Tomko, Michael, British Romanticism and the Catholic Question. Religion, History and National Identity 1778-1829

Tomko, Michael. British Romanticism and The Catholic Question. Religion, History and National Identity, 1778-1829, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, 2011. £52.50, ISBN 9780230279513 (hardback), pp. xi + 224

Reviewed by: Raphaël Ingelbien, University of Leuven, October 2012

The central claim of Michael Tomko’s study is that debates around Catholic relief or emancipation were much more influential in shaping the culture of British Romanticism than is commonly assumed. Although its remarkable synthesis of journalistic and political discourse on the Catholic question will make the book interesting to readers in various disciplines, Tomko’s book is chiefly a work of literary criticism. Much of its impetus comes from an attempt to revise influential accounts that have read the (canonical) literature of the period against the background of the French Revolution and its aftermath. A focus on (post)revolutionary politics, Tomko suggests, has obscured the extent to which writers engaged with the ‘Catholic question’ – an issue which, as he deftly demonstrates, was never far around the corner in debates whose centrality to Romantic culture is more established, like national identities, imperialism, orientalism, radicalism and reform and abolitionism.

The introduction and the first chapter offer wide-ranging and impressively illustrated surveys of the various forms which the Catholic question took in public culture from the 1778 Catholic Relief Act to the passing of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Tomko lucidly spells out the ideological ins and outs of the different stances that commentators adopted, and ingeniously teases out the import of more obscure pronouncements. Informed as they are by an interdisciplinary engagement with various aspects of the culture of the day, those sections will constitute a good starting point for anyone wishing to read up on the subject, and also include details that even more experienced scholars are likely to find enlightening.

The book then launches into four separate chapters that are each devoted to individual authors (and often to single works as well). Tomko first provides an in-depth analysis of Elizabeth Inchbald’s 1791 novel A Simple Story, which centres around the unhappy marriage between a former Catholic priest named Dorriforth and his Protestant ex-ward Miss Milner, and the widowed Dorriforth’s treatment of their daughter. Tomko shows how the novel prefigures later ‘allegories of union’ in the so-called ‘national tales’ of Irish writers like Lady Morgan and Maria Edgeworth: Inchbald’s English Catholic focus, though, alerts us to the importance of sectarian divisions in a genre that is often primarily read through the lens of nationality.

The second chapter focuses on Wordsworth’s attempt to co-opt popular superstition in his conservative definition of English national identity while ridding it of its traditional association with Catholic belief. While Wordsworth’s staunch anti-Catholicism has often been either ignored or noted purely as an idiosyncrasy, Tomko suggests that it was a central concern in his aesthetics of ruins and ghostliness: the distant, implicitly Catholic English past and the folk beliefs surrounding the dead had to be recuperated as local ‘custom’, while Wordsworth condemned the institutionalised ‘superstitions’ promoted by the Church of Rome as foreign impositions on English character. The focus here is on The Excursion, Essays on Epitaphs and Eccleciastical Sketches (1822)

The third chapter insists that Shelley’s ill-fated 1812 trip to Ireland was not a youthful error, but a formative event in his career. Tomko then zooms in on Shelley’s 1819 play The Cenci. His adept tracing of the play’s composition allows him to claim that Shelley’s work should be read in other contexts than the Peterloo massacre in August 1819 (an event that looms very large in recent contextualizations of second-generation Romantic literature); indeed, the play was first conceived at a time when the issue of Catholic relief dominated public debate. The play’s Italian setting and its association of custom with tragic fate are then shown to pick up the terms of Shelley’s earlier, conflicted response to Irish Catholicism, as the young radical poet both condemned the discrimination of Irish Catholics and lamented the reactionary aspects of the Catholic faith.

The fourth chapter is devoted to another iconic 1819 text, viz. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Tomko’s careful reading of several passages allows him to highlight the sectarian dimensions of the battle of identities that the novel stages. The fraught relations and contrasts between Norman, Saxon and Jewish characters are shown to function not just as potential allegories of national conflicts within post-Union Britain, but also as covert interventions in debates on the status of Catholicism within that state. This stimulating new reading hinges on the intermittent, but highly charged parallels that Scott invites his readers to make between Saxons on the one hand, and Catholicism, superstition and legally discriminated groups on the other hand. The analysis of Ivanhoe is also usefully framed by a sketch of Scott’s shifting public response to the Catholic question.

The conclusion broadens the picture once again by charting the afterlife of such engagements with the Catholic question in the works of figures as various as Southey, Turner, Coleridge and John Henry Newman (who had initially opposed Catholic Emancipation, but who later explained his changes by invoking the spirit of Romanticism). This final section gives a sense of how much material Tomko chooses to leave unexplored within his chosen format. For instance, Catholicism arguably preoccupied Coleridge in more complex and engrossing ways than Wordsworth, which might have justified a separate chapter, or more attention to what Coleridge’s stance meant for Wordsworth’s. Side glances at other writers also suggest fruitful possibilities for further research. It remains to be seen whether those who pursue them will replicate Tomko’s methodological choices. He is a virtuoso close reader with a sharp eye for textual detail, from the intricacies of Shelley’s dramatic verse to the ostensibly less promising hesitations of Inchbald’s prose, but the central chapters will leave some readers with a sense that this selection of texts is both rather narrow and arbitrary.

Despite such qualms, Tomko’s work remains exemplary and convincing in its determination to highlight the centrality of the Catholic question to Romantic culture, even if his book often collapses that culture into more purely literary aesthetics. Although clear and largely jargon-free, Tomko’s own text reflects his observance of a North American critical discourse that remains committed to questions of literary form even when its focus is the reconstruction of ideological battles, and that makes much of ‘anxieties’, ‘sutures’ and ‘convolutions’ when discussing historical developments. Tomko is also a good reader of visual material, from Gillray’s cartoons to Turner’s painting of ‘Ulysses deriding Polyphemus’ – regrettably, the unsatisfactory way the painting is reproduced on p. 187 will send readers looking for a better version elsewhere. For the rest, the book is nicely produced, with only one puzzling error on p. 182 (“the Duke of Wellington, with Peel as his Prime [sic] Minister, finally came to power”).

Though not the final word on the subject, Tomko’s book has the clear merit of persuading readers of its importance. It will also provide them with a strong encyclopaedic basis and with possible reading strategies on which to base their own investigations into an unduly neglected aspect of British Romantic culture.