Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2006 (1999).

Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2006 (1999). £29,99, ISBN-10 5 521 03214 8 (paperback), pp. x + 309.


Reviewed by: Laurence Lux-Sterritt, LERMA, Université d’Aix-Marseille I, France, March 2008.

In this ambitious study, Alison Shell sets out to rehabilitate the Catholic contribution to early modern English imaginative writing produced in the religiously troubled period between the death of Mary I and the Restoration.  As she highlights the role played by anti-Catholicism in the emergence of an English national identity, the author combines the approaches of both historians and literary theorists.  The former, she argues, unveil prejudice in the construction of historical paradigms through careful interpretation of primary sources, while the latter use literary analysis to understand how specific groups, ostracised by a dominant culture, come to be construed as the very incarnation of otherness.

The book is divided into two main parts.  The first part demonstrates that Catholic writers have been ignored in the canon of English literature, and that their contributions to major imaginative writing have been systematically downplayed.  Part two focuses upon the conundrum of Catholic political loyalty and the consequences of exclusion and exile upon writers. These two sections differ greatly in their subject, in their length and in their approach, and although they are linked by the author’s desire to rehabilitate Catholic contribution to English imaginative writing, this bi-partite structure seems to cut the book in half and present, as it were, two separate pieces.  It is debatable whether Shell’s overall argument and her impressive, rigorous research are best served by this divisive structure.

In the first chapter, Shell perceptively unveils a ‘critical imperception’ (23) in English literary critique; she shows how typical elements of the violent anti-popery polemic of the epoch pervaded the works of such main literary figures as John Webster or Thomas Middleton, whose works abound in anti-Catholic imagery.  Through apocalyptic disclosures, the identification of the pope with anti-Christ and of the Church of Rome with the Whore of Babylon, Catholicism was portrayed as spiritual whoredom.  The omnipresence of anti-Catholic tropes in the very canon of English imaginative writing which contributed to the creation of a national Protestant identity contributed to shape the notion of ‘Englishness’ through the rejection of foreign elements, represented by Catholics.  In her next chapter, Shell remarks that poets such as Robert Southwell and his successors William Alabaster and Richard Crawshaw (both converts to Catholicism), remain mostly absent from university bookshelves when their Protestant contemporaries (John Donne, George Herbert or Henry Vaughan) are so easily found. She observes that whereas Edmund Spenser’s Italianate writings elevated him to the status of a major poet and were hailed as enriching English culture, the same style under the pen of Richard Crawshaw still incurs critical censure.  Shell pertinently quotes the reluctance of the Norton Anthology of English Literature towards Crawshaw; she highlights his omission from Barbara Lewalski’s Protestant Poetics and the 17th-Century Religious Lyric, and the somewhat dismissive comment of his recent editor, George Walton Williams, for whom the poet wrote in ‘a style which is fundamentally foreign to the spirit of English poetry’. (97)  In an argument which could be read against that of Lewalski’s Protestant Poetics, Shell convincingly argues that Southwell and Crawshaw contributed greatly to what she calls ‘the English Catholic baroque’ (57), especially through the tears-poetry genre which, through Catholic influence, seeped into mainstream English poetry.

The book’s second section, on loyalism and exclusion, dwells first upon Elizabethan and Stuart loyalism (chapters 3 and 4), then on the subject of exile (chapters 5 and 6).  If historians and literary critics have noted that Catholicism shaped the identity of the emergent Protestant nation, Shell analyses how loyalism or exile shaped English Catholics’s own sense of national identity; she shows that Catholic writers such as Henry Constable and Thomas Wright dedicated much of their writing to proving that Catholicism should not be equated with political subversion. In this more deeply historicized section of her work, she deals with the stringent anti-Jesuitism present even amongst the Catholics of England, and reminds her reader of what historians have long known: for both Protestants and Catholics, Jesuits embodied loyalty to Rome rather than the English crown, since they took a direct vow of obedience to the pope.  Thus, the myth of the evil and treacherous Jesuit was in England the making both of anti-Jesuit Catholics (see the dispute of the Appellants) and of Protestant polemicists.  Catholics continued to insist upon their political loyalty even in the Caroline court, where Henrietta Maria played such a crucial role in her difficult position as queen consort of England and French Catholic princess.

The last two chapters deal with Catholic literary production on the Continent, focusing particularly upon the use of elegy and allegory; through tropes such as weeping England as opposed to the more traditional weeping for England, Shell analyses the imaginative potency of Catholic nostalgia in exile. In this section, and throughout the book in general, some passages can be a little obscured by the very wealth of detail given by the author, who quotes at length and analyses a wide range of texts in order to cover her subjects from a variety of angles.

The slightly odd choice of the book’s structure, the abundance of sources used, and the depth of Shell’s critical analysis lead me to suggest that there may be, combined in this single volume, the premise of two separate works.  This in no way detracts from the quality of the study produced here, and the author is to be congratulated on the imposing corpus of sources upon which she shed important new light.  It is interesting to note that this book was first printed in 1999, with subsequent re-issues in 2001 and 2006; such success is indicative of the quality of this learned and deeply well researched monograph, but also of the new demand in this growing field of research.  In her introduction, Alison Shell stated that Catholicism was ‘an unfashionable minority study’ (7), and she hoped ‘to put Catholic writing back in the mainstream agenda while alerting scholars to the complexities of anti-Catholic prejudice in Protestant imaginative writing’ (20).  Although much remains to be uncovered about the contribution of a Catholic subculture to the construction of early modern Englishness, the works of academics such as Anne Dillon, Frances Dolan, Peter Lake, Michael Questier, Arthur Marrotti, Anthony Milton or Raymond Tumbleson testify to dynamic new interest in this domain.