At my first academic job interview in 1981, a distinguished male Victorianist, looking at the title of my PhD dissertation, asked, “When life is so short, why would anyone want to bother reading about George Egerton?” In those days, every discussion of New Woman literature by figures such as Egerton (pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne), had to include an explanation and a defense, beginning with why it should be classified as literature at all. Thirty years of critical studies and biographies by a host of determined feminists have made an enormous difference. As Adrienne E. Gavin and Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton, editors of Writing Women of the Fin de Siècle, report in their introduction, “The New Woman is currently the subject of more … [keynote] addresses, articles, and books than at any time since the 1890s” (2). Lyn Pykett—one of those responsible from early on for this positive shift in fortunes—writes, in her survey of New Woman scholarship from the past three decades, that the enterprise has gone beyond an interest in fin-de-siècle fiction alone: “New Woman writers have been recovered and explored from numerous perspectives by literary and cultural historians and critics, and there has been a growing and important body of work on late nineteenth-century women poets and journalists and forgotten female aesthetes” (16). That turn-of-the-century women writers are now being analyzed in ways unthinkable when their work was initially recuperated may be seen in an essay such as Kathleen A. Miller’s “‘Your Loving is Unlike Any Other’: Romance and the Disabled Body in the Gothic Fiction of Edith Nesbit and Lucas Malet,” which expertly links the New Woman both to gothic modes and to disability studies, and which proves particularly illuminating on the topic of Edith Nesbit’s ghost stories—popular tales that [End Page 705] would have had no place in any feminist dissertation thirty years ago. Nesbit, as Miller demonstrates, “uses the forms of Gothic fiction to suggest that romantic relationships, including a disabled individual’s courtship, could be an important step towards personal liberation and political change” (197).
“Change” is the leitmotif that runs throughout this collection, which sprang from a conference held at the University of London’s Institute of English Studies. “Women were authors of change in a double sense,” as the editors assert, for “they both documented the cultural shifts of which they themselves were a key symbol, and helped to bring about further change” (2–3). The essays that follow mostly succeed in illustrating this principle—which, of course, has been framed so broadly that it would be difficult for them not to do so. Thus Tracy J. R. Collins tells us (in “Athletic Bodies Narrated: New Women in Fin-de-Siècle Fiction”) that physical culture should be recognized as a crucial force in shifting feminist constructions: “The New Woman was not ‘manufactured’ in the library or at the suffrage meeting: her beginnings were in the gym” (204). Catherine Maxwell shows us the ways in which Vernon Lee drew from the examples of homosexual male writers and artists to “consume and digest [her] … predecessors’ texts in ways that nourish and sustain” her own work (176), and, in the process, created modes of writing through which a woman (and a lesbian) could represent “her own sexual and professional identity” (166). Melissa Purdue turns to the once enormously popular Victoria Cross (Annie Sophie Cory) to find evidence that “New Women used their fiction to express their ambivalence, if not outright revulsion, for motherhood much more frequently than had their mid-Victorian predecessors” and, moreover, that they depicted such resistance to maternity in the complex context of racial politics (126). Gavin contributes a lively account of Loveday Brooke, protagonist of stories from the mid-1890s by C. L. (Catherine) Pirkis, to make the case that “fiction about female detectives represents women’s independent working life as a...
From Decadence to Catholicism
1In the last decade of the 19th century, a significant number of English writers chose to become members of the Roman Catholic Church.1 What is called the “Decadent” movement probably counts in its ranks more converts than any other school in the history of British literature. Among them (in the order of their conversions) Frederick Rolfe (1860–1913), also known as “Baron Corvo,” who wrote novels, short stories and poems, and converted in 1886; the poets John Gray (1866–1934), who was received into the Church in 1890 and ordained into the priesthood in 1901, Lionel Johnson (1867–1902, converted in 1891), and Ernest Dowson (1867–1900, converted in 1891); Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie (1867–1906), who wrote novels under the pseudonym “John Oliver Hobbes” and converted in 1892; Wilde’s friend Robert Ross (1869–1918), an art critic and essay writer who converted in 1894; André Raffalovich (1864–1934), a friend of John Gray and Aubrey Beardsley, a minor poet and theoretician of homosexuality, who became a Catholic in 1896; the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898, converted in 1897); Henry Harland (1861–1905), the literary editor of The Yellow Book, who converted in 1898; Oscar Wilde (1856–1900), who received the sacraments of the Church on his deathbed in 1900; Katharine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913), who wrote poetry under the shared pseudonym “Michael Field” and converted in 1907; and finally Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945, converted in 1911).
