that opens this review suggests, Moran's book is certainly not alone in striving to fill the void, but it is one of the most intelligent and most cogently constructed. Moran's chapters are generally thematically (rather than chronologically) organized, each appearing under the rubric of a topic of importance to the nineteenth-century representation of Catholicism and focusing on two or three more or less canonical texts or sets of texts. Thus, a chapter on representations of Jesuits provides significant readings of Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! (1855) and Wilkie Collins's The Black Robe (1881), while one on martyrdom highlights Grace Aguilar's The Vale of Cedars (1850) and George Eliot's Romola (1862-63). Poetry is represented by Robert Browning's monologues (paired with Charlotte Brontë's Villette in a chapter on nuns and priests) and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson (in a chapter devoted to Art Catholicism). An effective epilogue nicely frames the book, gesturing toward modernism and, ultimately, our own contemporary moment. Moran situates the anchoring texts of each chapter within a clear and engaging set of historical events, other literary texts, and various archival documents; the bibliography that she has assembled is alone a valuable resource.
Collins aside, Moran does not in general focus on the sensation novel but rather on a broader and conceptually more complex notion of "sensationalism," bringing together "the many and interrelated understandings of 'sensation' that haunted the period" (3). Related to the Gothic, and largely opposing realism, this Victorian sensationalism stresses heightened emotional states—"extreme, eccentric scenarios and language" (12), and it "replaces the passive, escapist comforts of the older genres with a somatic involvement—a physical frisson that moves the reader from shock to curiosity and thence to the active decoding [End Page 237] of a hidden truth" (13). In Moran's account, a culture of...