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Lights of the world in their generation

by
28 October 2016

Michael Wheeler on the Victorians’ hagiology

Making and Remaking Saints in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Gareth Atkins, editor

Manchester University Press £75

(978-0-7190-9686-0)

Church Times Bookshop £67.50

 

 

THE editor of this book, a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, has brought toget­her a strong team of scholars who address a fascinating subject. Ranging in subject matter from Ultramontane Cathol­icism to Protestant Nonconformity, and from global superstars to more localised national saints, the team apply their various critical tools to different kinds of hagiography.

After a valuable tour d’horizon by Gareth Atkins, Michael Ledger-Lomas considers St Paul, claimed by Protestantism and treated as an exemplary figure for modern Christians, in a wide-ranging chapter that concentrates on themes such as the higher criticism. More typical of the collection as a whole is Carol Engelhardt Herringer’s discussion of the Virgin Mary, on whom she has published ex­­tensively before. Here are familiar topics such as the Brompton Oratory, “Our Lady’s Dower”, and the rosary, all judiciously treated.

Two chapters consider British responses to Continental saints, Ignatius Loyola (Gareth Atkins), scorned by Macaulay but a “holy hard man” for Catholics, and Thérèse of Lisieux (Alana Harris), who sneaks in by dying in 1897.

The remaining chapters are closer to home, beginning with Claudia Rufina (Martha Ventrei), possibly the first Christian Briton and said to have been converted by Paul; Patrick (Andrew R. Holmes), whose place in Protestant Irish tradition contrasts with Catholic readings when there was a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; Thomas Becket (Nicholas Vincent), once dismissed as an agent of Rome but by 1860 regarded as an English patriot; Thomas More (William Sheils), another figure whose life and death were the subject of very different constructions by liberal and conservative advocates; and the English Roman Catholic martyrs (Lucy Underwood), 54 of whom were beatified in 1886.

Elizabeth Fry and Sarah Martin (Helen Rogers) were “saintly models”, as were John and Mary Fletcher (David R. Wilson), figures from “Methodist hagiology”; Richard Baxter (Simon Burton), who was “claimed by every­one”; the Scottish Covenanters (James Colman), de­­scribed by A. P. Stanley as “martyrs by mistake”; and William Wilber­force (Roshan Allpress), one of the “useful” or “practical” saints who enjoyed a “moral celebrity”.

Newman’s Lives of the English Saints (Elizabeth Macfarlane) was a short-lived project that attempted an “uneasy com­promise between hagiography and history” and was intended to leave a “religious impression” on the mind of the reader.

In Atkins’s memorable chapter on Ignatius, as in most others, the focus is on the construc­tion of saintly lives by later generations of believers, usually for particular purposes at the time of writing. This theme emerges most strongly in Vincent’s brilliant chapter on Becket, the subject of a forth­coming mono­graph. If Vincent’s book lives up to the promise of a piece that encompasses Cobbett, R. H. Froude, Stanley, Gladstone, Farrar, Manning, Wiseman, Newman, Gorham, and Edward White Benson (who donned the saint’s chasuble in Tournai), it will be one to look out for.

Let us hope that he is better served by his publisher than is this excellent collection of essays, which is printed in small type on thin paper, resulting in “see-through”, with appalling plates and priced for the academic-library market.

 

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library.

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