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A Book Review . . . A Gem of Historical Fiction

November 15, 2013 Frontpage No Comments


Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt (Sophia Institute Press: 2013); $14.95. Order at or call 1-800-888-9344.

Treason dramatizes the hunt and persecution of English Catholics in the reign of Elizabeth I, the famous “virgin queen” enshrined and celebrated at the center of the culture of English-speaking peoples. Set in 1581, the year that St. Edward Campion was martyred, events in rural Devonshire are seen through an ensemble of characters both Catholic and Protestant.
The main action occurs in six days, the epilogue three months later. In a mere 184 deftly written pages, the novel is complete, whole, and resonant. The reader is left to ponder a cultural void, left where few any longer reflect something that once existed: Catholic England.
The story runs swiftly, beginning when a farmer finds a group of “traitors” — underground Catholics — at Mass in his barn. He finds his gun and drives them out, madly killing three. The act is hardly greeted with joy by most of the local villagers. While already well into the practice of the new, state-decreed Anglican Church, most want peace in their midst, not fanaticism. While the murder’s exposure of a local Catholic cell inspires an ominous search, especially for its priests, this is largely the work of ringleaders from London backed by hired foreign mercenaries.
This treatment signals the first of many authentic narrative choices of the author. Modest in size, in narrative scope, and perhaps even in ambition, the book is nevertheless a gem of historical fiction. For its understated narrative is remarkably subtle, and ultimately stands with the best of the very scarce literature on its rarely treated subject.
Few writers have ever had the nerve to venture into the miserable, down-to-earth reality of this particular religio-cultural warfare. The tortures and punishments awaiting enemies of the state were horrific. Also, Treason’s rural stage is far from the sphere of kingly pageant and larger-than-life characters which, as in A Man for All Seasons, can serve as narrative ballast and diversion.
This author’s strategy is to present a sort of invisible dance between two complete strangers: a newly arrived underground Jesuit, Fr. Stephen, and a young bride, Carolyn, a fervent Catholic whose faith is hidden from her well-established Protestant husband. For all the oppressiveness of the atmosphere, which is unavoidable for any writer choosing to live in this material, the weaving together of these two lives and fates is light as a feather. The reader accepts the reality of their spiritual bond unquestioningly. It carries that strange, uncanny yet familiar touch of true life that is the mark of literary fiction.
Even many sophisticated readers are unaware of the enormous pitfalls in constructing valid historical fiction. The best writers attempting it often enough trip up like kids blowing their lines in a high school play. But pages in novels are not as forgiving as live theater, nor do they enjoy the profound illusions of which cinema is capable.
The wonder of modern cinema not only compounds our present-day fantasy that any historical period is immediately accessible to us, but also reinforces the fond falsehood that “people never change.” In truth, people — and the societal context which carries them — can change so fast, and so radically, that an effort to present an authentic past can shock an audience, speeding them to the exits.
We opt for characters who talk and even think like us, as long as the costumes and sets are dead on. Witness Amadeus, wherein Mozart is presented with all the familiar charm of a truant straight out of J.D. Salinger, complete with current pop wisdom about genius versus “mediocrities.” Catholic endeavors, with their all too routine sentimentality, generally fare no better.
But it must be cautioned that mere historical realism carries its own sort of pitfall. A narrative grounding in 16th-century English diction would be unintelligible to the point of absurdity.
Having taught English and English literature for a career, the author of Treason gives us a good rendition of the sights, sounds, and actual feel of the times with natural ease. Most important, the speech of the characters — necessarily leavened by careful reinvention for the modern ear — is consistently plausible and right. And the book actually hits us, more than once, with the frightful alien quality of the time depicted, in a manner to call us to attention. Nor is gruesome focus placed upon the horrors; their mere existence is enough to cast a serious pall. Somehow, the main story line delicately pulls through.
The linking of Stephen and Carolyn, however tenuous, is then enough to constitute the reflecting pool for the author’s main meditation: the forging of post-Reformation English Catholicism in fire. A twin meditation, of the same caliber, is the start down the road of interior death for the rest of English life. For the central action also depicts the psychology of the Protestant community’s forced connivance in, and tacit acceptance of, the murderous frenzy — the sort of subject hard enough to convincingly depict in a contemporary setting.
The demand on the reader here is to face the sort of workaday evil that nobody ever likes to think about. Routinely in a big city, for instance, someone might witness an ongoing and pitiless assault just across the street from his hotel, then speedily slip inside, go upstairs, and switch on a crime drama. Entire genres such as detective fiction — always popular in the UK — are built upon the reduction of such grim and paradoxical human truth to digestible cliché, so as to constitute entertainment.
This novel is engrossing for the matrix of experience it recovers, not only because of the window it opens on a violent, buried past. But it goes without saying that it has no purpose to entertain. Nor do its fundamental observations coincide with comfortable, commonplace, and accepted ideas about human motivation and will.
Stephen, Carolyn, and most all of the characters are driven by rapidly unfolding events, increasingly ominous — some dimly willed by somebody, somewhere, but many haphazard. If the action seems to have its own terrible logic, via the compactness of the time frame, it is nevertheless not presented with either Tolstoyan inevitability or Darwinian determinism. A very narrow optic for moral choice exists, perhaps, under the terror, but such moral choice is never either wholly absent or out of the author’s sight. This marks Treason as a genuinely Catholic novel.
In her preface, author Dena Hunt states that after a 2006 pilgrimage to the ruins of Catholic England, she began to meditate on the many unknown “dry martyrs” who sustained the faith under the Elizabethan persecution. Her stated aim was then to chronicle something of their forgotten days: “What was it like to live each day in the hope for an end to the ‘patriotic’ religious hatred that forced every citizen to choose between loyalty to country and fidelity to faith?”
This is about half right; it is hardly usual for novelists to fully apprehend what they are about. True, our current accepted explanation for the sort of events depicted here is “hate.” As a person of our times, Hunt may accept that, even believe it. But the fact is, as a maker of fiction, she is vastly larger. And on her sober canvas, religious “hatred” is far from the calculus. We see instead, in the Protestant villagers, passivity driven by fear and terror, everyday opportunism, ordinary psychological self-defense by avoidance, petty ambition. And most especially, the de facto tyranny that lunatics, little or big, far away or local, can exercise over the sane — if only their excuse coincides with current official fabrications, and is backed with state machinery.
The one character who seems closest to a “hater” is entirely superficial on any subject, except her desire to be a local queen bee. As for the virgin queen herself, seen (it is important to stress) through the eyes of a character, she is a frightful contrast to the picture we are used to. Nevertheless, whatever Dena Hunt as a person thinks of Elizabeth is of no moment. She trusts her reader to judge, and rather than seeing a supreme “hater,” a reader may just as easily see a pathetically mistreated and unloved child, snapped into adulthood too broken to properly govern.

