Susan M. Griffin's Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction reminded me that we English professors are not historians. To oversimplify badly, literary scholars--including literary historians like yours truly--study how texts work; historians study how texts exist. Thus, Griffin examines the various narrative, rhetorical, and thematic structures characterizing Anglo-American anti-Catholic literature, and shows how apparently transnational themes work very differently in specific national contexts. But there's very little on the history of reception, publication, and distribution, and (equally) very little on the authors themselves. By contrast, historian Sarah E. Gardner's very interesting Blood and Irony: Southern White Women's Narratives of the Civil War, 1861-1937 inverts the ratio of historical context to literary analysis: how each text came to be becomes far more important than what actually goes on in the text. (When Miles Taylor visited the University of Chicago's Nineteenth-Century Workshop, housed in the English department, he seemed more interested in the sheer existence of Ernest Jones' poetry than in the poems as literary works with recognizable antecedents.) My own book, which struck one publisher as being, in effect, "history," to me looks far more like Griffin's work than Gardner's. Of late, I've been forcing myself to ask "historian's questions" about the historical novels I'm studying, but--for lack of space, if nothing else--it's very difficult to make the historian cohabit peacefully with the literary critic.
After reading Griffin, I still don't know how American anti-Catholic texts registered in British circles. As I noted, she points out how the same theme might mean something very different, depending on the author's nationality, but she doesn't study how authors reacted to such dissonance.* In Britain, anti-Catholicism largely collapses as a political force after the mid-1850s (see, e.g., Paz and Wolffe), with a brief resurgence in the 1870s during the Ritualist controversy. But in America, anti-Catholicism is in high gear during the postbellum period--right through to the end of the century. Like most historians and critics, Griffin argues that British anti-Catholicism dies out, for all intents and purposes, by the end of the 19th c.; as she correctly notes, for example, Mrs. Humphry Ward's Helbeck of Bannisdale is partly a novel about the end of traditional anti-Catholic discourses. The only problem with this chronology, however, is that the Religious Tract Society (and, to a lesser extent, the SPCK) keeps churning out anti-Catholic fiction right and left, along with many other lower-end publishers (e.g., John F. Shaw). In other words, cultural anti-Catholicism remains strong and, indeed, self-consciously "embattled." What I still want to know, then, is this: how does such political unevenness, for lack of a better term, affect the ways in which British anti-Catholic circles distributed and interpreted American anti-Catholic texts?
*--My favorite example in didactic fiction is the family prayer scene. In British fiction, the family prayer scene simultaneously reinforces worldly social hierarchies (within the family, in the family's relationship to the servants, etc.) and otherworldly spiritual equality. By contrast, family prayer scenes in American texts normally demonstrate that everyone is equal now. (Obviously, the meaning of "everyone" is open to question...)