Marian Crowe: Aiming at Heaven, Getting the Earth: The English Catholic Novel Today

(Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. 379 pp)

Taking her title from the non-Catholic but decidedly religious C. S. Lewis ("Aim at heaven and you will get earth 'thrown in'; aim at earth and you will get neither," Mere Christianity), Crowe points out that contrary to popular claims, Christianity is not dying. However, unlike in the mid-20th-century, it is now a challenge to make the case for a specifically Catholic novel. In contrast to what she calls the more "classic" Catholic novels of Greene, Mauriac, Waugh and Bernanos, she identifies a more ecumenical and inclusive post-Vatican II literary phenomenon. Her chosen study "foster[s] appreciation" of the Catholic novel and literary heritage; she argues for distinctive achievements arising because of, rather than in spite of or in benign concert with, her respective authors' Catholic faith. Crowe writes for an American rather than an English reader, one who might not yet know the works of Alice Thomas Ellis, David Lodge, Sara Maitland, and Piers Paul Read.

Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005), the pseudonym for Anna Haycraft, opens the study. Ellis's engaging and astonishingly visual prose has been described by author/critics such as Peter Ackroyd as having the distinguishing quality of wit (73), and it is of such generously intelligent dry humor and keen-eyed observation that is almost embarrassingly accurate. It is witty, satiric, tight, elegant – qualities Crowe notes are reminiscent of both Spark and Waugh. Ellis's aesthetic can be seen as lovingly pre-Vatican II, in contrast to what Crowe sees as an almost Lutheran spareness of more modern parish culture and aesthetics. Ellis's Catholicism is attractive because of its "complex theology and stringent moral demands" (75) as expressed in its more ornate incarnations that celebrate the absolutes of good and evil.

As a cradle Catholic, David Lodge (1932-) has a literary aesthetic he calls "de-mythologized" and "in many ways agnostic" (76), wherein he tends to turn lapsed Catholic characters loose in a more devout milieu. Unlike Greene or Waugh, these are no "dissolute aristocrats," but more "ordinary" characters (77). He focuses on issues such as birth control (how far will a Catholic couple go to avoid pregnancy? – The British Museum is Falling Down 1965), and a Catholic resisting a sheltered upbringing (Out of the Shelter, 1970). As a young man he was thrilled to learn through his reading of Greene and Waugh that "being a Catholic need not entail a life of dull, petty-bourgeois respectability," and yet according to Crowe, Lodge's own novels are accurate, issue-focused, and "anything but exotic" (78).

Sara Maitland (1950-) (Collegium R'97), a Catholic convert who moved toward faith as an adult after years in the feminist movement and who blends them in prose that is part of what she describes as a "repositioning of my relationship to authority" (81), in Crowe's words, "retains her passionate commitment to social justice and to feminism." Maitland's careful elucidation of some of the many varieties of women's religious experience can also make her among the most accessible of the four authors for an American audience. Crowe also shows how she intertwines these interests with those of modern science, while still retaining her essentially Catholic world view. Crowe likens Maitland to Chesterton in her insistence that her viewpoint is orthodox, especially in the paradoxical embrace that leads to what the Catholic church famously calls mystery, including a belief in angels, the devil ("not the horns and the tail bit... but I do believe") and the religious and artistic power of "myth, fable, fantasy" (82).

The background of Piers Paul Read (1941-) could be considered cradle Catholic, although only parent believed. He became famous for a nonfiction account of a plane crash in the Andes (Alive, 1974), but he also produced much prose that critics have found both hyper-realistic and "disturbing" (84). Crowe notes that his plots "include the material of popular fiction – espionage, sexual promiscuity, marital infidelity . . . and even infanticide and Satanic rituals – but with the refusal to place them in an amoral universe" (85), and she distinguishes him as unique among both his peers and his predecessors. She sees his imagination as "more dialectical than anagogical," the point of which is the outcome of the battle for the human soul, and he sees Catholicism as "clear and definitive" without being "provincial" (86). The height of Read's drama, she says, is "moral choice, and . . . conscience is the ultimate theater" (87).

Crowe traces a history and theory of the Catholic novel, but she glosses so lightly over the centuries that it might have made sense to refer readers to a solid history of the Catholic novel rather than trying to do it justice in her quick spin through our complicated past. She also encounters some of the same challenges that have vexed other critics, attempting to link disparate works because they are Catholic, rather than seeing a consistently Catholic thread among them (sometimes she notes it simply isn't there, or else it won't behave in a manner conducive to a coherent historical argument), meaning her smart, engaging book can at times lapse into a catalogue. Crowe gains more potent and vigorous ground when she attempts to define the Catholic novel in a way that reveals the utter impossibility of the task.

In this sense, her interesting analysis survives the obvious pitfalls of such a study by embracing them, i.e. not all Catholics write Catholic novels, not all novels featuring Catholicism are by Catholics, and Catholicism as a theme or a "sociological background" is not really relevant to the discussion at hand (23). Instead, she considers works of "substantial literary merit" that use Catholicism, in the words of Albert Sonnenfeld, as the "informing mythopoetic structure or generative symbolic system," but without falling into Sonnenfeld's trap of "making salvation or damnation the decisive issue." She excludes the abundant books that portray Catholicism in a negative light, although she admires many of them, instead preferring to consider "those that include some kind of sense that Catholicism, no matter how flawed . . . is a locus of truth."
—Carole Sargent, Georgetown University