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Over the last half-century, dozens of remarkable Catholic women writers have fallen almost entirely out of print. In their own time, their books were widely read, often bestsellers. Taken together, their work spans an impressive range of social, political, and spiritual perspectives; it is often marked by radical literary innovation. Most importantly, these writers offered a vision of human life that remains truthful and relevant today.

Were they forgotten because they belonged to a forgotten society? None of us remembers firsthand the highly structured life of the preconciliar convent, the rituals and expectations of a pre-war aristocratic home, or the atmosphere of West London when it was a cheap place for artists to live. Yet the characters in these fading British communities are instantly recognizable to the contemporary reader. So are the dilemmas they confront.

Should Catholics withdraw from, or seek to engage with, a hostile society? That question runs through the work of one early figure in the Catholic literary revival, Josephine Ward (1864–1932). A friend of John Henry Newman’s—he appears as a minor character in her first novel, One Poor Scruple—Ward wrote about her generation, the first English Catholics in centuries who could attend Oxford and Cambridge and aspire to a public life in the world of letters. One Poor Scruple dramatizes a moment in the life of the Riversdale family, who have survived the long penal years by observing a quiet aristocratic life of sport and agriculture. Now, on the cusp of the twentieth century, a new generation is emerging. Their elders—including some members of the Church hierarchy—caution them not to trust the Protestant establishment.

We are told early in the novel that the older generation, the “persecuted,” had “come, in many cases, to idealise the enforced seclusion and inaction of penal days.” Now the younger generation, all converts, argue that “it was no compliment to the strengthening power of their religion that its adherents should be afraid of contact with the national life.” As the novel’s younger characters enter the world, they discover that a cloistered moral formation does not prepare them to navigate the moral challenges of fashionable society. And yet those who rely on worldly wisdom, without the doctrinal formation of conscience described by Newman, tend to go astray. Only in the novel’s postscript do we meet the third generation, who, in the new century, are finally comfortable as Catholics in Oxford, able to reconcile the old world of the reclusive Catholic with the (mostly Protestant) world of intellectual endeavor.

Many Catholic women novelists asked: To what extent can a Catholic immerse herself in Protestant society? How may Catholics evangelize the non-Catholic world and support the growth of a nascent Catholic community without losing entirely a corporate identity that has been maintained for so long by protectionist isolation? These questions were especially urgent for intellectuals and writers, who perceived the insufficient scope for the modern mind in a rural Catholic home, shut off from towns, universities, and the public life and public offices of Britain and Ireland. In response to this need many coteries emerged. Catholic intellectuals flocked to each other’s houses to share ideas and establish literary magazines: the Wards (both generations), the von Hügels, the Chestertons, and especially the poet and essayist Alice Meynell, who through her London salons perhaps single-handedly made the Catholic literary revival possible.

By the time Josephine Ward wrote her final novel, she was being published by her own daughter, Maisie Ward of Sheed and Ward, whose offices in London and New York shaped the intellectual lives of lay Catholics from early in the twentieth century. Another of Sheed and Ward’s bestselling writers was Caryll Houselander (1901–1954), at whose name all Catholic artists should bow their heads. After decades of publishing hugely popular spiritual prose, Houselander decided that she could no longer “preach” to her readers. Instead, she wrote one novel, The Dry Wood (1947), in which she created an ensemble cast of her favorite London characters so that she, their author, might walk among them and share their struggle.

Houselander was that rare thing: an artist who might also be a saint. Read Houselander’s letters and you will find a rule for daily life as fitting to the needs of the Catholic writer as St. Benedict’s rule is to celibate communities. She never married, and her one romantic attachment ended abruptly before the war, but she was a devoted friend to the many people with whom she shared her life. Fully and passionately a lay woman, she felt no desire to join any official cause or group, whether consecrated religious life or any of the many lay movements emerging around her. She was sharp-tongued, she drank, smoked, and was notorious for her odd appearance: bright red bangs, round spectacles, pure white face powder. And yet she ordered her working life with all the rigor of a religious sister, dedicating hours to the needs of others through her copious correspondence, her care of the vulnerable, and her conversation with friends. Houselander was terrible at big parties, too awkward and rude. But in small circles where she could talk freely, she crafted her voice, her view of the world, and her ability to live beyond herself, which for her was the ultimate secret and purpose of writing. By the last decades of her life, she was living very austerely: barely eating or sleeping, owning few possessions, and spending every hour writing or in conversation with friends.

