Contesting the Catholic Presence in Female Gothic Fiction

Diane Hoeveler
Diane Hoeveler

Imagine my surprise when I learned that Regina Maria Roche (c. 1764-1845), widely published Irish author of one of the most popular female gothic novels of the late eighteenth-century, ‘The Children of the Abbey’ (1796), was not, in fact, a Roman Catholic.

In order to fully understand my surprise, you have to appreciate that there has been something of a scholarly revisionist craze of late to present her as a Catholic or, at the very least, as sympathetic to Catholicism in her major novel.

Maria Purves states unequivocally: “Roche was an Irish Catholic, and it seems probable that she wanted to give her audience an insight into the realities — as opposed to the romantic possibilities — of her Church.”

A few years earlier, George Haggerty had described ‘The Children of the Abbey’ as having an “actively pro-Catholic […] narrative agenda,” while Jarlath Killeen notes that the title of the novel privileges Catholicism and indicates the Catholic basis for Irish and, indeed, Western culture: “we are all ‘children of the abbey.’” Finally, Derek Hand has asserted that “there is a Catholic strain running through [‘The Children of the Abbey’] at a subterranean level.” Unfortunately, none of these claims is borne out by an examination of either Roche’s life or her novel.

This is what we do know for a fact: Roche was born in Waterford, Ireland, in either 1764 or 1765 (even that date is in dispute), daughter of Captain Blundel Dalton (or D’Alton) who held the rank of officer in His Majesty’s 40th Regiment, a commission that, given the penal laws in operation in Ireland at the time, would not have been available to him were he Catholic.

Later in her life, both Roche and her husband inherited property in Ireland from their fathers, which also would not have been possible had they been Catholics. By the time Roche was around fifteen years old, the British attitude towards Catholics had moderated a bit.

As Colin Haydon has noted, by 1778, “grateful that the Irish Catholics had loyally not exploited the difficulties produced by the American war, the administration decided that some measure of relief should be brought in for them.”

After a number of amendments on these measures, however, the new legislation accomplished little, only “remov[ing] the various restrictions on Catholic holding, inheriting, and leasing land set out in the anti-Popish Act of 1704” (p. 171).

All of these historical factors have led her modern biographer, James Shanahan, to write to me and say that he would be “astounded” to learn that Roche had been a Catholic.

The question becomes: why has there been an attempt to appropriate and reconstruct Roche and her heroine Amanda Fitzalan for the Catholic cause? Or more broadly, why has there been an ahistorical attempt to characterize the gothic, particularly the female gothic, as pro-Catholic?

For those unfamiliar with ‘The Children of the Abbey’, I provide here a brief overview of its plot and characters. Structured as a dual-focus tale about two siblings, the novel follows the complex trials and tribulations of Oscar and Amanda Fitzalan — the children of an Irish soldier and a wealthy Scottish heiress, who was disinherited by her family when she married beneath her station.

From an Irish convent, to a Welsh mansion, and finally to Dunreath Abbey, the Scottish ancestral estate, Amanda is pursued by the lecherous libertine Colonel Belgrave, all while she is being courted by her true love, Lord Mortimer of Cherbury, who is confused about her class status and relationship with Belgrave.

Meanwhile, Oscar, in love with the beautiful Adela Honeywood, watches helplessly as she is handed over in marriage to the odious Belgrave, who finally dies to everyone’s relief.

Both siblings regain their aristocratic identities and property only after Amanda ventures into Dunreath Abbey and, amidst what appear to be supernatural interventions, rediscovers the rightful will written by her grandfather bequeathing the estate to the siblings.

There has been a good deal of controversy about the presence of religion and religious tropes in gothic texts. On the one hand, critics like Sister Mary Muriel Tarr, Irene Bostrom, Victor Sage, and Susan Griffin have claimed that the gothic novelists deployed a crude form of anti-Catholicism that fed the lower classes’ prejudices against the passage of a variety of Catholic Relief Acts pending in Parliament since 1788.

On the other hand, Purves recently has claimed that by focusing on only a “handful of works” (p. 208) that do not represent the full range of gothic writing, literary historians have failed to recognize the “Burkean counter-revolutionary discourse in the 1790s [that] made possible a favourable opinion of Catholicism as a strategically important part of England’s heritage within the context of pro-Catholic sympathy in the form of the incremental Catholic Relief legislation of the late-eighteenth-century and England’s national support of the French clergy.” (p. 204)

However, the Gordon riots of 1780, which left close to 300 dead in London, make it patently obvious that there was strong if not hysterical sentiment against any attempt to loosen the restrictions on Catholic emancipation every step of the way.

