Luca Fumagalli

Many British Catholic authors of the twentieth century address the issue of social classes in their works.

Over time it was the noble recusants who won their sympathies. After all, the recusant families represented the best of English Catholicism: their members were the heirs of those who had bravely resisted the privations and persecutions of the Protestants, and their very existence represented a strong link with the Faith of medieval England.

In addition to the many historical novels dedicated to the Tudor era in which Catholics occupy a leading role, there is the very interesting essay by Benedictine Bede Camm entitled Forgotten Shrines (1910), an introduction to the famous “papist” houses, and a story of the great events that took place in those fascinating homes.

The Catholic aristocracy was also admired for the distance that separated it from the frivolity of the period.

Mrs Wilfrid Ward, a descendant from her mother’s side of the Dukes of Norfolk, offers excellent proof of this attitude in her best-selling One Poor Scruple (1899). The novel tells the sad story of the Riversdale family, struck by the persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Riversdales also represent a rural and traditional Catholicism that is far removed from fashionable London society; the head of the family, George Riversdale, embodies the perfect type of country gentleman, an active and intelligent man (he is a character similar to Father Gerard, the clandestine priest of aristocratic origin who appears in Tudor Sunset, one of the most beautiful novels by Ward, published in 1932). Similar characters are found in the books of Robert Hugh Benson. For example, in By What Authority? (1904), set in Elizabethan times, Sir Nicholas Maxwell, a lover of horses and spiritual literature, is described in terms not too different from those employed by Mrs Wilfrid Ward for her protagonists.

More generally, the squire faithful to Rome – often a proud Jacobite – appears in numerous Catholic texts of the first half of the twentieth century. The protagonist of the stories in Roger Pater’s Mystic Voices (1923) is a priest of ancient and noble lineage who has a famous martyr among his ancestors, while in A Triangle (1923), by Maurice Baring, the Aston family is described by one of the characters, a Protestant, as a clique of “papists” who have always lived in an ancient mansion. Mr Rolls, in Benson’s The Sentimentalists (1906), is the descent of a valet in the service of Mary Stuart; Rolls has opened his large house to all people in need of help. Also, the father of the Reverend Dick Yolland, although recently converted, has always lived in a splendid Georgian villa.

At the same time, not all English Catholics showed a particular enthusiasm for the aristocracy: William George Ward criticized their lack of acumen while Baron Corvo in Hadrian VII (1904) accused the nobles of being totally devoid of that education resulting from contact with the wider world. Baring, on the contrary, was more elegant and in C (1924) makes fun of the haughty superiority that certain members of the upper-class showed towards those who, like him, had recently entered the Church of Rome. Nevertheless, he too was able to describe with rare effectiveness that particular devotion that was breathed in the private chapels of the recusant houses, as is evident, for example, in Daphne Adeane (1926).

Evelyn Waugh, product of the elite Oxford milieu, was the last great author to tell in a novel the enchanting but painful story of a family with a long Catholic tradition. Brideshead Revisited (1945), one of the masterpieces of English literature of the twentieth century, bears in the title the name of the luxurious residence around which the events of the Flyte family take place. The publication of the book, with its mixture of sarcasm and nostalgia, was the last literary tribute to the “papists” and to their large houses that have now disappeared, leaving nothing more than a distant memory in a radically – and dramatically – changed society.

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