Interior Discernment

The real and surprising achievement of this little novel, then, goes beyond the author’s original impulse to depict Catholic survival. Rather, the reader is given a full panoply of responses to the reigning terror, from many levels of society. The point of view is third person omniscient; there is virtually no authorial comment whatsoever. And some of the finest depictions of conscience under siege are given to two major Protestant figures — Carolyn’s husband, Edward, and the local Anglican minister who was once a Catholic priest.
The subtle calibrations of conscience, and the movements of souls under the pressure of events, are presented through that level of interior discernment peculiar to only the very best Catholic writers, in their best works. One is reminded that in the very earliest Catholic texts, such as John’s Gospel and the Didache, death is always and only spiritual death — the worst fate imaginable. The snuffing out of the English soul, as a subject, may vehemently anger many, including many Catholics in our outspokenly ecumenical day. But that is what this well-crafted mirror reflects. It is not only the book’s most remarkable surprise, but its true and greatest horror. The author, of course, never states this.
But the entire cumulative effect of Treason is a dirge for Catholic England. It should have been sung out in cathedrals, like Mozart’s Requiem. Now it is only silently said, in mental prayer. For once, even an informed Catholic reader can not only ponder, but even feel the magnitude of this extraordinary loss.

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(Michael Morow is a 1977 graduate of Valparaiso School of Law, Valparaiso, Ind., and former adult education director at St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church, Indianapolis. He is a student of American literature, monasticism, and Dante.)

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