The Papist Represented

Literature and the English Catholic Community, 1688-1791

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Geremy Carnes
  • Newark, DE: 
    University of Delaware Press
    , August
     262 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Papist Represented, Geremy Carnes provides a literary history of the Catholic community in England from the Glorious Revolution (1688) to the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1791). I use the phrase literary history in that his entrée into this pivotal period is through works of literature. Nevertheless, the primary goal of the book is to understand the recusant community, both as it understood itself as well as how the Protestant majority perceived it. Carnes does not broadly survey the literary field, but rather uses only five texts—texts that were produced at crucial moments in the history he wants to tell. These texts were written by both Catholic [John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Elizabeth Inchbald] and Protestant authors [Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson]. The result is an efficient and compact study that provides the reader with deep dives into turning points in the history of the Catholic community.

Chapter 1 focuses on Dryden’s Don Sebastian, performed and published in the perilous times immediately following James II’s flight from England. In Carnes’s reading, the play served Dryden as a means of presenting religious difference in a positive light through its portrayal of Muslims and women (the gendering of Catholics as feminine is a theme that runs throughout this book). Chapter 2 presents Pope’s Eloise to Abelard and Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady—two poems that are generic outliers within Pope’s work—as responses to the legal and social backlash following the Jacobite Rising of 1715. Carnes makes a strong argument that Pope’s coded poetry formed one point of origin for the interest in the Gothic that would soon touch every corner of the English literary scene. The next two chapters are dedicated to Protestant writers Defoe and Richardson. In Roxana, Carnes claims Defoe is reacting to the changing demographics of Catholicism in England (increasingly urban and middle-class) by depicting a Protestant heroine who finds significant points of identification (including marriage) with Catholic characters and considers conversion. Richardson, on the other hand, while offering a putatively more sympathetic view of Catholicism in Sir Charles Grandison, limits his treatment to a condescending portrait of Italy, thus obscuring the existence of the English Catholic community and denying it an essential Englishness.

Carnes’s final chapter examines Inchbald’s A Simple Story (1791). Here Carnes brings together the threads of his analysis but also provides the end point of its trajectory—“the reality of religious pluralism” (151)—a concept that English Protestants and Catholics alike began to accept by the end of the 18th century. This is to say that, by 1791 Catholics had become a minority in Britain; accepted as members of the polity but nonetheless distinct (even though a fuller and more formalized binary of majority-minority was not in place until the next century). Carnes, in fact, sees one of the major contributions of this book to be its place within the field of minority studies, and he finds the contemporary struggles of the LGBTQ community to resonate with the plight of the Catholics in early modern England. As Carnes puts it, “the English Catholic community should be of interest to anyone studying modern minority communities because it was one of the very first minority communities, if we understand the term as referring to communities granted protected status by the governments under which they exist” (xxxvi).

Carnes is a careful and learned literary and intellectual historian who has produced a study likely to be of interest to students of 18th-century English literature. However, the book will have even stronger interest for historians of religion and, as Carnes himself suggests, to those interested in minority studies. In fact, perhaps the greatest strength of this book is its realization that its topic cannot be understood from one perspective only, that the majority and minority in effect negotiate this relation over time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Dunn is Vice Provost and Associate Professor of English at Tufts University.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Geremy Carnes is assistant professor of English at Lindenwood University.


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