Thursday, January 16, 2014

Saint Elizabeth: What Charles Kingsley was reacting to

Okay, Kingsley publishes The Saint's Tragedy in 1848. Why, I asked last time, did he pick Elizabeth from the wide range of Catholic saints he might have used as the basis of his story?

I think the answer lies in a number of events from around the time he began writing it. First, there was a Romantic reconsideration of Catholicism. Second, there was an immensely popular "biography", really a romance, of Elizabeth that had appeared twelve years before.

Before going on, let's stop and consider the word "Romantic". We read it now and he here the word "rebellion" coming following after just as "Fortnum" seems to demand "Mason" should come after it. It wasn't always so. Originally, the genre that we today call Gothic was called "romance". It was called that because it was like the romance tales of the high middle ages. These stories featured beautiful ladies and brave men pursuing love in a world where the lines between magic and reality and history and legend where very blurred. "Romantic" originally meant something that was romance-like.

And the truth is that there was much more of that sort of thing about the Romantic era than there is of the spirit of rebellion that you get when you study this stuff at university.

Now, one of the problems that romance-like Romanticism brings with it for English writers is Catholicism. There is necessarily a huge dose of it as all the characters of these tales are Catholic. Whether they meant to or not, the early writers of Gothic fiction made the old Catholic world seem appealing.

A sort of reconsideration of Catholicism and of England's Catholic past were triggered by this. In the decade before The Saint's Tragedy appeared, this reconsideration reached its peak with the Tractarian movement leading up to the conversion Newman in 1845.

Long before Kingsley wrote, there was a tradition in England of balancing the thrills of romance writing with rational explanation. This is what Ann Radcliffe did in her novels and, I think, it is what Keats is up to in The Eve of St. Agnes.

Another thing that happened in the years before Kingsley wrote his work is that Charles Forbes René de Montalembert wrote a book about Elizabeth. He didn't hold back on the Romance at all. In fact, his aim was the exact opposite. We was writing in a post-revolutionary France and was part of a movement that was trying to gather the debris that Catholicism had been reduced to in order to restore its former glory.

I'm just learning about this movement now. It looked to the medieval past as the height of Catholic practice but it was modern and liberal (in the sense of believing in individual freedom). It's a weird but attractive mix. The story tells us, I've just started reading it, is as unrestrained a romance as you'll ever find.

And that is all I have to say for now ...

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