Houselander viewed artistic production as a divine activity. No one, she said, “should ever make anything except in the spirit in which a woman bears a child, in the spirit in which Christ was formed in Mary’s womb, in the love with which God created the world.” Even so, among the lost women writers, Houselander was perhaps the most at home in the secular world in which she moved. English Catholics of her generation were often critical of modernity, but to her, “the modernist writers are not the contemptible egoists which they are too often supposed to be.” The Dry Wood is perhaps the most pious among the works of the Catholic literary revival, but in executing it Houselander drew upon the technical innovations developed by modernist literary peers and their experiments with time, place, and multivocalism.

Each chapter of The Dry Wood follows a different character in a London docklands parish. This narrative strategy was being deployed in the first decades of the twentieth century by modernist writers—Woolf, Joyce, Sommerfield—and was a reaction against the Protestant bourgeois novel of the nineteenth century, which focused on the individual moral arcs of characters linked by a network of relationships and overseen by an omniscient narrative voice. Twentieth-century literary modernism was critical of the bourgeois novel’s trust in individual consciousness; it was also critical of the omniscient voice and its providential orchestration of human relationships into a narratively harmonious order. In rejecting these conventions, modernist (often atheist) writers questioned literature’s investment in a totalizing moral, social, or religious order.

In The Dry Wood, Houselander was likewise reacting against the providentialism of the nineteenth-century Protestant novel, but unlike her atheist peers she did so by amplifying the mysterious operations of the divine presence. All her characters struggle on their own, separated from each other by strife and by the novel’s chapter arrangement, but their lives are ultimately drawn together into the final Mass, in an expertly constructed scene in which we see the great communal prayer of the Church depicted in all its earthly and heavenly dimensions. The novel’s structure reveals that no life is merely parallel. Even if the characters can’t see it, even if they continue to feel isolated, they are in fact part of one unified vision held in the eye of the omniscient maker.

The novels of Waugh and Greene often focus on the solitary figure of a priest or layman in spiritual combat with the world around him. By contrast, the lost novels of Catholic women are usually situated in families and parishes and in the institutional communities in which the writers themselves first encountered the faith: schools, convents, or convent schools. Rumer Godden wrote three convent novels, unsentimental depictions of communal religious life that nonetheless describe that life as a source of human fulfillment and divine grace for the women who choose it. Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices (1941), set in an Irish convent school, follows the spiritual development of the prioress and the youngest student: a pair of women at either end of life who are bound to each other as mutual agents of grace.

Antonia White’s Frost in May (1933) is possibly the best-known convent novel among non-Catholic readers and, to the casual reader, might appear to be a study in feminist anti-Catholicism: It was the first title chosen by the feminist publisher Virago for its Modern Classics series. The book portrays a devout and passionate young girl’s experience in a strict convent school. Yet it does so ambivalently: The more narrow and manipulative elements of the convent’s management—the nuns’ close surveillance of students, their petty cruelties, their mistrust of anything worldly—is never wholly oppressive or claustrophobic but is part of the rarefied, spiritual atmosphere that so enthralls the students:

Holy Week arrived and proceeded on its majestic way. Each year, however much [Nanda] might have wavered in her devotion or her unquestioning obedience, its slow, magnificent rituals impressed on her afresh the beauty and poetry of Catholicism. Each of the great days had its special drama. After Palm Sunday every statue was veiled with purple, the organ was silent, and the altar bell replaced by a harsh wooden clapper. On the evenings of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the children and the nuns sang the office of Tenebrae in the darkened chapel. She was profoundly moved by the lamenting psalms with the recurrent, urgent cry “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad dominum Deum tuum.” . . .
Nanda noticed that the candles were being extinguished not by the usual sacristan nun, but by a postulant. At intervals her old fear of a vocation re-asserted itself so that the sight of any new aspirant always filled her with a certain discomfort. Supposing that one day one of those figures in ancient, borrowed skirts and dark flannel blouses should be herself?

