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Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Thoughts on a literary "topic"

Mark Shea links to “All sorts of documents including ancient Christian and pagan writers and a photocopy of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk”.

I recently came across Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) in an omnibus edition of Gothic novels: the similarities of ideas in this and Maria Monk are quite remarkable. Nuns imprisoned in dungeons by their superiors, relatives informed falsely of their death, weird power-play sexual relations between religious . . . It is not the cynicism of, say, the medievals about immorality and debauchery among religious and secular clergy: for them, while they are scathing, and not forgetful of the aggravation of the offence by the position of those involved, the subject had not the prurient fascination that it appears to have had for these English (or English-speaking) Protestants. A more contemporary comparison with The Monk, in which again there is not the weirdness, would be one of the sub-plots of Manzoni’s Betrothed (1827): nun conducts steamy affair. Or Hugo’s Notre Dame (1831) (hunchback thereof): chapter priest conceives irresistible lust for fair (well, dark) maiden. The priest in the Hugo novel has admittedly some similarities to Ambrosio in The Monk: I seem to remember him famed for austerity and virtue and learning, and proud of these qualities. Is then the difference in aftertaste between these latter two novels (Lewis's novel leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, even from flicking through it, which Hugo's does not) merely a question of the quality of the writing?

When did this bizarre view of religious life develop? Was it peculiar to England and the English-speaking colonies? What was its inspiration? Newman found that there were the oddest suspicions and rumours about the purpose of the cellar that was being built as part of the new Birmingham oratory: I don’t have to hand a copy of the letter in which he writes about this, but it is quoted in Ian Ker’s recent biography. Ven. Mother Margaret O'Halloran, founder of the Dominican sisters at Stone, said laughingly to the Protestant uncle of a novice when he came to visit, "So you've come to see the prison?" And there are those references in Jane Eyre (1855):

(The first conversation between Jayne and Mr Rochester: Lowood is the charity school at which Jayne had been a boarding pupil for eight years)

‘You have lived the life of a nun: no doubt you are well drilled in religious forms; - Brocklehurst, who I understand directs Lowood, is a parson, is he not?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘And you girls probably worshipped him, as a convent full of religieuses would worship their director.’
‘Oh, no.’
‘You are very cool! No! What! a novice not worship her priest! That sounds blasphemous.’

Jane Eyre’s cousin Eliza, than whom Jayne “never saw a busier person” but yet found that “it was difficult to say what she did: or rather, to discover any result of her diligence”, is presented as frigid and unsympathetic. In religious matters a “rigid formalist” she spends three hours a day embroidering an altar cloth while her mother is on her death bed, and finds the greatest attraction of the Book of Common Prayer “the Rubric”. Upon learning that Eliza intends to enter a convent, Jayne thinks to herself “The vocation will fit you to a hair”.

Unfamiliarity doubtless has something to do with it, as does the cultivation of “sensibility” and the sublime and all that. I have tried to think of parallels dealing with other cultures, religions or forms of life. For Calvinism one might consider Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824): a product, like Manzoni’s novel, of familiarity with the religious culture involved, though very much of the imagination, and which I would say lacks Lewis’s or Bronte’s prurience in dealing with the sordid question of the relationship between the mother of the villain and her Calvinist mentor Wringham senior. But not quite the same. I can’t think of any other examples: a non-contemporary one might be Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, if I could remember anything about the plot except a lesbian relationship of some description and a local church community at least presented as a cult: but I expect that is due to a lacuna in my reading and not a lack of material.

Given the Protestant prevalence in English literature of the period I am not in a position to draw wide conclusions, but to find out how widespread this “topic” was, and whence it came, would be interesting. How much can it be attributed to unfamiliarity, how much to literary and aesthetic movements, what exactly were those movements in the various countries where it was and wasn’t found, and to what extent were those movements produced by or affected the “world view” of the areas it came from and went to? Does it appear at the same time as ghost stories and the fear of graveyards? Was it a fascination with ascesis or strict/seemingly secretive groups in general? How much of these "Maria Monk" ideas remains? Would the friends of a friend who reacted in horror when they found he was joining the Charterhouse have reacted in the same way if he'd said he was off to a Buddhist monastery? And if not, was that which conditioned their response some product of this "topic" or quite unrelated?

Though, personally, I find this “prurient fascination” leaves a nasty taste in my mouth and I shouldn’t care to adopt it as a long-term study!