2Those Decadent converts inherited from Walter Pater the idea that Christianity is not so much a doctrine or a set of moral and spiritual rules as a source of beauty. In his 1894 essay on Pascal, Pater declared that “Multitudes in every generation have felt at least the aesthetic charm of the rites of the Catholic Church.”2 Pater was a Ritualist in his youth and turned again to the splendours of religious ritual at the end of his life. His novel Marius the Epicurean is probably his most explicit work as regards the attraction that the Catholic liturgy exerted on him. The young Roman hero Marius explores in turn paganism, Cyrenaicism, Epicureanism and Stoicism before being initiated into the Christian faith in the fourth and last section of the novel. His discovery of Christianity is the result of a series of impressions and emotions rather than an intellectual process. What elicits his interest in the religion of Cecilia, the Christian woman who becomes his friend toward the end of the book, is not theological reflection but sensuous experience, when he hears the songs of the community gathered in the church, when he comes across funerary ornaments in the catacombs, and eventually when he attends mass. He dies on the threshold of the Church, without having converted. For Pater, Catholic ritual was less the expression of a living faith than a form of aesthetic experience, not much different from that offered by the contemplation of a work of art. But it is this same experience nevertheless, real or fantasised, that led a number of artists and writers on the road to conversion. A few of Pater’s heirs decided to experience from the inside the ceremonial that Marius watches as an outsider, and to cross the boundary that separates mere curiosity from religious commitment. Like Marius, they were drawn to “the aesthetic charm of the Catholic Church, her evocative power over all that is eloquent and expressive in the outer mind of man, her outward comeliness”.3 The purpose of this article is to explore the literary and spiritual roots of those conversions and to show what might have led those writers to embrace Catholicism both in their lives and in their works.
“Art-Catholicism”: Poetic Models
3It may seem paradoxical that those same aesthetes who wanted to free art from its moral and religious function should have been so keen to embrace the Catholic faith. But the literary Catholicism of the fin de siècle, far from expressing a reaction against the Decadent spirit, a return to order and morality, is on the contrary, in many ways, an exacerbation of that spirit. The Decadent vision, based on pessimism, escapism (art being seen as an essential form of escape) and the awareness of an ending, is mirrored in the forms of Catholicism that are expressed in the converts’ writings, pointing to a convergence between the Decadent sensibility and the Catholic spirituality of the period. The fascination for the macabre, the combination of sensuousness and mysticism, the search for refined sensations, the desire to create compensatory worlds in order to flee a reality that is perceived as unbearable—all these elements are indeed echoed in a certain kind of fin de siècle Catholic devotion that focuses on the cult of martyrs, of Christ as Homo Dolorosus and of the Virgin of the Seven Sorrows, as well as on the formal beauty of the liturgy, on legends, on miracles and on apparitions—all elements that the Decadents promptly integrated into their imaginary universes and their mythical apparatus. They did not borrow dogmas or philosophical and moral beliefs from Catholicism, but rather myths and legends, symbolism and imagery.
4Such “literary” interest in Catholicism, which sees religion as a source of inspiration, a rich and inexhaustible treasure trove of symbols, images and stories, is not specifically Decadent. Literary Decadence was born at the junction of two currents: the English Pre-Raphaelite movement on the one hand, and French literature of the second half of the 19th century on the other hand. Many collections of poetry that came out in the 1890s bear witness to that dual influence, such as John Gray’s Silverpoints published by The Bodley Head in 1893, which contains translations of Théophile Gautier, Baudelaire, Verlaine et Mallarmé (Gray refers to them as “imitations”), as well as poems inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite tradition.
5From their Pre-Raphaelite predecessors, fin de siècle authors inherited the cult of art and beauty, a taste for the past, in particular the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance, a defiant attitude towards the literary, artistic and moral conventions of their time, and an essentially aesthetic interest in the Christian faith. In the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, in particular the early paintings and poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), religious references convey a desire to escape the fluctuations of Victorian scepticism and to hark back to the spiritual certainties and unmitigated fervour of mediaeval times. The phrase “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” evocative of male religious communities, is a direct reference to the Pre-Reformation age. About his brother Dante Gabriel, William Michael Rossetti once wrote: “If we could imagine a ‘monk of the middle ages’ whose mind was in a mist as to religious doctrine, who conformed to no religious rites, practised no monastic austerity, and in profession and act led an anti-monastic life, we might obtain some parallel to Dante Rossetti.”4 Rossetti’s Italian father was a Catholic by birth (though he did not practise his faith), and the Rossettis were members of a High Church parish, the vicar of which was close to the Oxford Movement and eventually converted to Catholicism in 1850.5 Rossetti’s Italian origins, his Tractarian upbringing, his love for Dante, his passion for the poets of the early Italian Renaissance and his mediaevalism all seem to have contributed to shaping his interest in Pre-Protestant Christianity. In 1847, he sent to William Bell Scott a series of poems that he entitled Songs of the