Last month, I delivered a lecture at Ushaw College at the invitation of the Centre of Catholic Studies, part of the department of theology at Durham University. Before delivering my lecture, I was given a tour and was astonished by Ushaw’s architectural and artistic treasures. They include chapels and liturgical artefacts designed by the Pugins, exquisite chalices, reliquaries and vestments; and a unique collection of rare books in the library – among them a first edition of St Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
Yet I was also a little disheartened because the unused chapels and empty corridors of Ushaw brought home to me that the heroic phase of English Catholicism is well and truly ended. In the reign of Elizabeth I, English Catholics were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge. Cardinal William Allen therefore founded a college at Douai in the Spanish Netherlands, later annexed by France. During the 17th and 18th century, Douai provided a Catholic education for recusant Catholics and, above all, a training for English priests.
With the persecution that came following the French Revolution of 1789, the faculty and students of Douai fled to England, and in 1808 established a seminary in a Georgian house on a windswept hill five miles from the city of Durham. Ushaw flourished as a seminary for 150 years. At the time of the college’s 150th anniversary in 1958, 400 seminarians were in training at the college. Now two priests remain in residence, both old.
My lecture was on the relationship between history and fiction. My argument went as follows… Our understanding of who we are is moulded by our understanding of our past. Yet often that understanding is distorted or even falsified by the prejudices of authors – not just historians such as Lord Macaulay or Thomas Carlyle, but also novelists such as Charles Dickens, whose A Tale of Two Cities was, wrote the critic George Woodcock, “dark with the shadows of his own past, and dominated by preoccupations inherited from his childhood”.
And what of the rosy view of the British Empire established by novelists such as Rudyard Kipling, H Rider Haggard and Edgar Wallace? Wallace’s Sanders of the River, a bestseller in its day, epitomised what the French imperialists called their mission civilisatrice and the British “the white man’s burden”.
“Before the English came,” wrote Wallace, “there were many wars, tribe against tribe, people against people. There were battles, murders, raidings and wholesale crucifixions, but the British changed all that. There was peace in the land.”
Contrast this with what we now know about, say, our empire in India from William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal, or Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears of the Rajas. Here there was no mission civilisatrice but rather a ruthless plunder of a delicate if effete culture to extract the maximum profit for the shareholders of the British East India Company in London.
The revenge taken after the suppression of the Indian mutiny – mass executions, mutilations, tens of thousands hanged or blown from a gun – can be compared to the German treatment of Poles after the Warsaw Uprising. But it has not affected our confidence that we have been (and remain) a force for good in the world.
Then there is the treatment of the Catholic Church in contemporary fiction. Kate Mosse’s bestselling novel Labyrinth appears to disregard the truths established about the Cathars by Jonathan Sumption in his The Albigensian Crusade; and the work of Eamon Duffy, Jack Scarisbrick, Christopher Haig and Richard Rex is flouted by Hilary Mantel in her novel Wolf Hall. Mantel has not disguised her dislike of the Catholic Church, stemming from her schooling in a convent, and has successfully projected her prejudice into her work, so that a whole generation now believes that Thomas More was a cruel, narrow-minded bigot.
How should a Catholic novelist counter such anti-Catholic propaganda? Not, I suggested, with Catholic propaganda. A duty to tell the truth takes precedence over a sense of loyalty to the Church. Jacques Maritain had considered the Church “bankrupt” in the late 18th century. But my research for my recent novel Scarpia had shown it was still a force for the good; and French Catholics had showed an astonishing heroism during the persecution that followed the Revolution of 1789.
And so back to Ushaw, which came into being as a result of that same persecution, and a student, John Lingard, who began his training for the priesthood at Douai and ended it at Ushaw. He later wrote a history of England whose impartiality was acknowledged even by Protestant historians. In writing it, said Lingard, “I had to watch with jealousy the secret workings of my own personal feelings and prepossessions. Such vigilance is a matter of necessity to every writer of history.” And, I would add, to every writer of historical fiction.
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