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  • Recusant Poetics:Rereading Catholicism at the Fin de Siècle
  • Alex Murray

English Roman Catholicism, post-Reformation, has always been a complicated mixture of politics and religion, faith that cannot help but be politicised. For a great many writers of the fin de siècle who were practicing Catholics, and in many cases converts, the politics that may have driven or underpinned their allegiance to Rome remain obscure. For many critics it has been an explicitly sexualised phenomena, the politics here being a link between the aesthetics of the Church and sexual dissidence. Within these debates over the politics of Catholicism in the late-Victorian period, there has been little or no attention paid to the specifically English history of Roman Catholicism. This article explores the affinity that two writers associated with Decadence and aestheticism, Lionel Johnson and Louise Imogen Guiney, had with the figure of the recusant. In a moment of a resurgent Catholicism that was attempting to distance itself from the dark years following the Reformation, what did it mean to see oneself as a recusant? Guiney maps out a counter-geography of Oxford, exploring the continuity between its medieval Catholicism and the rejuvenated Catholicism of her own time. Johnson's poetry celebrates the recusant as a noble figure of resistance who stands in opposition to modernity and the Protestant history of post-Reformation England. In sketching out these two poets' attachments to the figure of the recusant this discussion demonstrates the need for greater attention to theology and Church history in our understanding of late-Victorian Catholicism.

Reading Fin-de-Siècle Catholicism

There were numerous famous late-Victorian converts to Rome, many of whom we associate with Decadence: Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson, Aubrey Beardsley, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper ("Michael Field"), John Gray, Ronald Firbank, Baron Corvo, and Ernest Dowson. [End Page 355] The reasons for their conversions are complex, and one should avoid attempting to find a single, comfortable link between the aesthetic practices of these writers and the Church of Rome. Yet clearly there are a number of dominant themes, many of which coalesce around the problems of sex and sexuality. Ellis Hanson, in his comprehensive study Decadence and Catholicism, has argued persuasively that both Decadence and Catholicism rely on a pleasure of the text or aesthetic object to displace desire: "the tendency of the decadents to displace sexuality onto textuality rendered them susceptible to the lure of the Church, in which sexuality was more likely to find an articulation in the stylistic excesses of gothic and baroque art than in any genital transgression."1 Other critics, such as Marion Thain, have sought to outline a related yet importantly distinct Catholic poetics of desire in "Michael Field."2 The politicisation of Decadent textuality through the exploration of sexuality has done much to call into question the charges of apoliticism against Decadent authors. In some ways this has worked, inadvertently, to make Catholicism in the period seem an almost universal set of symbols, tropes and practices that functioned in one very specific context—that of the emergence of a modern homosexual identity. In doing so Catholicism's controversial position in the Victorian period has become somewhat obscured. Mark Knight and Emma Mason have suggested that our understanding of Catholic literature at the fin de siècle must pay attention to theology as the "primary category" for thinking about religion in the period.3 Agreed, and the goal of this article is not to discard or ignore the work of Hanson and others, but to add to our understanding of fin-de-siècle Catholicism by reading it through Church history, theology and the broader politics of religion following the Catholic Relief Act of 1829.

One of the many reasons that Protestants were wary of Catholicism was that they considered it to be a move away from the tradition that had placed the Bible at the centre of religious life; it was "ritualism" that was "the highway to Rome," and young people could be easily converted by the affected, superficial, aesthetic nature of the Catholic mass as ritualistic aspects began to creep into the Anglican service as a result of the Oxford Reform Movement. As the...


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pp. 355-373
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Will Be Archived 2021
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