Art Catholic. The title of this first collection is extremely significant. It does not reveal so much a sense of religious belonging as a form of aesthetic attraction, a cultivated nostalgia for gone-by days. As the critic David G. Riede rightly observed, “The difficulty implicit in Rossetti’s Art-Catholicism . . . was that the emphasis fell too heavily on the Art, to which he was genuinely devoted, and slighted the Catholicism, in which he seems never to have had any genuine faith.”6 A few decades before the Decadent movement, Rossetti was already making an essentially poetic use of Catholicism. The phrase “Art Catholic” refers to an aesthetic discipline, to the study of the religious imagery of the Middle Ages and of the works of Raphael’s predecessors, and to the contemplation of religious painting as an artistic model. For Rossetti indeed, both painting and poetry aspire to the condition of sacred art. He frequently uses Christian images in his visual and literary works, but ornamentally rather than functionally, as in the Marian paintings The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary (1849), which is full of Catholic elements (the stone altar, the embroidered ecclesiastic ornaments, and other liturgical objects such as the lamp and the organ to the right of the picture) with its two accompanying poems entitled “Mary’s Girlhood,” written two decades apart in 1849 and 1870, and Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), a representation of the Annunciation. Generally speaking, Rossetti’s work, particularly his poetry, is permeated with Catholic motifs—Marian images in particular—inherited from the Italian Primitives, and filtered through the mythical vision of the Middle Ages, seen as an age of unanimous fervour and faith. This is apparent in such poems as “The Blessed Damozel,” in the sonnets he wrote to comment on pictures such as “A Virgin and Child, by Hans Memmeling,” “Our Lady of the Rocks, by Leonardo da Vinci,” or “For An Annunciation, Early German,” and in his translations of Italian religious poems from the Middle Ages such as “To the Blessed Virgin Mary” (from a poem by Fra Guittone d’Arezzo).7 The artistic use of Catholicism by Pre-Raphaelites had a lasting influence on fin de siècle writers, as was noted by David G. Riede, still writing about Rossetti: “His Art-Catholicism shows the temptation, which became increasingly powerful toward the end of the century, to embrace Christianity, particularly Catholicism, for the sake of its aesthetic tradition.”8 Like Rossetti’s, the Decadents’ religion did not centre on a community of faith, but extolled a long literary and artistic tradition which was seen as an endless source of inspiration, emphasising the aesthetic dimension of religious experience at the expense of theological understanding.
6The other main source of inspiration for Catholic Decadents came from across the Channel. “It is only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains that individual and separate life that we call nationality,”9 says Gilbert in “The Critic as Artist.” Such a statement is of particular relevance in the case of Decadent literature, which draws its inspiration from non-English (should we say un-English?) sources, ranging from the ancient heritage of Latin literature and mediaeval models to contemporary French writers. The second half of the 19th century is a period of intense exchanges between the French and English literary worlds. John Gray (who decided to become a Catholic after a stay in Saint-Quay, in Brittany, in the summer 1889), Ernest Dowson, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley all spent time in France at some stage in their lives, and were avid readers of French literature. The Decadents saw themselves as heirs to French Parnassianism and Symbolism. They were great admirers of Théophile Gautier, whose art for art’s sake creed they appropriated, and claimed their kinship with Baudelaire, Verlaine and the French and Belgian Symbolists. They were also responsible for introducing into England the works of those poets with critical works such as Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), and with the many translations that were printed in the literary journals of the time10 and in various collections published by Decadent poets. John Gray, for instance, who translated Mallarmé and Baudelaire, also rewrote works by Verlaine in his 1893 collection Silverpoints (in particular his Catholic poems, “Le Crucifix,” “Mon Dieu m’a dit,” and “Parsifal,” describing the hero’s worship of the Eucharistic wine), and in Spiritual Poems, Chiefly Done out of Several Languages, published in 1896, a volume that brings together surprisingly diverse poems—translations from the French, but also twenty-nine free translations of Ambrose of Milan, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas and other mediaeval authors, Spanish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries (in particular John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila), and texts drawn from Latin liturgy. The selection conveys Gray’s heteroclite tastes as regards religious poetry, as well as the breadth of his culture (which is comparable to Lionel Johnson’s, another literary convert, who was also a great reader of early Christian writers).
7Significantly, the Decadents’ preferences go to the Catholic works of Verlaine, such as Sagesse (1881), a collection which has as its central theme the poet’s conversion during his time in jail in 1873–1874, and Liturgies Intimes (1892), a series of variations on the different moments of the Mass (Verlaine’s “Agnus Dei” was the inspiration for John Gray’s poem “The Lamb seeks bitter heath to eat . . .” in his Spiritual Poems). The Decadents’ predilection for religious themes and images is also apparent in their interest in Baudelaire, whose poetic work is haunted by Catholic motifs, liturgical metaphors,11 Marian images (in “À une madone,” for instance, a poem that was appropriated by John Gray in Silverpoints), references to liturgical texts and Church Latin12—all subjects and forms that can be found in English fin de siècle Catholic literature.
