A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Literary Anti-Catholicism: The Problem with Kingsley

Note: I began composing this message some weeks ago; its composition has been interrupted.

In a previous post, I discussed apologetics and anti-Catholicism. Here I want to focus on a second form of anti-Catholicism which is more subtle and probably more common. It manifests itself in negative images of or generalizations about Catholicism in the media. Today, this form of anti-Catholicism most often comes not from other Christians, but from secular or progressive religious sources. People who are much too enlightened to make anti-Semitic comments may still make slurs against the Catholic priesthood. I won't go into this issue in detail either, because there are whole books on it.

A hundred years ago, however, this kind of pop-culture anti-Catholicism tended to come from other Christians: liberal Christians, conservative Christians, you name it. You can find it in quite a lot of nineteenth-century literature, even the "canonical" literature that makes into the academy. Charlotte Bronte's Villette is one of the best examples. Though the worst of the anti-Catholic literature was published by fringe Protestant presses and distributed among religious communities, even mainstream writers like Wilkie Collins weren't adverse to writing anti-Catholic novels. For more information on this subject, I recommend Susan Griffin's Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, which (most unusually) covers both British and American literature of the nineteenth century.

Here I want to talk about a single author: Charles Kingsley, a nearly-forgotten Broad Church clergyman, who served as chaplain to Queen Victoria. Students of nineteenth-century religious history may know him as the man who gratuitously insulted John Henry Newman in one of his book reviews, thus prompting the writing of his authobiography/ conversion story, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Kingsley was brought to my attention through this list of children's books. It's a good list on the whole. Many of these are classic children's books. Others are long-forgotten classics. I was pleased to see Charles Kingsley making an appearance, but the choice of book surprised me: it wasn't Waterbabies, his one famous children's book, but Westward Ho!

Westward Ho! is an adventure story for boys. It's a tale of chivalry, fidelity to one's promises, and explorations of new lands. It is also a story about the Spanish Armada and the threat Catholic Spain posed to Protestant England. In Westward Ho! the villains are mostly Catholic and the heroes are mostly Protestant. The novel is, even more specifically, anti-Jesuit, and the worst of the villains are Jesuit priests. There are a few token "good Catholics," but the depiction of some of the Jesuit characters reflects 19th century prejudice against Catholics in general and Jesuits in particularly as lying, conniving, and treasonous. Edmund Campion, recognized by Catholics as a martyr, is depicted by Kingsley as a sneaking coward, who happens to be just not quite as bad as Father Robert Parsons, Kingsley's standard of Jesuit trickery.

One may argue that Westward Ho! is not truly anti-Catholic, because the hero eventually comes to respect his arch-enemy, the good Catholic Don Guzman. However, if the ending argues for tolerance for "good Catholics", there is no tolerance offered for the Jesuit order, and Kingsley never repudiates the stereotypes he employs. In the 19th century, the book would have served simply to fan the already-existing anti-Jesuit sentiments. Today, I suspect the anti-Jesuit stereotypes serve to confuse children unfamiliar with the context of the book's writing. My question of this: is it really wise to recommend a work of anti-Catholic propoganda to Christian children today?

I can see ways in which a book like Westward Ho! could be profitably read by intelligent teenage or even pre-teen children, with instruction, guideance, and correction offered on the part of a parent or teacher. I could not, however, recommend that it simply be handed to a young adult reader who has no understanding of its historical misreprentations or of the complicated reasons for them. Its presence on a list of recommended children's literature thus signals to me the lack of awareness most people -even most Christians- have in regard to literary anti-Catholicism. We've gotten very good at noticing racial misrepresentations in literature. Though such concern can be carried too far, we should also be careful that we carry it far enough. Books like Westward Ho! were designed to teach as truths things which are actually false. Surely this is something the Christian reader should be aware of?


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