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 ...
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.