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Book reviews >

Authors inspired by authority

RC literary works are distinctive, Alexander Lucie-Smith suggests

The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English literature, 1850-2000
Richard Griffiths

Continuum £25
(978-0-8264-9697-3)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

RICHARD GRIFFITHS’s scholarly and immensely readable book deals not with the Roman Catholic novel alone, but also with Catholic poetry. The concept of Catholic literature has been with us for some time, but it is difficult to define exactly what makes a novel or a poem a Catholic novel or poem.

Griffiths provides us, for ex­ample, with a chapter on Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Catholic poet par excellence. I agree with him that many of the ideas that underlie Hopkins’s poetry are specifically Catholic, such as his interest in the philosophy of Duns Scotus; and one can also agree that one cannot really understand Hopkins without under­standing his life as a Jesuit priest who joined the Roman Catholic Church from Anglicanism.

But I would like to know whether Hopkins’s famous sprung rhythm is Catholic per se. Griffiths tells us that Hopkins’s verse is “revolutionary” in form, but is that not incidental to his being a Catholic? Or, to put it in scholastic terms, is the connection between faith and verse accidental or sub­stantial?

Graham Greene’s answer to this question was that he was a Catholic who happened to write novels and not a Catholic novelist. Griffiths sees Brighton Rock, and the novels of that period, as reflecting specifically Catholic concerns about, for ex­ample, damnation and salvation. He makes some interesting connections between Greene and his French con­temporaries; he might have pointed out that the quality of Greene’s writing declined when he abandoned rigorous orthodoxy for a more watered-down version of the faith.

He spots this falling off in the work of Muriel Spark, and he notes the trenchant conservatism of Alice Thomas Ellis in religious matters, which leads him to conclude — rightly, surely — that it is the mono­lithic nature of pre-Vatican-II Catholicism which inspired artists, and to predict, again with justice, that the era of the Catholic novel is now over.

As with every history, the best bits are those that will come as a surprise to the reader. The poet Alice Meynell gets high praise here, as does Mrs Wilfrid Ward, whose novels must still adorn many a library shelf, and which should (particularly Tudor Sunset, 1932) be taken down and read.

Nearer our own time, David Jones (1895-1974), a difficult poet who is little known today, is one of whom the author thinks highly, and who is perhaps due for revival.

Again, as with every history, there is much that one disagrees with: there ought to be more about Thomas Ellis, whose talent he does not take seriously enough, although he does acknowledge her debt to Firbank; and more about Spark.

The background information and scene-setting is handled with eco-nomy, and is informative, although I would have liked more about Cardinal Newman as a literary figure and as an influence on writers such as Spark.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest.

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