Maria LaMonaca’s Masked Atheism: Catholicism and the Secular Victorian Home represents a growing trend: a shift from studying anti-Catholic discourses on their own to studying Catholic and Protestant authors in dialogue with each other. Moreover, this study reflects an increased willingness to take seriously both religious literature and religion in literature. Here, LaMonaca trains her gaze on one of nineteenth-century religious literature’s most frequent preoccupations: the nature of domesticity and its relation to both this life and the next.
As the introduction explains, “‘masked atheism’” refers to Catholicism—both Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic—but not in their actually existing forms. Instead, women writers used Catholic and anti-Catholic discourses to tackle “sacred cows” such as “popular constructions of domesticity, romantic love, matrimony, motherhood, and family” (3). According to LaMonaca, Protestants treated Catholicism as “masked atheism”—a term appropriated from the Irish anti-Catholic novelist and editor Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1)—because they saw it is a “fake religion” that panders to “a fallen human nature” (1). For Protestants, this stereotype of Catholicism made it eminently suitable for critiquing domesticity: where better to see “human nature” at its best and worst? For Catholic authors, by contrast, the option of a life of service outside marriage meant that any celebration of marriage as a be-all and end-all of human existence was subject to close investigation (15). The issue, then, is not whether authors got Catholicism “right,” but to what rhetorical use they put Catholic and anti-Catholic tropes.
Masked Atheism’s narrative finds its unifying thread, as LaMonaca notes, in the highly-charged Victorian debate over idolatry (11). For Protestants, idolatry was both the soul-destroying hallmark of Catholic worship and a universal temptation. According to Protestant controversialists, Catholics committed idolatry by inserting objects of false worship between man and God, ranging from the Virgin Mary to religious icons. But idolatry came into play whenever fallen man and the manmade supplanted God in the worshipper’s eyes. Thus, chapters one and two explore how Charlotte Brontë and Lady Georgiana Fullerton critique romantic passion as dangerously conducive to idolatry. The first chapter, which is one of the book’s most interesting, analyzes how questions of idolatrous desire play out in Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Fullerton’s Lady-Bird (1852); the second, how the “consequences and punishment” (68) of that sin may—or may not—be relieved through the act of confession. LaMonaca argues that Jane Eyre, whose heroine admits to idolizing her beloved Rochester, uses its frequent invocations of Catholicism to single out “any domestic space that is ‘unbalanced’ in its orientation toward either the material or the spiritual” (44). The novel’s “ambivalent” ending (54) suggests that Brontë cannot truly mesh the religious and domestic spheres. By contrast, Fullerton’s Lady-Bird, whose characters similarly idolize their love objects, rewrites Jane Eyre by denying that romance is necessary at all: Gertrude and her forbidden beloved never marry, dedicating their lives to the spiritual cause instead. (As LaMonaca points out, the man’s fate clearly echoes that of St. John Rivers.)
To anti-Catholic agitators, the confessional was one of Catholicism’s most dangerous spaces. In Fullerton’s Ellen Middleton (1844), however—written while the author was still an Anglican—only confession can save the novel’s protagonist from damnation. As a child, a furious Ellen accidentally killed her cousin, and the memory of this act blights her life. Her deathbed confession to a priest, however, enables her to reconcile herself to her husband and other relatives. By contrast, the famous confession scene in Brontë’s Villette (1853), which takes place inside a Catholic church, offers temporary appeal but no real succor. Only confessing to Paul Emmanuel brings Lucy true spiritual peace. Or does it? Analyzing the novel’s notoriously puzzling conclusion, and arguing that M. Paul cannot offer full “absolution” (92) either, LaMonaca suggests that the ending is “a divine condemnation for Lucy’s sin of idolatry” (93)—a sin committed in the very act of confessing to M. Paul.
The first two chapters examined the fate of marriage and romance; the third explores what happens when novels do not merely critique romance, but instead omit it. LaMonaca focuses on the Anglo-Catholic Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s The Experience of Life (1852), which she reads in the context of fictional debates about convents and spinsters. Its heroine, Sarah Mortimer, enthusiastically renounces her own worldly desires. The list of renunciations includes marriage, a choice seconded by the unfortunate fates of the novel’s conventional couples: “In short, marriage and family life, far from being the natural vocation of every woman, might in fact prove a dangerous stumbling block to women’s moral, religious, and spiritual integrity” (120). The end result simultaneously suggests the inadequacy of proscribing marriage as a cure-all for female striving, and the potential problems involved in invoking endless self-sacrifice as a type of female liberation.
