Tonya J. Moutray, Refugee Nuns, The French Revolution, and British Literature and Culture, Routledge, London and New York, 2016. $127.46, ISBN, 978 1 40943590 7 (hardback), pp. xi + 198
Reviewed by: Cassie L. Yacovazzi, University of Missouri, November 2016
In the aftermath of the French Revolution, over ten thousand refugees from France made new homes in Britain, including at least 23 communities of Catholic nuns. Members of these communities faced a forced evacuation, without support or compensation, assault, and in some cases execution during the Revolution. Surprisingly, as nuns made new homes in England, they received a warm welcome. When the French Benedictines of Montargis became the first group to migrate to England, the Prince of Wales himself joined the spectators to personally welcome the nuns. The arrival of the Benedictines along with other female religious communities created a ‘spectacle of displaced nuns,’ prompting a reconsideration among some English writers, long given to dismissing nuns, as to ‘the economic viability and social value of women’s work within a corporate model’ (p. 62). In Refugee Nuns, The French Revolution, and British Literature and Culture Tonya Moutray explores the identities created by the double migration of women religious, from England to France (after the dissolution of the monasteries following the English Reformation), and from France to England. She compares the identities nuns forged for themselves, evident in personal and collective histories, with perceptions of them in British literature, including travel writing, commentaries on the Revolution, account books, letters, and Romantic and Gothic literature. She focuses this complex and revealing study on four monastic communities: the French Benedictines of Montargis in Loiret, the English Conceptionists or Blue Nuns in Paris, the English Augustinians of Bruges, and the English Benedictines of Cambrai.
Moutray organizes the book into four chronological sections, beginning with the pre-Revolutionary lives and perceptions of nuns, moving to attacks on nuns’ lives and identities by the new French government, the migration of women religious from France to England, and concluding with efforts on behalf of female religious communities to resettle in a new environment. Her assessment of travel writings by male and female British citizens in pre-Revolutionary France reveal a surprising degree of ‘openness to Catholic religious traditions and an intense curiosity that compelled them to more deeply examine and comment upon women’s monastic culture’ (p. 15). Moutray traces a theme of opinion reversal, from initial suspicion of nuns to interest in and appreciation of them, in the travel writings of Hester Thrale Piozzi, Ann Radcliffe, William Cole, Samuel Paterson, and Philip Thicknesse. A case in point: after her encounter with the Poor Clares in France, Thrale Piozzi initially wrote, ‘these Austerities are never chosen by any Women who have the least Experience of any other Mode of Life.’ But her latter entries reflect a change, prompting her to write of ‘losing her heart’ among the nuns and promising to correspond with them. (p. 36)
Such responses were significant given the popularity of Enlightenment writings, long enjoyed in both England and on the Continent, which questioned the role of the nun, equating a woman’s procreative maternal role with economic productivity and civic obligation. Some religious communities also directly challenged stereotypes of the ‘useless’ nun before and during the Revolution, sending petitions to the French National Assembly highlighting their status at citizens and their work through caring for the sick and providing education. By highlighting the on-going conversations by and about nuns, Moutray reveals the continually dynamic perceptions of women religious. Despite being mostly contested figures in English culture, the French Revolution especially seemed to bolster the reputation of nuns in England. Commentaries on the Revolution that circulated in Britain often presented nuns as counter-revolutionaries, at once heroes and victims in need of refuge. In her commentary on the Revolution, Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France (1795) Helen Maria Williams did not rely on common anti-Catholic tropes, instead portraying the English Blue nuns in France as female icons of political resistance against a regime that refused political representation to women. Widely read in England, Williams’s account of the Blue Nuns, whom she referred to significantly as the ‘English Nuns’ and ‘British gentlewomen,’ surely influenced the English perceptions of refugee nuns of English and French heritage.
At the same time, resettlement presented its own challenges for women religious making new homes in a non-Catholic country with anti-Catholic perceptions deeply embedded in the national psyche. Groups like the English Augustinians of Bruges ran up against several hundred years worth of anti-Catholic propagandas that ‘framed them as frustrated young women waiting for release from incarceration in Continental cloisters’ or as libidinous ladies whose cloistered existence allowed for secret sexual indulgences (p. 21). Popular English gothic novels, such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1795) which relied on common associations between nuns and prostitutes and witches, circulated widely as refugee nuns reached England’s shores. In addition, simply relying on England’s government made women religious vulnerable, marking them as ‘fodder for political propaganda, prompting journalists, historians, and cultural critics to magnify and valorize the English nation’s role in providing refuge to political outcasts’, rather than taking nuns seriously on their own terms (p. 17). Refugee nuns had to find and depend on new benefactors and patrons, a task which Moutray discovered through the writings of nuns, was often ‘tricky and potentially annoying’ (p. 19). In England, they could not legally wear their habits nor profess new members. Responding to the challenges of resettlement, women religious, such as the Benedictines of Cambrai, focused entirely on providing education to children, as this, rather than contemplation, was a more acceptable practice in England. Some, such as the Blue Nuns, did not survive into the next millennium. Others, like the Augustinians at Hengrave Hall, stayed in England temporarily before finally settling in Bruges.
Yet as women religious negotiated their place in English society, certainly playing a role in establishing their own secure footing, the degree of admiration, evident in several English groups, was surprising. The monastic communities of refugee nuns even inspired some English groups to create or write about ‘Protestant nunneries’ or female communities in the Victorian period. Perhaps the anti-Catholic backdrop in England at the time, largely taken for granted by historians, including myself, makes this positive reception of nuns in England so remarkable. Through Moutray’s expert explication of a variety of literary representations of nuns in the seventh and eighteenth centuries, this book complicates our understanding of the perception and role of the nun.
While certainly a readable, engaging, and informed book, Refugee Nuns is geared toward a specialized audience of upper-level undergraduates, graduates, and specialists. The narrative is at times over-burdened with frequent references to historical and literary scholarship, information which might otherwise be relegated to an endnote. Even for more specialized readers, Moutray leaves some questions unanswered. Did women and men differ in their opinion on refugee nuns? How might we gain an understanding of more general perceptions of nuns, other than those expressed in the writings of elite members of society?
Minor critiques aside, Moutray impressively illustrates a history that covers centuries, two countries, an array of literature, and the varied experiences of multiple female religious communities. Rather than being bogged down in detail, which one might expect from such an ambitious endeavor, her work personalizes the stories of these women and those with whom they interacted, revealing a more complicated and interesting history than is sometimes rendered by a disproportionate focus on anti-Catholic literature.