8One last name that has to be mentioned is that of J.-K. Huysmans, whose influence on English writers has been the subject of several studies.13 His novel À rebours (1884), which is indirectly referred to in Chapters X and XI of The Picture of Dorian Gray,14 was called by Arthur Symons “the breviary of the Decadence”.15 The prayer that concludes the book (“Seigneur, prenez pitié du chrétien qui doute, de l’incrédule qui voudrait croire, du forçat de la vie qui s’embarque seul, dans la nuit, sous un firmament que n’éclairent plus les consolants fanaux du vieil espoir!”)16 was full of foreboding, as the year following the publication of his satanic novel Là-bas (1891), Huysmans converted to Catholicism. Là-bas, a novel characterised by its extreme and disoriented mysticism, focuses on the spiritual quest of Durtal, who is torn between his carnal obsessions and his search for what lies beyond the visible world. Huysmans’s next novel En route (1895) was a clearly Catholic work, chronicling the spiritual progress of a man obsessed with Christian art, with Romanesque and Gothic architecture, with the great religious writers of the Middle Ages and with Gregorian plain-chant. Both novels share a number of characteristics with the works of Huysmans’s English counterparts, in particular a taste for religious art and for the liturgy, a ruthless critique of modernity, a regressive and nostalgic movement toward mediaeval supernaturalism, an inner tension between the weight of the flesh and the temptation of mysticism. The Decadents’ appropriation of Huysmans had a lasting impact on English literature, reaching far beyond the turn of the century, down to Evelyn Waugh, who in Brideshead Revisited pays homage to Des Esseintes’s gem-encrusted turtle in À rebours, in the episode where Julia Marchmain is given a live turtle with her initials engraved on its shell!
“In the Toils of the Scarlet Woman”:
The Attraction of Catholicism
9But what drew those writers to embrace Catholicism not only in their works, like their Pre-Raphaelite predecessors, but also in their lives? What were the crucial factors that led them to convert to the Roman faith? “The nineteenth century is a turning point in history, simply on account of the work of two men, Darwin and Renan, the one the critic of the Book of Nature, the other the critic of the books of God,”17 says Gilbert, summing up in a strikingly concise—and Wildean—manner the history of thought in the 19th century, in “The Critic as Artist” (1890). Undeniably, the end of Victoria’s reign is a period of religious doubts and questions. With the development of historical criticism, imported from Germany, which views the sacred texts as mere scientific objects, the Bible can no longer be seen as infallible. Furthermore, geological discoveries in the first half of the 19th century have made it impossible to read literally such Biblical narratives as the creation or the Flood. The very foundation of Revelation is hence thrown into question. With the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species, the question of a possible incompatibility between the findings of science and Christian beliefs is acutely raised. In response to that crisis, an agnostic discourse develops, claiming that only science and history can provide the keys to the future. Darwinian evolutionism (“the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarest,”18 as Gilbert puts it in “The Critic as Artist”) excludes the idea of creation. According to Auguste Comte’s positivism, knowledge can only be based on empirical facts. Materialism reduces truth to matter and its laws. For these schools of thought, religious faith is not much more than a vestige of the past and an obstacle to human progress.
10But among Decadents, paradoxically, scepticism and disbelief often go hand in hand with a deep nostalgia for religious fervour and a thirst for the sacred, perceived as unattainable. Perhaps, as one of the characters says in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Scepticism is the beginning of Faith.”19 The Decadents’ attraction to mysticism, the occult, esotericism, spiritualism, Satanism, and all forms of religious experience—including Catholicism—which surge through Europe at the turn of the century, reveals their dissatisfaction when faced with the dryness of scientism. In such a context of spiritual fears and moral unrest, the Catholic Church appears as a refuge, a comforting symbol of authority in the midst of uncertainty. Compared to the internal conflicts of the Church of England and the proliferation of Non-Conformist chapels, it presents the face of unity and universality, under the guidance of the Supreme Pontiff. In a world permeated with scepticism and doubt, Catholicism offers the reassuring certainties of its dogmas and rites, and a consistent, unchanging system of thought. The Rhymers’ Club poet Lionel Johnson, in particular, seems to have been seduced by the notion of infallibility and by the structure of the Church. His essays are full of references to the hierarchy or the authority of the Church and to ecclesiastical history—though his religious poems, in his two collections, Poems (1895) and Ireland and Other Poems (1897), reveal a more private faith, based on personal experience, which appears to have been both a source of joy and the cause of a ceaseless internal struggle.
