By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published June 7, 2012
To paraphrase Robert Browning, “Oh to be in England, now that (summer’s) there!” Of course this summer a microcosm of the world will be in London for the Olympic Games, so England—and especially the England of the imagination—is on a lot of people’s minds right now.
In her wonderful book “84 Charing Cross Road,” author Helene Hanff writes that “a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they’re looking for. I said I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: ‘It’s there.’”
I’m not going to England this year, though I wish I were, but the thought of England has me, like Hanff, embarking on a vicarious journey through books. And I’ve been thinking especially of British Catholic books.
For many, the terms British and Catholic seem incompatible. Yet throughout the last several decades, the country has softened many of its once harsh prejudices toward the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, Britain produced some of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century, writers who will forever be synonymous with literature and faith. And three of the best of them—Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark—were converts.
Recalling his 1926 conversion to Catholicism, Graham Greene wrote in his autobiography that “(The Church) possessed for me a certain gloomy power because it represented the inconceivable and the incredible. … I had no intention of being received into the Church.” And yet, try as he might, Greene could not resist the urge. At his subsequent conversion to Catholicism in February of 1926, Greene appropriately chose as his confirmation name St. Thomas the Doubter.
Of the great British Catholic writers of the early to mid-20th century, Greene has always presented in his work perhaps the most difficult and paradoxical portrayal of Catholicism. Greene’s own religious beliefs and practices, which were sincere and deeply devout, were almost always challenged by his equally strong skepticism. Though he embraced one of the 20th century’s most modern of art forms—the cinema—he held throughout his life a distrust of the new, especially a literary modernism he found devoid of real meaning and possessing instead a view of human beings as “wandering like paper symbols through a world that is paper thin.” And while he struggled to find an essential goodness in human nature and modern society, he was always attracted to the presence of evil, the sinister and the suspect. Indeed, many critics and fellow Catholics wondered if Greene was too fascinated by sin and depravity, perhaps at the expense of embracing the presence of grace. Yet Greene was a vocal and public defender of the Church and the Catholic faith. A skeptic to the end, Greene never succumbed to cynicism, and his faith informed and enriched most of his best work, including the great cycle of Catholic novels: “Brighton Rock” (1938), “The Power and the Glory” (1940), “The Heart of the Matter” (1948), and “The End of the Affair” (1951). Greene’s characters grapple with their own deep faults and flaws, and they struggle as well to believe that a God could possibly love beings as depraved as they are, but Greene’s best work reveals that even if God’s mercy is beyond human understanding, the persistence of his grace is ever present.
Evelyn Waugh understood Greene’s predicament about conversion. There’s the famous passage from “Brideshead Revisited” (1945), for example: “Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.’” And then there is Waugh’s own uniquely Catholic belief: “I believe that everyone in his life has the moment when he is open to Divine Grace. It’s there, of course, for the asking all the time, but human lives are so planned that usually there’s a particular time, sometimes on the deathbed, when all resistance is down and Grace can come flooding in.”
If nothing else, Waugh will probably always be remembered—both for the novel and its splendid film adaptations—for “Brideshead Revisited,” one of the truly great English books of the 20th century. But in his lifetime, Waugh nearly caused a scandal among the British intelligentsia when he converted to Catholicism in 1930. Indeed, even at the time of “Brideshead’s” publication, many reviewers chastised Waugh for attempting to address religious themes in a modern novel.
In a famous apology for his conversion published in 1930, “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me,” Waugh explained simply that his conversion to Catholicism had nothing to do with evangelism, attraction to ritual or an inability to reason for himself. In short, Waugh said, “It seems to me that in the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos.”
Dame Muriel Spark wrote that “I had no specific religion but at the same time I had a strong religious feeling. … I was aware of a definite something beyond myself. This sensation especially took hold of me when I was writing. … In 1953 I was absorbed by the theological writings of John Henry Newman through whose influence I finally became a Roman Catholic. … When I am asked about my conversion, why I became a Catholic, I can only say that the answer is both too easy and too difficult. The simple explanation is that the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always felt and known and believed; there was no blinding revelation in my case.” The more Spark-like justification was succinct: “If you’re going to do a thing, you should do it thoroughly. If you’re going to be a Christian, you may as well be a Catholic.”
In her long, varied and distinguished career Spark may have best succeeded in exasperating people. By turns serious and wickedly funny, cynical and devout, elusive and plain-spoken, Spark was a prolific writer, scholar and maven who seemed to delight in puzzling her audience. Spark published her first novel, “The Comforters,” in 1939 and waited to write her first creative work because of both anxiety and the conviction that she needed “to live” before she could write. Readers have often tried to find autobiographical elements in Spark’s fiction, and indeed there is a good deal of Spark herself in the novels, but such questions seem less important than Spark’s themes of the conflict between spirituality and pragmatism and the essence of feeling and impulse. Spark’s reputation as a writer is still being determined, but her best known books, including “Memento Mori” (1959) and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1961) from the earlier part of her career, seem destined to endure, in part because of their emphasis upon both a spiritual presence and their insistence upon an individual spirit and conscience. Miss Jean Brodie, the schoolteacher in the novel of the same name, states what might be said to be one of Spark’s own creeds: “education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupils’ souls.” Rather than “putting in,” Spark, like Miss Brodie, seeks to “take out,” and in doing so she affirms both the mystery and clarity of religious sensibility.
Greene, Waugh, and Spark are only three of the great British Catholic writers of the modern age, but their collective response to the Catholic Church, and their unique conversions to that faith, both speak to the era’s need for discovering meaning and value in a world marked by paradox, materialism, alienation and crisis. Moreover, their splendid novels offer enduring proof of the crucial link between faith and imagination.