- Romantic Catholics: France’s Postrevolutionary Generation in Search of a Modern Faith by Carol E. Harrison
Carole Harrison explores the lives and significance of a small cohort of Catholics in France who belonged to a generation that was born in the first two decades of the nineteenth century and whose religious devotion was shaped by a desire to reconcile faith and modernity after the upheaval of the French Revolution. They include Pauline Craven, Charles de Montalembert, Amélie and Frédéric Ozanam, Léopoldine Hugo, Maurice de Guérin, and Victorine Monniot. These “enfants du siècle,” as Alfred de Musset described the generation who came of age without a firsthand memory of the French Revolution, were progressive and, according to Harrison, romantic in their aspirations. Her overarching goal is to resurrect this group of men and women whom historians have allegedly neglected and who were in many cases linked to one another through kinship, friendship, and [End Page 666] marriage, in order to challenge a historiography that she argues oversimplifies the heterogeneous nature of French Catholicism in postrevolutionary France.
The book, which is divided into six chapters and an epilogue, charts the coming of age of the principal protagonists, with the opening chapters devoted to how they became part of the Catholic faith as boys and girls through ritual and education. Chapters 3 to 6 examine how they entered adulthood and reacted or adjusted to the tumultuous events around them, which included the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Second Empire, as well as to political issues, such as the “Roman question.” She ultimately concludes that the hopes and aims of this generation of romantic Catholics were frustrated by intransigent anticlericals, conservative Catholics, and a reactionary church hierarchy, which forced them to retreat, even if they were not wholly defeated.
Although some of the central figures in this book have long been the subject of scholarly attention, including Felicité de Lamennais and Henri Dominique Lacordaire who were not technically “enfants du siècle,” as well as Charles de Montalembert and Frédéric Ozanam, others have been largely forgotten. The most powerful parts of the book are those that rely on their written work as well as on a rich trove of private papers and correspondence that Harrison has culled from archives that range from the Archives du Collège Stanislaus, Musée Victor Hugo, the Institut Catholique de Paris, and the Assumptionist Archives in Rome. This documentation allows her to bring her individuals to life while illuminating how they were connected to one another in ways that have not previously been explored. Moreover, her discussion of the dilemmas that they faced and of the religious and political conflicts that they attempted to resolve sheds a whole new light on a period that runs from the Bourbon Restoration to the Second Empire.
However, it is important to put these Catholic romantics in perspective. They represented a minute segment of the population, and all of them came from privileged economic groups, some even from prominent aristocratic families. A significant number of them died very young. Indeed, Léopoldine Hugo died in a boating accident before she reached the age of twenty-one. This is not to say that they are unworthy of our attention, and the book is important for what it reveals about a small group of Catholics who cannot simply be dismissed as reactionary and retrograde defenders of the faith. It does, however, lead one to wonder about how widely shared their ideas actually were. Moreover, it is unfortunately marred by its mischaracterization of existing scholarship and by its overly grandiose claims. Harrison suggests that the prevalent view of the period is that there were “two Frances”—a monolithic Catholic France and a secular France—and that much of the historical literature on Catholicism in the nineteenth century, especially that which has focused on the “feminization” of Catholicism, has been shaped by the writings of Jules Michelet, minus the misogyny...