Sunday, January 21, 2007

Three Victorian Historical Novels

Yesterday was the feast of St. Sebastian, and today the feast of St. Agnes; which reminded me that both appear in Cardinal Wiseman's romanticization, Fabiola. Fabiola, published in 1854, was the first of a projected series illustrating different eras in the history of the Church. It appeared in James Burns's "The Popular Library" along with Newman's Callista and a number of other works. As an attempt to write a Catholic popular novel it was very successful, being widely distributed in a number of languages and critically acclaimed. It takes a certain sort of taste to enjoy it, but as light reading it is reasonably readable. Remarkably, I can't find it online in English at all. You can read it in French, though, if you have the taste and the tongue.

The novel is worth reading in conjunction with two other novels, the aforementioned Callista (1856) and Charles Kingsley's Hypatia (1853); the former as a companion novel approached in a somewhat different way, and the latter as a sharp contrast to both. The novels in their own ways hint at the larger religious struggle of which they are a symptom; it's well-recognized that Kingsley's Hypatia is both an expression of his theological views and a swipe at Tractarians and Catholics, particularly in their emphasis on the Church Fathers. Both Fabiola and Callista can be seen as Catholic responses to it. And it has been argued that the opposition between Hypatia and Callista foreshadows the more direct theological opposition between Kingsley and Newman a decade later in 1864. Indirect polemic by means of popular entertainment.

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