Thursday, 7 January 2010
Another Book Review... English Catholic Heroines, ed. Joanna Bogle, Gracewing (2009) pp. 318
Pope John Paul II, in Mulieris Dignitatem, called on the Church to be more vocal in giving thanks for “all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of [her] history.” English Catholic Heroines, edited by the much-loved Joanna Bogle, is a celebration of a large and varied group of women who have made their mark on the consciousness of the nation and the Church. It is also a fine, and much needed, compliment to its companion edition, English Catholic Heroes.
Joanna Bogle immediately acknowledges the pertinent questions raised by the title of this book – namely, what makes a Catholic heroine, and what exactly does it mean to be English? Some of the women in the book will be well known to us, and others less so. The heroic virtues of a number have been recognised for quite some time – especially amongst the likes of Blessed Margaret Pole or St Margaret Clitherow. Their heroism shines forth in martyrdom and saintly lives. Compared to them some women contained in the book might not seem that heroic or virtuous, even if they happen to be Catholic. Those with a passing interest in the life of Maria Fitzherbert might be surprised to see her name in the Contents page! Some of those discussed in the book have an undoubted English lineage, such as the Yorkshire lass, Mary Ward. Yet, others might not appear to be that English at all – one wonders what some Scots might make of having St Margaret, Queen of Scotland, amongst the entries? Of course, as Joanna Bogle rightly argues and demonstrates, neither heroic Catholic virtue nor Englishness is as easy to quantify as we might first think. For example, Queen Margaret of Scotland was actually an Anglo-Saxon and therefore is more than capable of rightly taking her place within the collection. Maria Fitzherbert, often dismissed as just a “mistress of George IV”, turns out to have been, according to her biographer Mark Elvins OFMCap., “a heroic and kind-hearted woman.” I was genuinely amazed to read the lesser-known facts of her story, such as her loyalty to her faith, her need to live a life conformed to Christian conscience, and her generosity to the poor of Brighton.
One of the striking things about this collection of essays and biographies is how it covers the whole of English history. The monastic pioneers Sts Hilda and Etheldreda both belonged to the 7th Century when Englishness could be loosely defined as belonging to union of different Germanic tribal kingdoms. St Hilda, represents the Northumbrian tradition, whilst St Etheldreda is a champion of the East Anglian – both of which were similar, yet every different. I was glad to see my personal favourite English heroine, Julian of Norwich, amongst the entries. She, of course, is not only our greatest mystic but is the first published woman writer of the English language – even if she is, as John Skinner points out, “…now so-named, beguilingly as a man.” Skinner’s exposition of her work is a brilliant introduction Julian’s Revelations. The middle-ages is also represented by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, and benefactor of several churches, monasteries and universities. Of course, the Reformation period is well represented by the martyr-saints, women such as St Anne Line whom the Mulier Fortis blogger Mac McLernon, who wrote about her, has taken as a personal patron. I was glad to see that Queen Mary Tudor was given an entry. The English have grown used to accepting the myth of the “bitter and twisted” Bloody Mary, so it was good to read Antony Conlon’s more rounded version of her life and legacy. It could be argued that the centuries after the Reformation have usually been portrayed as relatively devoid of Catholic heroines, but this book provides numerous examples of heroic women for us. There’s Caroline Chrisholm, who Joanna Bogle writes about. She was a pioneer in securing charity and justice for emigrants. A well-researched account of the Crimean nurse M. Mary Clare Moore RSM is provided by Penny Roker – also a member of the Sisters of Mercy. Several of the women in the book might not be that familiar to us, especially those more recent ones. Some seem to get in because of a sentimental attachment rather than for their known heroic virtue. One of these is the 20th Century’s Elinor Brent-Dyer, of whom Joanna Bogle herself says, “I am honestly not absolutely confident that we can class [her] as an English Catholic Heroine.” Having said that she does then go on to highlight the immense good that Brent-Dyer, a champion of schoolgirl stories, did in providing healthy role-models for a generation of women. The fact that we seem to have so many English Catholic heroines, that cover such a long time-span, is a great testament to what Joanna Bogle refers to as the “Catholic thread” that runs through this country’s history.
One does not have to be English, Catholic, or a heroine to enjoy this book! It will, though, definitely enhance one’s understanding of the role of Catholicism and Catholic women in particular in shaping what we understand to be the English identity and its values. There are 22 imaginative, well-researched, and engaging biographies and entries in the volume. They may be read consecutively or as individual essays. Some will throw up surprises, and others will reconfirm the sanctity of very brave women. One thing is for certain, English Catholic Heroines will undoubtedly help the reader discover a genuine gratitude for that feminine genius which is at the heart of the Church, and which runs through English history. After reading this book one may be left asking the question: whom will future generations count amongst the English Catholic heroines of our day?
[This is the last book review before returning blogging properly again!]