Michael Wheeler, Catholic and Protestant in Nineteenth-Century English Culture, Cambridge, 2006.

Michael Wheeler, Catholic and Protestant in Nineteenth-Century English Culture, Cambridge, 2006, £45, ISBN 0 521 828104 (hardback), xv + 366pp

Reviewed by:  Paul Shaw, Poor Servants of the Mother of God Congregational Archivist, June 2007

From the outset, one must commend and applaud the very broad and challenging task which the author has set himself, in analysing the nature and grounds of dispute and disagreement between Catholics and Protestants in nineteenth-century England. He has sought to do so not only through an analysis of contemporary literature, on which a number of recent studies have been based, but through an examination of the multifarious cultural organs and forms of expression which characterised a highly literate, complex and visually sophisticated culture. The author proclaims that he has set out to provide a ‘Victorian viewing platform from which the reader can see the history of ‘Catholic and Protestant’ in England…from a new perspective’ (p.xii). The author also states his intention to deal with the role of women, in a struggle between churches which may themselves be said to have shared the dominant contemporary ‘patriarchal’ perspective (p xii).

The author’s methodology in organising and selecting from a potentially vast and highly diffuse range of sources is highly sophisticated and well-organised, and to this reviewer, extremely successful in contextualising the sources which he refers to and analyses, and providing a broad chronologically-defined structure for the book. Its organisation is based around certain key themes linked to historical events. An introduction based on the crisis of the 1850s provides a useful sketch of the background of the dominant religious controversies and viewpoints from a specific historical juncture. The author begins characteristically with an ‘illustration’ – both pictorial and verbal – of the Great Exhibition of 1851 which is skilfully used as a vantage point from which to point up the role of religion in Victorian society – where, in a typically apposite phrase, the hegemonic (though threatened) culture is described as ‘poised, polished and Protestant’ (p.3).

The first section of the book, entitled ‘Bloody Histories’, shows how appeals to the past were used by Catholic and Protestant alike to justify their theological and dogmatic positions. The second part ‘Creeds and Crises’ discusses and contextualises three well-chosen crises in the history of the church in the early nineteenth century, and how these were used and interpreted by those on different sides of the sectarian divides. The final section, ‘Cultural Spaces’, discusses three major areas in which Roman Catholic culture may be said to have impacted on English life following its greater integration into the life of the nation, including the role of women in the church. An eclectic and well-chosen range of novels, poems, paintings and historical works are in effect used as ‘case studies’ to discuss the various themes discussed, linked effectively to their historical and cultural milieu. The works of abidingly popular authors are juxtaposed with obscure or lesser well-known but culturally important figures, including female authors.

The overwhelming response to Wheeler’s study is one of admiration for the lucid way in which the issues are discussed, and the convincing way in which relationships between cultural artefacts in many different media are related to and used to illuminate the main theme. The author writes with great sensitivity and clarity, and from a technical point of view the book is very well produced. The illustrations, many from contemporary cartoons, are well-selected and reproduced, and they are excellently integrated into the text where they are discussed. The footnotes are judiciously employed and usefully included at the bottom of the page, though they are not allowed to overwhelm the text, and there is a very full bibliography and index. The author’s style is greatly to be commended, and there is a refreshing lack of unfortunate technical jargon drawn from any of the disciplines which he encompasses. Wheeler is equipped with a large range of cultural and historical reference which may be likened to that great cultural polymath of Victorian church history Owen Chadwick in his magisterial study The Victorian Church (2 vols, London, 1971). The author’s sensitivity to historical and theological debates and literary culture are certainly his abiding strengths; in particular his subtle and nuanced analyses of Newman’s theology, and its historical context, are a joy to read.

Overall, then, it may be said that the author is extremely successful in drawing up a fresh and striking picture of the cultural differences between Catholics and Protestants during the relevant period, and drawing on an admirably wide range of sources to do so. Manuscript sources do not appear to figure in his bibliography, but this is understandable in a work of selection and synthesis such as this, and a very wide range of published primary sources has been drawn upon. This feels predominantly like a history of ‘elite’ or ‘dominant’ cultures, and it is perhaps understandable, given the scope of his study, that the author did not feel able to address in detail ‘popular religion’, as covered in the work, for example, of Hugh McLeod and K. S. Inglis.

It is surely inevitable in a work of such scope that certain areas will be covered less completely than others. References to the architectural aesthetics of the period seem somewhat less assured, and a more detailed and nuanced discussion of the ‘Gothic Revival’ and the role of patriotism and idealism in the work of Pugin may have helped illumine various aspects of the author’s theme. It may certainly be said that the discussions of convent life in chapter eight would have been stronger if the author had drawn upon a wider range of sources, including the writings of some of the Catholic and Anglican religious themselves; it is striking that in referring to Anglican religious founders only men are mentioned (p.218)! References to the works of Christina Rossetti, who was highly influenced by Anglican convent culture, and also to the work of Jan Marsh and her discussion of Pre-Raphaelite art in relation to convent life [in Pre-Raphaelite Women (London, 1987), pp.31-42], may also have helped strengthen this chapter.