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What Does a Catholic Robinson Crusoe Look Like?



Joseph Bottum - published on 06/01/15

A 19th century novel posed all the right questions

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In 1862, a Catholic priest named William Henry Anderdon published a dreadful novel called The Adventures of Owen Evans, the Catholic Crusoe. No, that’s too harsh. The man could actually write, and if the book has sunk to the bottom of the sea of time, unremembered and unmourned, still it stayed afloat for a while in its day—going through a few editions and attracting a little notice in the Catholic press.

The Catholic Crusoe (as the title came to be shortened) may seem short-lived dreck, when compared with the enduring works of the era. London, that same year of 1862, saw new novels by Anthony Trollope and George Eliot, with the rest of Europe contributing Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Hugo’s Les Misérables, Flaubert’s Salammbô, and Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. But considered instead in the lesser genre of Victorian apologetic fiction, The Catholic Crusoe ranks well above many of its contemporaries. You could read this book now, as I recently did, without your rebellious eyes going on strike against their forced labor.

Of course, by deliberately rewriting Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe, Anderdon invites comparison with the classic authors of English literature. But if The Catholic Crusoe loses the contest for enduring literary power, it nonetheless offers some valuable resources for thinking about the project of Catholic fiction—of Catholic work in the art-form of the novel.

Down in its eighteenth-century roots, the novel was formed as a deeply Protestant literature, which has always made Catholic novel-writing a curiously convoluted task. But regardless of the general religious tone of English fiction, literary critics often read Robinson Crusoe as a particularly Evangelical and Puritan work—and even more to the point, that is how Fr. Anderdon took Defoe’s book. In the nineteenth century’s theological and social battles between Protestants and Catholics, Robinson Crusoe seemed to need an answer precisely because it is so important to the art form and so completely Protestant. The Catholic Crusoe isn’t just a novel. It’s an argument about how the history of English fiction would be different if it had rested on a Catholic foundation.

W.H. Anderdon remains an interesting figure. Born in 1816, he came from that productive literary/intellectual class of Victorians that included his uncle, Cardinal Manning. Educated at King’s College, London, and Oxford, he was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1840—but, caught up in the Oxford Movement, he resigned his vicarage and was received into the Catholic Church in 1850.

Ordained in 1853, he went on to do a little administration (not entirely unsuccessfully) at John Henry Newman’s Irish university, serve his famous uncle as a secretary, and teach—along the way pouring out fiction, sermons, apologetics, and controversial works. (“Ever busy writing,” as his brief entry in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia remarks, a little snarkily.) Joining the Jesuits in 1872, he continued to teach and write until his death at the Jesuits’ Manresa House in the London suburbs in 1890.

So what would Robinson Crusoe look like if it had been written by this man—a reasonably good writer, a productive controversialist, and a serious Victorian Catholic, straight from the Oxford Movement? The Catholic Crusoeisnarrated by a Welsh surgeon named Owen Evans who spends four years (instead of Crusoe’s twenty-eight) on an island where he was marooned by a wicked ship captain (instead of Crusoe’s shipwreck). The SUNY Brockport literature professor Miriam Burstein has bravely undertaken the Stakhanovite task of reading the corpus of Victorian apologetic fiction, both Protestant and Catholic, and  
she notes that one key difference is that Crusoe is alone for much of his novel, while Evans is part of a group.

More than plot variance is at stake here. It derives from—and expresses—Anderdon’s Catholic sense of God’s work not only in the individual but in community. And in more than a random community, for a key figure in the group is a priest named Don Manuel. “This figurative church,” as Burstein observes, “soon becomes a literal one thanks to Don Manuel’s evangelism.” There’s a necessary sharing of goods (with Acts 4:32 referenced), and gradually, through a series of adventures and deeds more improbable than even Crusoe’s, they establish a life on their island much like Crusoe’s after his finding of Friday.

But where Crusoe takes charge of the island as his English colonial property (which is why Karl Marx read Defoe’s book as a foundational text in the rise of imperialism), The Catholic Crusoeinsists on the transnationalism of the community the marooned people have formed, in parallel to the transnationalism of the Catholic Church. Where Protestantism, in Anderdon’s view, claims the earth’s land as potential colonies and its people as potential slaves, Catholicism understands the weakness of claims to property and wants to raise the native populations to the equality all share at Mass.

This is Victorian anti-Protestant controversialism of a surprisingly high order. Anderdon grasps the Puritan center of Robinson Crusoe and inverts it into a claim of Catholic superiority. The colonial ownership of the island ends with the island’s destruction in a volcanic explosion—for property is temporary, and only the conversion to Catholicism is gained by the people who lived there. Rescued at last by a Spanish ship, Evans settles back in Protestant England (where “being a Catholic stood in my way at every turn”), while Don Manuel continues his proselytizing far off on another pagan island (where there are hints he will be martyred).

So what can we draw from this? If Anderdon is right in The Catholic Crusoe, then a genuinely Catholic fiction would have to insist on community, rather than the individual’s state of mind, and that insistence would usually require the presence of a priest so the sacraments can perform their communal function. It would allow the direct action of the supernatural in miracles and wonders—even while, in its endings, it would tend to find the physical world an unsatisfactory, if not a downright deceptive, expression of either justification or sanctification. It would not typically see marriage as definitively completing the plot-arc of fiction. And it would be prone to a violence, in its endings, that perhaps presages the Apocalypse but certainly destroys the settled conclusions toward which novels often lean.

It’s an old line that if you want to understand an age, you need to read to its second-rate thinkers even more than its first-rate thinkers. And similarly, it may be that the deep problems and deep successes of the novel as an art form are more visible in mediocre work than in the classics of the genre. Fr. W.H. Anderdon’s Catholic Crusoeisn’t good enough to answer the question of Catholic fiction, but it’s good enough to pose for us that question—forcing Catholic artists to ask how much of Defoe’s Protestant art form is left, when we try to write novels as Catholics. 

Joseph Bottum is a bestselling essayist in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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