The subtlety of such writing was lost on Virago, which has sold White’s works as depictions of passionate young women seduced by, yet valiantly fighting against, a repressive Catholic regime. In truth, White’s characters carry in them the spiritual wisdom of the Church and draw on it to question the world around them. As White knew, the Christian world is much broader than its critics allow.

At least Virago published White and Godden. Why did so many other novelists fall out of print? According to most scholars, the turning point was Vatican II. The preconciliar Church, we are told, took a reactionary stance toward the world, and its self-imposed separation provided the conditions for a flourishing literary movement; afterward, Catholicism ceased to define itself in opposition to modernity, and so the Catholic novel went into decline. This narrative, however, is difficult to maintain given the number of postconciliar novels that bring a distinctively Catholic perspective to their social, cultural, and ecclesiastical contexts.

Take the Scottish novelist Muriel Spark (1918–2006), who wrote The Comforters in 1957. It is one of the finest postmodern novels in the English language—postmodern in the sense that it reflects on, and even undermines, the novel form itself. The Comforters follows the difficulties of Caroline, a woman whose mental breakdown has inspired her to become both a Catholic and a student of postmodern literature. Now seemingly in her right mind, Caroline begins to hear the sound of an invisible typewriter, on which her thoughts are being recorded. Attuned as she is to postmodern techniques, Caroline is wise enough to see that the typewriter belongs to God and that she is the protagonist in a novel being written by the divine hand. Of course, no one believes her; they want to lock her up, but they can’t because they are themselves too mad or criminal to denounce her openly. What is Spark saying to us? That believers might be lonely and misunderstood, but they are not deranged. They see the truth even when the truth is much stranger than society can accept. She is also saying that we must understand who the author ultimately is and how we might come to see truly the stories of our own lives. Caroline perceives that “being written into the novel” is painful. She is impatient for the story to come to an end, “knowing that the narrative could never become coherent to her until she was at last outside it, and at the same time consummately inside it.”

Alice Thomas Ellis (1932–2005), who grew up in Wales, absorbed every word Spark wrote and then began to write novels herself. The 27th Kingdom (1982) follows a saintly novice forced to live among artists and thieves in bohemian Chelsea, where her enigmatic grace effects little reform in those around her. But it does terrify them and, in the end, saves at least one life. In return, bohemian Chelsea changes the novice in ways we are asked to regard as positive. She has been sent there by a Mother Superior who could not abide the girl’s spiritual excesses: levitation, the ability to stop fruit rotting with a touch of her hand. In the Mother Superior’s view, the girl must have real, interior grace, not showy miracles—and through her short stay among artists, this change seems to come about.

Spark and Ellis saw in postmodernity an opportunity to cultivate style—something they often found lacking in post-1960s Catholicism. They both perceived liturgical and spiritual innovations as popular fads; in their writing they aligned the wit of the novelist’s voice with the preconciliar Catholicism they loved. For them the avant garde in literature was a niche, chic world that belonged—after Vatican II—with the now maligned beauty of the Tridentine Mass.

Were these novelists too subtle to capture postconciliar readers? Clearly they were too subtle for a feminist audience, for the feminist literary courses that rewrote the canon at the end of the century failed to preserve either Ellis’s or Spark’s reputation. Either writer might have become a feminist icon. (Ellis ran a publishing house while raising six children; Spark was a single woman who wrote books about smart single women.) In fact, the entire corpus of Catholic women writers seems to have slipped between these worlds, the Catholic and the feminist: worlds that sometimes overlap, but never with much harmony.

It is true that Spark and Ellis disdained feminism. For them it was simply another question of style, something no political movement has ever possessed. Ellis recalled second-wave feminists as a group of “disgruntled females” organizing “consciousness raising sessions” and adopting other “outmoded and discredited Marxist tactics, so that in a while everyone hated them, though few dared to admit it.” Then “a dreadful breed of feminist men arose, claiming to sympathize with this struggle for justice, and everyone hated them too.” Ellis mourned a womanhood that she had known in Liverpool: tough, funny, capable women who could handle a scythe or smoke a pipe. She mourned the womanhood of early Hollywood actresses: sharp-tongued, elegant, clever, and moral—Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis—“none of whom,” said Ellis, “resemble in the least the downtrodden wimps so crucial to feminist myth.”