11Catholicism also appears as the vehicle of a form of resistance to the secular and disenchanted vision of the world which is spreading at the time. Unlike Protestant Churches, it has not been much affected by Biblical criticism or by scientific discoveries, and continues to assert against all odds the superiority of faith over reason, rising up against the positivist conception of man with the encyclical Sapientiae christianae (1890). Furthermore, the Roman Church is the recipient of a considerable artistic and cultural heritage and a long, eventful history, and it is heir to a rich and sensuous liturgical tradition. In a century described by T. S. Eliot, in his essay on Baudelaire, as an “age of bustle, programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism and revolutions which improved nothing, an age of progressive degradation,”20 Catholicism represents a space for “re-enchantment,” as analysed by Peter Berger in Chapter V (“The Process of Secularization”) of The Social Reality of Religion:
Perhaps it is not surprising that the central Christian notion of incarnation brought in its wake a multiplicity of other modifications of transcendence, the whole host of angels and saints with which Catholicism populated religious reality, culminating in the glorification of Mary as mediator and co-redeemer. In the measure that the divine transcendence was modified, the world was “re-enchanted”, or, if one wishes, “re-mythologized”. . . . It is precisely in this sense that the Catholic universe is a secure one for its “inhabitants”—and for this reason of intense attractiveness to this day.21
12In a sense, whereas Protestantism—especially in its Calvinist interpretations, but also, though in a milder form, in its Anglican version—is founded on the radical opposition between God’s transcendence and man’s fallen nature, Catholicism offers a multitude of mediations to fill in the gap separating the Creator from his creature. The cult of saints, the devotion to Mary, the belief in miracles and apparitions, the sacraments, all these elements sanctify reality and introduce a mythical dimension into the way things are perceived. “The growth of common sense in the Church of England is a thing very much to be regretted. It is really a degrading concession to a low form of realism,” says Vivian in Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” (1889). He adds: “Man can believe the impossible, but man can never believe the improbable.”22 In a way, Catholicism embodies for the Decadents the belief in the impossible mentioned by Vivian, with the mystery of its sacraments, elaborate liturgies and symbols. Like Durtal in J.-K. Huysmans’s novels Là-bas and En route (1895) who adores old cathedrals, mediaeval madonnas and pictures of saints before he even starts believing in God, the writers of the 1890s admire the Church for its rites and its art, turning it into a sort of myth, a spiritual utopia, an idealised shelter in the midst of a society that they perceive as corrupted by science, industrialisation, and capitalism. For authors and artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, John Gray, Lionel Johnson and Frederick Rolfe, who are all of Protestant descent, conversion to Catholicism is, in a sense, the logical outcome of the Decadent quest for the Ideal. They are drawn to Catholic symbolism precisely because they refuse to reduce the real to the objective, and they consider Catholics as the new dissidents of modern civilisation. In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde makes Gilbert say that “Nowadays we have so few mysteries left that we cannot afford to part with one of them.”23 The Decadent temptation of Catholicism stems from a desire to retain the last vestiges of mystery in the contemporary world. The fin de siècle converts see in the Roman Church the ultimate rampart against the dullness and ugliness of their environment, a supernatural space in the heart of a materialistic culture, a dream-like world of peace and beauty, as is shown in the correspondence of Ernest Dowson—a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde, a member of the Rhymers’ Club, and probably the greatest lyrical poet of the Decadent movement. In a letter to Arthur Moore dated 27 August 1890 a year before his conversion, he writes:
You ought to have come to N.D. de France tonight. There was a procession after Vespers of the Enfants de Marie. . . . It was a wonderful and beautiful situation: the church—rather dark the smell of incense—the long line of graceful little girls all with their white veils over their heads—banners—: a few sad faced nuns—and last of all the priest carrying the Host, vested in white—censed by an acolyte who walked backwards—tossing his censer up “like a great gilt flower”: and to come outside afterwards—London again—the sullen streets and the sordid people and Leicester Square: Really a most pictorial evening. . . . Children’s voices exercised in the “Ave Maria Stella,” are the most beautiful things in the world. What a monstrous thing a Protestant country is!24
13Those lines contain all the clichés of fin de siècle Catholicism: incense, Latin, effete nuns, acolytes, Marian devotion, and the opposition between the Catholic microcosm, picturesque and rich in symbols, and a dull outside world. The latter element is particularly developed in Dowson’s writings, as if Catholicism was for him a means of escaping the mediocrity of reality. That letter gives a sense that the memory of the actual episode is transformed by Dowson’s exalted imagination, and that the letter is less a faithful report than the transcription of a dream of sorts, an idealised vision of a Church standing outside space and time. In another letter, written a few months later, i.e. a few months before the poet’s official conversion, Catholicism appears as a way—perhaps the only way—of escaping the mediocrity and vulgarity that according to Dowson characterise the world he lives in:
I am so tired of Anglican condescension and Latitudinarian superiority; where Rome is in question. That, and the vulgarity of the dogmatic atheists, and the fatuous sentimentality of the Elesmere25 people et hoc genus omne: I am afraid, my dear, I am being driven to Rome in self defence. Vulgarity, sentimentality, crudity: isn’t there an effectual protest against it all? I confess Our Lady of the Seven Hills encroaches on me, in these latter days.26
14Dowson denigrates the Anglican Church, in particular the Broad Church (Latitudinarians, as he calls them, suggested that the Church should re-examine traditional Christian teaching in the light of Biblical criticism and abandon positions that appeared as incompatible with modernity), clearly marking his preference for the unshakeable dogmas of Catholicism. It should be noted that he does not explicitly mention the Catholic Church, but “Rome,” which he also calls “Our Lady of the Seven Hills,” referring simultaneously to the Virgin Mary and to the ancient Latin city. Catholicism is attractive precisely because it is Roman, i.e. foreign. In opposition to a Church that defines itself as national (Church of England), the Catholic Church appears as alien, exotic, and hence uncorrupted by Victorianism.
