I came to this book out of an interest of the Catholic experience in the English-speaking West. It seemed to me that Anti-Catholic fiction has an enduring appeal spanning from Mariah Monk to Dan Brown. So, I was looking at anti-Catholic fiction as a fiction about Catholics and Catholicism.
This is not really that book. The book seems to be written from a gender studies or feminist perspective, so that Catholics and Catholicism disappear from consideration and the focus is entirely on the the psycho-sexual anxieties of Protestants, or colonialism against non-Europeans, or disputes between Protestant sons and fathers. Much of this anxiety seemed facile. for example, when the author, Susan M. Griffin, discusses the denouement at the end of Henry James' The Americans, where the love interest decides to enter a convent, she describes the protagonist's reaction as "emblematiz[ing] male defeat." Alright, maybe, but it is also - from the Catholic perspective, at least - the loss of a particular love (that is real and accepted feature of Catholic culture for both sexes.) A lot of the analysis in this book seemed to have that ready-made formula of male sexual anxiety being the explanation for why various plot choices and formulae were used. For example, there is this:
//I have argued that nineteenth-century Protestant attacks on Catholicism are informed variously by a struggle for recognition - the masochistic desire for acknowledgment, however painful; the lure of submission to authority; the dangerously revelatory subaltern's gaze.// (p. 177.)
Again, alright, that can be true, and it may, it probably does, provide a useful insight, but what about the possibility that Protestants simply thought that Catholics were wrong about God? Griffin's thesis is that Protestants in America and Britain used Catholics as the "Other" to project their concerns onto, and it seems that Griffin is doing the same thing by making Catholics as a deracinated Other for her to do "gendered" literary analysis.
Here's another example that seemed formulaic. In her chapter on British mid-century novels that were polemics against the movement in the Church of England known as Ritualism, Griffin notes that the confessional was occasionally referred to in terms of vivisection and that vivisection was a point of cultural conflict at the time. Griffin makes the following connection:
//Opposing the male priesthood was an antivivisectionist movement being largely composed of women. Coral Lansbury has shown that "Women were the most fervent supporters of antivivisection, not simply for reasons of humanity but because the vivisected animal stood for vivisected women: the woman strapped to the gynaecologist's table, the woman strapped and bound in the pornographic fiction of the period." (p. 172.)
Alright, that may be true, but it seems like a good amount of psychologizing and projection to get there (and polemically anti-male.)
On the other hand, strangely, along with Catholicism disappearing, women and their motivations also disappear, unless it can be formulated in some "gendered" positive formula, such as women's desire for education and equality. Although, Griffin does discuss Eliza Lynn Linton, a female author, who originally supported marriage reform, but who ended up as an opponent of the then-modern woman and the undermining of marriage by the introduction of individualism into 19th century marriage by the marriage reform. (p. 163.) On reflection, however, I'm not sure where Linton developed her intuitions or how they interfaced into the larger subject, except that somehow a stronger priesthood with a auricular confession was perceived as intruding into the privacy of marriage. (See p. 173, "For Linton, the Ritualist confessor is the vivisector.")
The book covers the broad literary front of the 19th century. It starts with the "escaped nun" books - which were extremely popular and obviously spoke to male concerns for the threat to their prerogatives - and moves to the concerns raised by the Oxford movement, where upper class Englishmen seemed to be converting to Catholicism in some kind of trend - which speaks to the Freudian conflict where a single male takes all the women - back to mid-century Nativist novels and over to anti-Ritualist novels and finally to luminaries like Disraeli and Henry James. This is interesting stuff, but unfortunately the book assumes that the reader already knows the novels. Griffin does not give plot synopses and she rarely treats the reader with textual outtakes from the books to give a flavor of what she is talking about. The plot of the books she is discussing emerges in dribs and drabs, as if she was lecturing a colloquium who were assumed to have already read the assigned texts. She also assumes that the reader has a familiarity with luminaries of gender literary analysis who she name-checks. (She also has a propensity for dropping archaic words such imbrecate, "inutility" and others. I love words, so I enjoyed this, but for 99% of readers I suspect this will be off-putting. Of course, I do not suggest that the book be written "down"; let the reader elevate, I say.)
So, ultimately, this is a book for insiders.
On the other hand, almost accidentally, I picked up bits and pieces of information about the literature and the 19th century back story. For example, the continuous theme of anti-Catholic fiction was the conniving priest plotting some kind of world domination, which we see modern anti-Catholic fiction, e.g. Dan Brown. Likewise, the association of the "skirted" Catholic priest with perversion, and the abuse of the confessional, is a constant, and gestures to the hysteria focused on Catholic priests for child sex abuse but not on other professions, albeit the incidence of Catholic priest abuse is no different than that of teachers or rabbis or ministers.
I also got "tipped" to Archbishop "Dagger" John Hughes's sermon on Irish emancipation, such that I purchased a book on the writings of Archbishop Hughes, who I knew to be an important figure in early 19th Century American catholicism. Likewise, I had known about the re-institutions of a Catholic hierarchy in 1850, but I had not understood how wrenching that was for the English. I was entirely ignorant of the movement known as Ritualism, of which Griffin writes:
//The response of Cardinal Manning to Ritualism that "Ritualism is private judgment in gorgeous raiment, wrought about with divers colours. It is, I am afraid, a dangerous temptation to self-consciousness...Every fringe in an elaborate cape worn without authority is only a distinct and separate act of private judgment.// (p. 159.)
the idea of the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874, which permitted lay people to sue Ritualist priests is a fascinating historical footnote (p. 160.), as is the jailing of five Ritualist clergyman, and apparently the Bishop of Lincoln. (Id.)
Finally, I did not know that Percy Shelley's atheism had cost him custody of his child in the case of Shelley v. Westbrooke (1817) (p. 168.) Something to look into when I have time.
So, this is a book which had positives and negatives. For me, I think that the positives outweigh the negatives because it provides a perspective on a subject that I am interested in. Obviously, if another reader is more tightly focused, their mileage may differ. On the whole I might give this book a three based on my personal reaction, but it is obviously a well-done work on literature from a specific disciplinary outlook, and I think that rating would be unfair to what the book actually is as opposed to what I wanted it to be.