This current critical controversy simply repeats in a slightly different key a similar one conducted some seventy years ago between Joyce Tompkins and Montague Summers. The stark differences in opinion on this issue can be resolved by recognizing that an “either/or” explanation will not suffice; in fact a “both/and” method is the more accurate way of accounting for the bifurcated ideological agendas present in the more than one thousand gothic texts that were published between 1780 and 1829.

Gothic literature can best be understood in the context of the Western secularization process. Cultural work reveals the drive toward secularization on the part of the elite and middle classes throughout Europe from roughly 1780 to 1830.

In order to modernize and secularize, and the dominant British Protestant imaginary needed another “other” against which it could define itself as a culture and a nation with distinct boundaries.

In gothic literature, a reactionary, demonized, and feudal Catholicism is created in order to stand in opposition to the modern Protestant individual who then alternately combats and flirts with this uncanny double in a series of cultural productions that we recognize as gothic novels.

It has long been a critical truism to claim that the gothic is anti-Catholic and anti-clerical. I would argue, though, that the issue of religion’s uncanny presence in the period’s literature is much more complex and conflicted than such a claim suggests.

As a result, a novel like Roche’s ‘The Children of the Abbey’, which certainly flirts with presenting a nun positively, simultaneously castigates two conniving priests and condemns Irish Catholics for their superstitions and slightly veiled pagan practices (like the “Irish wake” and their belief in banshees).

The “whiggish” gothic aesthetic is anti-Catholic, but in its bid to establish a (false) pedigree for itself, it is also nostalgic and reactionary, showing itself to be in thrall to the lure of an earlier feudal, aristocratic, and Catholic past.

British and Irish writers like Roche certainly recognized the power of the gothic to seduce their readers with ambivalent and confusing messages.

An analysis of the majority of gothic works reveals that the genre needs to be understood as a powerful ideological discourse system that allowed authors to keep alive spectres and apparitions of both the sacred and the demonic even as they castigated the failings of a formal, institutionalized religion that they wished to forget they had ever embraced.

As a major component of the secularizing process, the gothic aesthetic anxiously looked backwards and forward at the same time, torn between reifying the past and embracing a future it could not quite envision.

Roche’s novel contains both strands. By focusing on only one of these tendencies (as Haggerty, Killeen, and Purves have done), critics have misread the larger and more contradictory agenda of this novel as well as of the gothic aesthetic itself.

The novel, as a genre, reifies bourgeoisie ideals of Enlightenment Europe, such as self-control, commercial enterprise, education, literacy, nationalism, legal rights, and civic values such as “virtue” and “reason.”

As Angela Keane has claimed, “Novels stood to Protestant, Whiggish progressivism as romance stood to regressive, Catholic feudalism […]. [Therefore] the latter part of the eighteenth-century produced a new, if the ambivalent fascination with the pre-modern epistemology and its cultural and political signs, not least its national signs.”

The gothic imaginary, however, is a distinctly hybrid genre, neither purely a novel form nor purely a romance. Able to assume different shapes and accomplish contradictory ideological work, the gothic could appear to be simultaneously Protestant (Sage and others) as well as Catholic (Summers and Purves).

It also could embrace a “pre-modern epistemology” all the while denouncing it as nonsense. For David Punter, “the code of gothic is thus not a simple one in which past is encoded in the present or vice versa, but dialectical, past and present intertwined, each distorting each other.”

In a similar manner, I would argue that the process of secularization that occurs in the gothic is not a simple forward-moving trajectory that we would recognize as the Enlightenment project but more an oscillation in which the transcendent and traditional religious beliefs and tropes are alternately preserved and reanimated and then blasted and condemned.

The gothic aesthetic anxiously splits, then, between an evocation of the religious and feudal past and a glimpse of the emerging secular future, between the importance of the pre-capitalist human community (the idealized all-female convent in Roche’s novel) and the newly modern individual in the public sphere (Amanda’s brother Oscar in his military engagements and eventual use of the law to regain his inheritance and title).

Writing in opposition to anti-Catholic Surrealists such as André Breton, who had claimed the gothic’s use of dreams and the irrational as the basis for Surrealism, Summers notes, “there is no true romanticism apart from Catholic influence and feeling” (p. 390). It is surely no coincidence that the uncanny as defined by Freud was adapted by Breton in 1936 in his own attempt to claim the gothic and the pleasure principle as the origins for Surrealism.

In his appropriation of the uncanny as a manifestation of the fears and phobias of the dark unconscious, Breton has been accused of reducing the gothic to a purely psychological category, a “primal psychomachia,” according to Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall.

