Luca Fumagalli

Most of the French writers who brought the Catholic novel back into vogue during the 19th and 20th centuries had decidedly snobbish artistic tastes. The objects of popular devotion seemed ridiculous to them; Bloy, Huysmans and Baumann described with disgust rustic paintings depicting the crucified Christ and the somewhat naïve Sacred Hearts. Huysmans was even convinced that this ugliness, in addition to dishonouring the Church, was bordering on the satanic.

In England, due to the Protestant iconosclasm, the protagonists of the Catholic Literary Revival showed a completely different attitude: even if there was no lack of detractors against bad taste, the prevailing attitude was not that of mocking but rather that of enhancing popular sacred art.

Frederick Rolfe in novels such as Hadrian the Seventh defended in the French way the elitist essence of beauty, which only a few are able to appreciate. But in this case, as in many others, Baron Corvo was an exception to the rule.

Exemplary of the dominant trend was instead the work of Maurice Baring. In the novel C the heroine, Beatrice Fitzclare, defends the value of the Mass, regardless of where it is celebrated, whether in a humble country parish or in a majestic cathedral. But Beatrice goes further: perhaps popular art, humble and simple as a child, could paradoxically offer a better representation of the intimate nature of Catholicism. A similar case is the description of the private chapel in Daphne Adeane.

In One Poor Scruple, the dandy Mark Fields witnesses a blessing in a small church, and is shocked by the ugliness of the sacred furnishings that surround him. Mrs Wilfrid Ward’s intent is ironic: while on the one hand she undermines the haughty attitude of her character, on the other hand she exalts the simple – and therefore more authentic – faith of the Riversdales, a family with an ancient Catholic tradition. Moreover Fields, who converted to the Church of Rome only because he was attracted by the liturgical pomp, will finally discover that religion is not a matter of the palate but of the heart.

The aesthetics of ugliness therefore characterizes a large part of early twentieth century English Catholic literature. If Ronald Firbank deliberately abused it to create the ecclesiastical world, all grotesque and kitsch, of Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, in The Sentimentalists Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson introduces one of the protagonists, the priest Richard Yolland, through the description of the sacred objects that adorn his room (as happens for nanny Hawkins in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited). The devotional trinkets, once again, are a symbol of a sincere, genuine, and therefore lively Faith, far from the dryness of a Protestantism that has lost the true value of prayer.

This is why Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a letter addressed to his father, who accused him of having converted only for the magnificence of the rites, wrote sarcastically that the beautiful could be easily found in Canterbury, while Rome was not entirely free of bad taste.

John Gray, a close friend of Wilde and a future priest in Edinburgh, also became a Catholic after attending Mass in a squalid suburban church: Christ must undoubtedly be the authentic answer to the anxieties of existence if His majesty could manifest itself in such a place.

Source: R. GRIFFITHS, The Pen and the Cross, Continuum, London, 2010.