The fourth chapter shifts from fiction to poetry. Noting the highly-vexed nature of Victorian debates about transubstantiation, LaMonaca suggests that for women writers, transubstantiation could, nevertheless, function as “a conceptual tool—and a means of authority—by which to unify the fragmented female self into physical and spiritual wholeness” (134). Thus, noting that all of the female characters in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) are associated with Catholicism, LaMonaca argues that Aurora embraces a form of “erotic redemption” (150) in her union with Romney Leigh, in which “female body and spirit” (150) are made whole. Nevertheless, this union takes place over the figure of the rape victim, Marian, whom Aurora effectively absorbs “like a priest consuming a Eucharistic wafer” (145). Although, as LaMonaca notes, the Eucharistic imagery in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1862) is oft-remarked (155), she argues that Laura’s transaction with the goblins is itself a perverted Eucharist. Thus, whereas the goblins act like Roman Catholic priests, offering Laura the “profane sacrifice” of their spurious fruits (156), Lizzie gives her sister “unmediated access” to something much better: “the divine love of her sister” (157). Unlike Aurora Leigh, Goblin Market’s Eucharistic imagery preserves both women in the act of redemption.
In taking on George Eliot and Romola (1862-63), LaMonaca’s fifth chapter temporarily abandons the monograph’s focus on observant (if sometimes unorthodox) Christians, and turns to questions of literary genre. Eliot appropriates the form of the saint’s life as well as Catholic narratives of the Virgin Mary’s appearances to women and children, especially the reported manifestation at La Salette in 1846. Although Eliot associates such Catholic narratives with “superstition and ignorance” (163), she represents Romola’s famous transformation into a Madonna-figure as a triumph of secularism in a world with no God at all (188). Once Romola lets go of God, she is free to take on all those characteristics previously assigned to God, like “perfect benevolence” (185). The illusion of God promotes the free rein of narcissism; the disappearance of God enables authentic charity. This chapter would have benefited from more engagement with the role of positivism, which receives only a passing mention: to what extent do Romola’s Catholic tropes respond to the role of Catholicism in Comtean positivism itself?
Finally, LaMonaca analyzes the joint journal of poets Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, better known under the pseudonym “Michael Field.” LaMonaca traces the unconventional route by which the two converted to Catholicism: after years of considering themselves part of a “little Earthly Trinity” (197) with their much-loved dog, Whym Chow, their worldview imploded when he had to be euthanized in 1906. Although they found religious significance in the beauty of their exquisitely appointed home, Paragon, Whym Chow had been an integral part of their “domestic piety” (196); without him, they were unable to imagine home. As they moved toward conversion, however, they were able to yoke their new beliefs to a vision of Whym Chow as “living and present among them in spirit” (201). This transformation of a beloved dog seems to subvert the Protestant and Catholic critiques of idolatry advanced elsewhere in Masked Atheism. The end result was an unorthodox, yet fulfilling Catholic faith that granted Bradley and Cooper spiritual comfort and an authoritative ground for their “aesthetic creed” (206).
Of the many productive avenues for research raised by this study, I would like to single out three. First, in challenging the traditional marriage plot, Catholics also challenged classical realism. To what extent did the demands of writing religious fiction affect the shape of nineteenth-century fiction more generally? Second, LaMonaca reminds us that nineteenth-century religious critiques of domesticity do and do not align themselves with programmatic feminisms. How do we integrate such texts into our current critical narratives about a feminist tradition in fiction? Finally, the literary marketplace affected the production and dissemination of Catholic and anti-Catholic texts—and thus, by extension, their arguments. By the end of the century, to what extent had anti-Catholic fiction become a niche market, rather than a part of mainstream culture? By the same token, when Catholic novelists critiqued Protestant models of domesticity, to whom were they speaking?
Miriam Elizabeth Burstein is Associate Professor of English at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. She is the author of Narrating Women’s History in Britain, 1770-1902 (Ashgate, 2004), as well as several articles on historical fiction, histories of women, and religious literature. Her most recent project is Victorian Reformations: Fiction, History, Religion.