For them, Breton’s approach would make the gothic personal rather than political, and it would fail to situate the genre within its fuller “whiggish” context: its need to condemn “the twin yoke of feudal politics and papal deception, from which [Protestants] had still to emancipate themselves” (p. 219).

As they put it, “Gothic novels were set in the Catholic south because, “without great violation of truth,” Gothic (that is, “medieval”) practices were believed still to prevail there. Such representations drew upon and reinforced the cultural identity of the middle-class Protestant readership, which could thrill to the scenes of political and religious persecution safe in the knowledge that they themselves had awoken from such historical nightmares. (p. 219)”

While many of the period’s gothic texts conform to this pattern, there is also a concurrent tendency to look backwards to the lost traditions of the past with nostalgia, or with “the pain a sick person feels because he wishes to return to his native land, and fears never to see it again.”

When Amanda retreats to a convent presided over by a benign prioress and her energetic assistant Sister Mary, she is so happily settled and seemingly so comfortable that when her suitor Lord Mortimer finds her, proposes yet again, and has been accepted, she repeatedly puts him off.

He begins to worry they have stayed so long at the convent that his sister will think they “both [have] become converts to the holy rites of this convent” (p. 412). Clearly, the convent community depicted here is a nostalgic feudal haven, a microcosmic vision of what life in Ireland could be if presided over by wise and caring women. However, this episode is but a brief idyll in a book that sees the heroine travel from London to Wales to Ireland to Scotland and then back to all of these places in a sort of endless hyper-nationalistic loop, looking for a home that eludes her until the end of this long novel.

To fail to recognize that cultural productions gesture toward both nostalgia and reform is to fail to appreciate how easy it is to be haunted by that which we have supposedly left behind. Indeed, it would seem that one of history’s most vital lessons is that cultures require hundreds of years to absorb radical change into their social imaginaries.

The changes that Western Europe underwent, moving from the Renaissance to the “modern” society of the 1848 revolution, were traumatic indeed. From the religious and intellectual upheavals that occurred during the reign of Henry VIII to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, England entered the eighteenth-century in the grip of both scientific rationalism and spiritual uncertainty and anxiety.

France and Germany went through similar, although certainly not identical, reformations, revolutions, and transformations. As Maurice Lévy has observed, the 1688 Revolution by which the Protestant Ascendancy was finally established was much more important for the development of the gothic than was the French Revolution because “in some sense the fantastic is a compensation that man provides for himself, at the level of the imagination, for what he has lost at the level of faith.”16 For Lévy, the gothic is not, however, a simple textual substitution for discredited religious beliefs but instead “a genuine expression of profound religious malaise” (p. 42).

However, I would claim that there is a good deal of textual substitution being enacted, and one of the primary substitutes is the corrupt monk, the perfidious Jesuit, or the Grand Inquisitor for the devil. In Roche’s novel, the role of the devil is actually played by the libertine-seducer Colonel Belgrave, who pursues Amanda across the landscapes of four countries and who actively works to destroy the life of her brother, Oscar.

Belgrave is so demonic that he seduces young women away from their parents twice (once resulting in the young woman’s death). He also kidnaps Amanda, holds her hostage at his creepy gothic estate, and is interrupted in his attempt to rape her only because his dying uncle has demanded to see him before signing his will (p. 316).

Belgrave is a secularized demon, even dying in the company of a hired French priest just to make the anti-Catholic association even clearer in the minds of Roche’s readers (p. 635). The idea being put forward would have been one of the oldest complaints against the Catholic Church: that such a man could receive extreme unction and have his sins forgiven at the last moment for the sake of the priest’s payoff.

The devil, of course, was the ultimate external and assaulting force on the soul of humanity, and for centuries Western consciousness was preoccupied with battling this wily opponent. A significant move in displacing the devil from his dominance occurred in 1736 when the British Parliament banned all laws that would have allowed courts to convict anyone of demonic possession or witchcraft.

Certainly, the passage of this law was a Protestant triumph because, as Lennard Davis notes, the “Catholic Church was seen as having the inside track on exorcisms, and banning the idea of possession was in effect a way of banning popery in general.”

The devil also became increasingly identified with the pope in the eighteenth-century lower-class British imagination. The annual and ritualized Guy Fawkes burnings, as well as the liturgies that were held in every Anglican Church on November 5th, consistently linked the devil to the pope, and such an association would continue to be developed throughout a number of gothic novels and chapbooks.

In fact, we need to reevaluate the notion that the 1605 Guy Fawkes conspiracy to assassinate the King and the entire Protestant ruling class by blowing up Parliament was a long-forgotten nonevent in the eighteenth-century.


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