Some days ago I was asked to talk about the representation of the Catholic faith in some English novels in the XX century. I was reading then The Good Soldier of Ford Madox Ford, so, naturally, the figure of Leonora Ashburham was the first to come to mind. Yet, is Leonora a “typical” representation of the Catholic? Is there a common way of representing “the Catholic” in the first half of the XX century? As I had never read trying to identify those patterns of representation, assuming they exist, I did not have an answer, and I still don’t. Nevertheless I think that convert writers such as Graham Green, Evelyn Waugh, Chesterton, Muriel Spark and Ford place faith as a very distinctive quality of their Catholic characters, despite the significant differences found in their works.
Take Leonora Ashburnham and Julia Flyte as examples. Their personalities are very different, as it is their approach to the Church’s teachings, specially regarding morality. Nevertheless, neither of them doubts: their faith is rock-solid. They might find it hard and strict, they might even want to change it, but they do not doubt its truthfulness.
To clarify this point it can help to look at the character analysis of Leonora found in Spark Notes:
Leonora Ashburnham is shaped by her economic upbringing and her stoic Catholicism. Though she is not outwardly religious, she believes in right and wrong, and in making the best of one’s situation.
This paragraph is absolutely gorgeous. Assuming her “economic upbringing” is the one responsible for teaching her to make the best of the situation, we have to blame the “stoic Catholicism” for the atrocity of making her believe in “right and wrong”. Yet, leaving sarcasm aside, these fellows at Spark Notes have got a point. Believing in right and wrong hardly characterize anybody, yet the radicallity of that belief is what makes the difference. Leonora believes in a way none of the other characters does: her faith is what marks the difference.
One could think that Waugh or Ford would show the Catholic as morally superior being as many of apologetic writers tend to do. Yet, Leonora, Julia, or any other of Waugh’s and Green’s Catholic characters do not behave better than their fellows, and they are certainly far from being portrayed as saints. Nevertheless, they don’t have doubts of faith: they believe in something that is not subject to discussion, something that has to be taken as a whole or completely rejected. No middle ground is possible. In that sense it is true that they believe in right and wrong, in true and false with a radically and seriousness that non-believers do not share. It seems that for those authors the idea of a do-it-yourself faith was not a possibility. Faith is portrayed as an either/or alternative and that radicallity is what shocks the contemporary reader.
Faith, thus, stands as the main difference between the representation of the Catholic and the non-catholic. It is because of that seriousness that the non-Catholic struggles to understand their unexplainable behavior. John Dowell wonders why Leonora acts so weirdly, exactly as Charles Ryder is constantly puzzled by the Marchamains.
As Sebastian explains to Charles in Brideshead Revisited, Catholics seem like other people, but they are not:
They’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time. It’s quite natural, really, that they should. But you see it’s difficult for semi-heathens like Julia and me.