15Until the end of the 19th century English Catholics, isolated in their opposition to Victorian secularisation and utilitarianism, tended to see themselves as a besieged fortress and a victimised minority. Anti-Catholicism was still rife under Victoria’s reign, due to the rising number of Catholics as a result of Irish immigration, which grew exponentially at the time of the Great Famine (1845–1849), and to the “Papal aggression” of 1850, i.e. the re-establishment of the Roman hierarchy in England, which was perceived at the time as a political attack. The upsurge in anti-Catholic feeling was expressed in many hostile pamphlets which demonise the Church through sexual rhetoric, Rome being in turns the “whore of Babylon” and the “Scarlet Woman” of the Book of Revelation. It is precisely the image of an alienated, marginalised Church, perceived as foreign, that fascinates artists and writers at the end of the 19th century. They see in the situation of English Catholics a mirror of their own position at the margin of society, and the choice of Catholicism as an alternative to the Established Church is not from their perspective devoid of provocation. In their writings, they often choose to emphasise the elements in Catholicism that are most polemical in the Victorian context, not to denounce them but to underline their fascinating effect. Oscar Wilde, for instance, deliberately uses the anti-Catholic phrase “Scarlet Woman” when he writes about his attraction to the Roman Church, in particular during his college days in Oxford: in a 1876 letter he explains to his friend William Ward that he is “more than ever in the toils of the Scarlet Woman,”27 and a year later:
I now breakfast with Father Parkinson, go to St Aloysius, talk sentimental religion to Dunlop and altogether am caught in the wiles of the Scarlet Woman—I may go over in the vac. I have dreams of a visit to Newman, of the holy sacrament in a new Church, and of quiet and peace afterwards in my soul.28
16The letter brings together in a few lines fundamental elements of fin de siècle Catholicism: the vision of the Church as a haven of peace (central in Dowson’s writings), the devotion to the Holy Sacrament (which also comes up several times in Aubrey Beardsley’s post-conversion correspondence), and also the crucial influence of Newman, which is the subject of the next section of this article.
From Oxford to Rome: Tractarian and Newmanian Influences
17Oxford University, where both John Henry Newman and Walter Pater lectured, played a central part in the development of a literary Catholicism among the Decadents. Many students in the 1870s and 1880s nurtured Catholic sympathies: Tractarianism (also known as the Oxford Movement) had left its imprint, and it was quite fashionable to show an interest in Ritualism or even convert to Catholicism. It was in Oxford that Gerard Manley Hopkins was received into the Roman Church by Newman himself in his last year as a student, before coming back a few years later to serve as a curate in the Jesuit parish of Saint Aloysius. In Oxford, Wilde was influenced by his convert friends, and there were quite a few of them, such as Archibald Noel Locke McCall, David Hunter-Blair, who later became the abbot of a Benedictine monastery, Alexander Denniston Lang, and Archibald Claude Dunlop.29 Like Wilde, the poets Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and John Francis Bloxam, the author of the licentious story “The Priest and the Acolyte,” were educated at Oxford, where they discovered or re-discovered the writings of Pater and (at least for Johnson and Wilde) Newman. The spiritual influence of Oxford reached far beyond the university itself, and undeniably contributed to the birth of a Catholic trend in literary and intellectual circles and to the spreading of Pater’s and Newman’s ideas.
18John Henry Newman (1801–1890) had a considerable impact on English Catholic thinking throughout the Victorian period and after. For fin de siècle Catholics, he was the glorious forebear and the fatherly reference. As the leading figure of the Oxford Movement, he played an essential role in the Tractarian attempt at restoring a sacramental spirituality and re-establishing the authority of tradition. The Movement, whose ideas were expressed in the Tracts for the Times published between 1833 and 1841, was in the end torn by internal conflicts that led to a number to conversions to Roman Catholicism, the most famous of which being Newman’s in 1845. The Ritualistic phase followed the Tractarian moment in the second half of the century, focusing on liturgical reforms and introducing ceremonials in which the sacramental emphasis marked an appropriation of Roman doctrine.
19All fin de siècle Catholic literature is influenced by Tractarian thought. The Decadents share with the Oxford theologians the rejection of modernity and religious liberalism. They are also highly receptive to the Tractarian focus on rituals and sacraments, on the sacred role of the ordained priest, and on the antiquity of the Christian religion; they also have the same admiration for the mediaeval Church as Tractarian authors like Richard Hurrell Froude. The refusal of any form of compromise with contemporary society and the importance given to the liturgy had a profound impact on the vision of Catholicism that can be found in Decadent writing. The ritualistic dimension of late Tractarianism certainly left a more lasting imprint on fin de siècle converts than the dogmatic and ecclesiological reflection with which the movement had started and which they did not show much interest in, with the notable exception of Lionel Johnson, who was according to W. B. Yeats the theologian of the group (“Lionel Johnson was to be our critic, and above all our theologian, for he had been converted to Catholicism and his orthodoxy, too learned to question, had accepted all we did.”)30
