Monday, October 17, 2022

The Lost Women of the Catholic Literary Revival

 From CUA Press:

The novels of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene often focus on the solitary figure of a priest or layman in spiritual combat with the world around him. By contrast, the lost novels of Catholic women are usually situated in families and parishes and in the institutional communities in which the writers themselves first encountered the faith: schools and convents. Almost wholly unrecognized by scholarship on the Catholic novel are the frequent depictions of female religious life. The women writers of the Catholic Literary Revival were in their own time well-known and well-read, with no shortage of best-selling authors among their ranks. Most predated and greatly influenced Waugh and Greene. They wrote from a more diverse range of social and political positions than Waugh and Greene, and were often more radical in their use of ninetheenth- and twenthieth-century literary innovations. Their works are set in locations male writers never considered, and they often posed very different questions about how a person can find their way in a fallen world.

Among the writers in this series, Caryll Houselander is perhaps the most innovative in her use of novelistic techniques to depict Catholic experience. This may in itself be one reason why her novel has been out of print for so many years; that is, her novel may have been perceived in the late-20th century as both too Catholic and too experimental. But The Dry Wood deserves a prominent place not only in the canons of Catholic writing but in Anglo-American Modernist literature. Her uses of Modernist literary innovation enables her to produce a vivid Catholic experience, but in doing so she also breaks new ground in the technical advances of literary Modernism; a contribution that has yet to be acknowledged by literary scholars. The Dry Wood being her only work of fiction does not help either, though it makes her no less worthy of recognition. It was only near the end of her life that Houselander transitioned from her usual spiritual writings to instead craft a novel. She claimed that she could no longer ‘preach’ to her fellows. ‘I prefer writing fiction: it’s more like a big gesture of sympathy—like taking hold of another sinner’s hand and pressing it lovingly as we walk together’.

In contrast, the second novel in the series, The End of The House of Alard, was written by the prolific author Sheila Kaye-Smith. It is difficult to account for Kaye-Smith’s fall from popularity in the last fifty years. While she was alive, her novels were met with both literary and commercial success. Although most of her works were written before or during the two World Wars, they addressed concerns that primarily emerged in the middle of the twentieth century: the end of the old social order, the search for spiritual meaning amid personal suffering and radical social change, the fluctuating situation of women in society, the shifting relationship between rural and urban economies. (

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