Her most bitter argument with feminism was its encroachment on Church doctrine, especially the popular argument that women would cure any ills lurking in the Church. “Those who think women incapable of authoritarianism can never have met any.” She claimed never to have known a man, “no matter how patriarchal, who could outdo a determined woman in terms of sheer terror.” It is perhaps important that so many of the lost Catholic women writers were themselves ferocious characters, whose books contain no small number of difficult women. Were they too much for Catholic readers? Too Catholic for feminist readers?

Alice Thomas Ellis’s house was notorious for its parties, the dissolute kind familiar in London’s literary scene and yet strangely also a source of religious conversion for many of Ellis’s guests. She was the perfect hostess: lingering just long enough at any one shoulder to land a devastating line but more usually hovering in the kitchen cooking and chain-smoking with the least glamorous of her guests or out on the street delivering uneaten food to the local homeless. The many stories about Ellis’s parties should not overshadow the lesser-known truths: the unseen hours she spent working with young writers, often housing and feeding them, laboring unpaid on their voice and narrative tautness—especially young women with no literary connections of their own, no other way into the publishing world and no formal training. It was this quiet dedication to the talents of others that Ellis assumed to be the work of all men and women, all artists.

Like almost all the writers of the Catholic literary revival, Ellis and Spark were converts. Their imaginations were shaped by a radical change in perspective. In Britain, becoming Catholic meant accepting a place outside of the establishment. In Ireland, conversion from Anglicanism often occurred alongside an awakening to the nationalist or republican cause. In both countries, conversion meant that writers could see their society, and the novel form in which they were already working, with clear eyes for the first time. For the interwar British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith, this was so true that during her conversion she wrote one supremely Catholic novel (The End of the House of Alard) before giving up fiction almost completely. Once she had written bestselling novels about Sussex farming life; after conversion she bought a Sussex farm, established a much-needed Catholic parish there, and spent her days living the faith in quiet gratitude.

It is striking how many Catholic women novelists experienced personal pain to an inordinate degree: child loss, loneliness, mental breakdown. The Catholic understanding of the salvific nature of suffering provided them with means by which to perceive the role their losses played in the small dramas of their own lives and in the bigger cosmic drama. Faced with the emotional and spiritual reality of deep suffering, convert novelists often saw in Catholicism what they saw in the novel itself: a space able to contain all the mysteries of human experience. Yet so many of these lost novels explore the mysterious operations of the divine will through lowly, ordinary characters who move in unremarkable settings.

For scenes of ordinary life—of ordinary women going about the daily round of cooking and feeding, scenes in which these simple tasks take on the majesty of consecrated activity, even the power to defend a neighborhood against war—no Catholic novel can compete with the lost works of Irish women: Maura Laverty’s Never No More (1942), Mary Beckett’s Give Them Stones (1987). In the hands of Laverty and Beckett, the simple tasks—baking bread, peeling potatoes—become incarnate signs of divine reality and sometimes manage to hold back real evil: the rebel’s gun, the sinner’s violence.

For the non-Catholic reader, these lost women novelists offer a crucial but overlooked vision of modernity, often expressed with great literary skill. For the Christian reader, these novels offer a means for holding together areas of contemporary life that have become increasingly divided. Most of the lost women novelists were writing at a time when the Church was struggling to define its relationship with a secular world. They were innovators who raised questions that would eventually be addressed at Vatican II, but they were also loyal to many of the traditions that disappeared after the council. Their vision incorporates a rigorous personal morality and a concern for social justice, an awareness of God’s grandeur and of his presence in the ordinary, and an appreciation for both personal piety and works of mercy.

Benedict XVI once wrote that “the only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” The Catholic literary revival’s lost women writers were not always particularly saintly, but their work is, in its sideways manner, a weighty apologia for Catholicism in the modern world.

Bonnie Lander Johnson and Julia Meszaros are co-editors of the Catholic Women Writers series (Catholic University of America Press).

Image by Villa Grisebach Auktionen on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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