20Indeed, Lionel Johnson’s letters and essays (in particular the essay devoted to the Cardinal in Post Liminium, a collection of critical texts published posthumously in 1911)31 reveal his lasting passion for Newman’s theology, in particular his ecclesiological thought. A year before his conversion (he was officially received into the Church on 21 June 1891, in Saint Etheldreda’s Church, in Ely Place, London, the year he started attending the meetings of the Rhymers’ Club with his friend Dowson), Johnson was thus able to write: “To the present writer, the thirty-six volumes of Newman from the most splendid and familiar passages down to their slightest and most occasional note, are better known than anything else in any literature or language.”32 The Oxford theologian did play a crucial role in strengthening Johnson’s faith, particularly during the years preceding his conversion. The poet found in Newman an enlightened and well-documented confirmation of his own intuitions on the question of the legitimacy of the Established Church. To a friend who maintained that the Anglican Church was the true catholic and apostolic Church and descended directly from the primitive Christian Church, Johnson replied in August 1888—three years before his conversion—with a long and passionate letter. He developed a theological and ecclesiological defence of the exclusive legitimacy of the Roman Church, founded extensively on Newman’s thoughts in his autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864):
Don’t you see, that if you are to renounce the whole evidence of Saints, and doctors, and churches, and fathers, all of primitive time, upon the authority of Rome—don’t you see that you may equally reject the Trinity, or the Real Presence? both of which grew up into prominence very gradually, amid opposition? O Newman has said it a thousand times: “the father who teaches you the Trinity, teaches you the Papacy: who teaches you the Incarnation, teaches you the intercession of Saints”. . . . Give me your creed, with its basis and sanction; I will prove to you, that you must either add to it the “corruptions by Rome, or boldly proclaim your rights of private judgement to pick and choose among the dogmas of the Apostles and Doctors”.33
21Johnson uses here Newman’s arguments on apostolic succession—in his eyes embodied solely by the Roman Church—, on the continuity of Roman Catholicism since the time of the Church Fathers, on the inevitability of the Pope’s authority, and on what is in the two writers’ eyes the inconsistency of Anglican ecclesiological positions.34
22As for Oscar Wilde, he contemplated several times making a visit to Newman when he was at Oxford. On 14 March 1877, for instance, he wrote to William Ward:
I am going first to see Newman at Birmingham to burn my fingers a little more. . . . I am awfully keen for an interview, not of course to argue, but merely to be in presence of that divine man.
I will send you a long account of it: but perhaps my courage will fail, as I could hardly resist Newman I am afraid.35
23Twenty years later, during his incarceration in Reading, he turned again to Newman’s writings and asked that A Grammar of Assent, Apologia pro Vita Sua and Two Essays on Miracles be brought to him.36 Wilde regarded Newman’s conversion as a purely intellectual decision, an idea he develops in a letter to William Ward written on 14 March 1876: “About Newman I think his higher emotions revolted against Rome but that he was swept on by Logic to accept it as the only rational form of Christianity. His life is a terrible tragedy.”37 He added: “I bought a lot of his books before leaving Oxford.” Similar remarks can be found in Ernest Dowson’s correspondence. In a letter to his friend Arthur Moore, written shortly before his conversion, in which he describes Newman’s style as “the finest English I have yet met with outside Pater,” and adds:
He strikes me not in the least as one of those, with a genius of conviction like St Paul or Pascal, but rather as of a temper essentially subtile and sceptical, resembling Butler’s: & his Catholicism was the deliberate conclusion of a logical process, and not at all emotional or the issue of early prejudice. . . . His faith was not spontaneous & direct like Pascal’s, but a reasoned state of mind conditioned on assent to certain intellectual propositions, which strike me, as at least, as worthy of serious consideration, as the flimsy and local claims of Anglicanism and Protestant sects.38
24These excerpts from Wilde’s and Dowson’s correspondence highlight the rational and logical dimension of Newman’s thought, and it may seem surprising that writers who were more attracted to the beauties of the liturgy than to theological reflection should have been drawn to the figure of Newman, whose decision to become a Catholic was fundamentally the outcome of an intellectual process. One may justifiably wonder at the connection between the Cardinal’s faith, which was deeply rooted in Catholic dogma, and the aesthetic Catholicism of the Decadents. T. S. Eliot, in his essay on Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, explains that Newman and the Tractarians have very little in common with what he calls Pater’s “aesthetic religion,”39 which led to Decadent Catholicism. Newman’s Catholicism is indeed very different in many respects from the sensuous religion praised by fin de siècle authors, and the theologian never showed much interest in the liturgical issues that fascinated them.
