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.