The English Catholic Novel’s Place in Modern Society

cfo002Stephven Oliver, author of Smoke in the Sanctuary (and, coincidentally  my Head of School), gave a talk a couple of weeks ago on the English Catholic Novel, and thus I have had some to time to contemplate whether this specific genre can still be of interest to modern day readers of all ages.

To begin with, (which also provides a more in-depth discussion of the topic) defines the English Catholic Novel (ECN) as “a work of substantial literary merit in which Catholic theology and thought have a significant presence within the narrative” (by an Englishman), which sums it up quite nicely. It’s what it says on the cover.

The deeply religious probably take great comfort from sharing their ideas, rules and experiences. I don’t mean this in disagreement of the genre, but that I like the idea of novels published to unite a community of faith.

There can be, however, problems with a religious approach to writing. One question is of how easy it can be to craft and publish an ECN. Sure, one might start off with a priest protagonist and church-based location and one’s book is likely to fall into that category – at first glance. However, there are many books that fall into the ECN category without having any outwardly religious connotations. ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ are two, very diverse in themselves.200px-BRIDESHEAD

Conversely, one could set up a scenario based on faith, but reject the premise with plot and characters  not reconciled by religion or faith. Thus, it appears that the ECN is more than something with features of the Catholic faith, but with a distinct Christian element to it.

I’d say it depends on the author.

The idea of a Catholic novel must depend on the author’s own definition, in addition to whether other readers of the genre would accept it in. But I reiterate that the author’s opinion is paramount. To create a story but have it mistaken for a different genre would, of course, be the epitome of frustration for the writer.

And, once one accepts that, one starts to apply the ideology and themes. For instance, in Triangle, my MC and his sister are Catholics and, whilst not being the most faithful of people, do tend to adhere to their faith. Yet, even during a discussion of morality, one could argue that these themes are not deep enough to warrant calling it an ECN. (I’d probably have to agree; it is a chick lit romance, after all!)

Nevertheless, I would be intrigued to see how far into the ECN category Triangle might rate. I fall into two of the categories: English and [almost] Catholic – but I understand that it’s the novel that has the greatest weight itself. Religion was important right from the genesis of the novel – and religion does have quite a point in several of the later chapters to influence the way the romance goes. Since I have been thinking about such religious themes, it’s fair to say that I have wanted to include them more and more, even in the more subtle way of writers like Tolkien.

Applying my situation to logic, one could argue that more novels fall into the English Catholic Novel genre than writers would admit. So why are they not as well known or used in labelling a book?

Simple: the ECN market is quite a small one, for the fact that not many people in society today would outwardly admit to reading novels which might place a label over their heads. Too, to say one is writing a book with Catholic themes may be enough to turn a whole segment of readers away. Even in the community of a Catholic school, such as that within which I have matured, the word can cause a *look* to pass amongst fellows.

It has been suggested by modern writers that this form of novel is something that cannot be recreated in a modern secular society. In 1982, one critic referred to his book on the Catholic novel as an “elegy for an apparently dying form.” Not the best of omens….

b01q0q11However, that is not to say that the ECN is ‘dead’ to the world of writing or to those who want to read it. As proven with
the release of The Hobbit, battles of good against evil (rooted in a belief in the good of one’s self if nothing else) are still some of the most popular threads of plot. After all, there’s a bit within most of us that wants the good protagonist to conquer the bad antagonist. I think that even novels that others might say ‘scream Catholicism’, about clergy and church activities, are accessible to those outside of the Catholic Church. Regardless of content (though I do agree that this is important) a well-written novel is still a well-written novel and a pleasing read for anyone who chooses to. Recently, there’s even been the adaptation of
G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown on TV, starring one of my favourite actors, Mark Williams.

With the large amount of novelists and genres that exist in the world today, the ECN is just less obvious than it has been in other – possibly more puritan – centuries.

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