25And yet, it is precisely—though at first sight paradoxically—in the Decadents’ suspicious attitude to logic and reason and in their subjectivism that one can see Newman’s imprint. Whatever T. S. Eliot’s opinion might be, Walter Pater, whose influence on fin de siècle writers was considerable, found in Newman’s writings, especially An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), the perfect expression of an aesthetic religion founded on intuition and personal experience. Indeed, in his Grammar of Assent, Newman analyses two antithetical types of what he calls religious assent: on the one hand notional assent, which is essentially abstract and intellectual, and is according to him a theological rather than religious act, and is in his eyes characteristic of the Anglicanism of his time; and real assent on the other hand, which is founded on sensations and emotions,40 and which is according to him a genuine act of faith:
Belief . . ., being concerned with things concrete, not abstract, which variously excite the mind from their moral and imaginative properties, has for its objects, not only directly what is true, but inclusively what is beautiful, useful, admirable, heroic; objects which kindle devotion, rouse the passions, and attach the affections.41
26The act of faith according to Newman is not geared solely towards abstract truth, but is also anchored in the senses and the imagination. He explains that the imagination is more apt than reason at touching the heart, and in several instances compares the human conscience to the experience of beauty (99 and 100–101): “Conscience . . . is something more than a moral sense; it is always, what the sense of the beautiful is only in certain cases; it is always emotional.” (100) Undeniably, such an emphasis on the emotional and aesthetic side of belief influenced the Decadents—something that did not escape Wilde, when he wrote in “The Critic as Artist”: “Forms are the food of faith, cried Newman in one of those great moments of sincerity that make us admire and know the man. He was right, though he may not know how terribly right he was.”42
27In the section entitled “Belief in one God” of An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Chapter 5), Newman explains that faith is not an act of demonstration or inference. It originates in the sanctuary of the human mind, not in facts, probabilities or evidence. For Newman, ultimately, the best proof of God’s existence is man’s conscience. Since it is now impossible to find evidence in nature, it is toward inner realities, toward the soul, that one has to turn. That idea is implicitly present in the solitary and internalised piety expressed in fin de siècle Catholic literature. It is central to the religious poems and short stories of Dowson, from whose work the communal and ecclesial dimension of faith is strikingly absent. But is the emphasis on the primacy of conscience not ultimately Protestant, rather than Catholic? Such is the characteristic ambiguity of the Catholic fin de siècle imagination: in the end, it might be to Newman the Protestant thinker, deeply marked by the Evangelicalism of his youth, that these writers are drawn. They may be attracted to Catholicism, yet they remain profoundly, if subconsciously, influenced by the Protestantism in which most of them grew up. And if in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, the idea of “real assent” leads Newman to assert the necessary adhesion to Catholic dogma, such is not the case among Decadents. Of Newman’s theology they retain only his celebration of religious feeling and subjectivity. The solitary, even sometimes solipsistic, Catholicism of the Decadents may well be in the end a Protestant heritage, “Catholicised” through the filter of Newman’s thought, which serves as a guarantee of Catholicity to these writers who claim their rebellion against Protestantism, while remaining, ultimately, permeated in many ways by Protestant thought.
An Un-Catholic Catholicism?
28The Decadent converts drew their inspiration from a variety of sources, preferring the “Art-Catholic” works of Rossetti, the French poetry of Parnassians and Symbolists and the writings of Newman over the great English and Protestant tradition represented in the 19th century by Arnold, Ruskin, Browning and Tennyson. And of course, there is also the seminal influence of Pater, which led many critics, most famously T. S. Eliot in his essay on Arnold and Pater, to dismiss fin de siècle conversions as superficial and unsubstantial. Eliot’s rebuttal of “aesthetic religion” is unfair, though, as these authors’ various spiritual itineraries often reflect a real and profound search for religious meaning. Although their quest was expressed in aesthetic rather than theological terms, although the subjectivity of experience often took pre-eminence over the sense of ecclesiastic belonging, although their beliefs and modes of life were at times rather eccentric, their religion was in no way less valid than the more orthodox and dogmatic faith of later Catholic writers such as G. K. Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc. The importance given to aesthetic emotions as part of religious experience is not only the fruit of a superficial reading of Pater’s writings, as T. S. Eliot seems to imply: it also bears the imprint of a theological tradition going back to Newman (who is rarely accused of shallowness), which places the emphasis on the personal dimension of faith rather than on intellectual obedience. One might argue that this focus on the individual over the ecclesial is fundamentally Protestant. The literary converts of the Decadence, despite their vocal rejection of the Reformation’s heritage, were all deeply marked by their Protestant upbringing, and their writings often represent a rather un-Catholic Catholicism, as if their vision of the Roman Church was distorted through a Protestant prism. The over-dramatic, romanticised religion that they describe is often closer to the depictions that can be found in the Gothic novel and in anti-Catholic pamphlets than to the actual faith practised by the average Catholic under Victoria’s reign.
29What Anthony Burgess, who was himself a “cradle Catholic,” wrote about the literary converts of the 20th century in the first section of his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987) could apply to the Decadent writers, to whom Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh are heirs in many ways:
The great English Catholics of the age of toleration, from Cardinal Newman, to Graham Greene, have all been converts. A cradle Catholic finds it hard to take them seriously. . . . The converted Catholics of modern literature seem to be concerned with a different faith from the one I was nurtured in—naively romantic, pedantically scrupulous. Novels like The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour falsify the faith by over-dramatising it. Waugh’s fictional Catholicism is too snobbish to be true. It evidently hurt Waugh deeply that his typical fellow-worshipper should be an expatriated Irish labourer and that the typical minister of the Church should be a Maynooth priest with a brogue.43
30Decadent Catholicism does indeed anticipate Waugh’s, particularly in its elitist vision of things. It does not reflect in any way the social reality of English Catholicism at the end of the 19th century, which was essentially a working-class phenomenon. Gold monstrances and Adonis-like acolytes, mediaeval Virgins and Gregorian plain-chant, Pre-Raphaelite painting, Symbolist poetry and Tractarian theology have little to do with the popular piety of the Irish immigrant in Manchester or Liverpool. Decadent Catholicism is essentially a fantasised, aestheticised faith, reconstructed by art, which is not so much part of the modern world as of a literary tradition.