English Catholic Pasts in Perceval Landon’s Thurnley Abbey: A Critical/Creative Exercise

01 November 2017
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4.00PM - 6.00PM
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Name: Leanne Graham
T: 01642 342801

Abstract - This paper presents an enquiry into Perceval Landon’s 1908 ghost story ‘Thurnley Abbey’ that uses creative re-writing as a means of investigating its treatment of historical narratives of English Catholicism.

In a 2005 essay, theorist Hayden White suggested that the difference between history and fiction could be explained as ‘the difference between enquiry directed at the provision of the true and enquiry designed to give access to the real’ (p. 147).

The ‘true’ he referred to is based on documentary records of ‘what happened’, whereas ‘the real would consist of everything that can be truthfully said about [the past’s] actuality plus everything that can be truthfully said about what it could possibly be’ (p. 147). He thus extols literary discourse as a way not only of understanding how narrative history works, but also of testing the limits of the documented ‘true’ and the potential insights suggested by the ‘real’, and even imaginative ideas of the ‘possible’.

My written response to the story considers the implications of these statements in Landon’s text, when the history of Catholicism in England has mostly been confined to literary and historical narratives in which Anglicanism is the mainstream and the ‘other’ faith’s history is confined mostly to specialist museums and archives, niche publications, and family histories rarely published for broad audiences.

Landon’s story depicts the inhabitants of its titular Abbey and their encounters with a ghostly nun, frightening partly because of her function as a symbol of the historical ‘actuality’ set aside by the story’s early twentieth-century setting. My reading takes the form of an exercise in rewriting sections of Landon’s story in order to address critically its attitude towards the documented ‘true’, the politics of this in English religious history, and other perspectives inherent in notions of the ‘real’.

There are obvious risks in looking for the history of European Catholicism in Gothic writing, where it typically represents ancient superstition, medieval backwardness and barbarism, and foreign regimes of power against which Protestant, British national identity could define itself (Chaplin 2011). The distinct history of English Catholicism, however, complicates anti-Catholic systems of representation. The characters in ‘Thurnley Abbey’ suffer (and are left damaged, in various ways) because they are faced with a past that is in fact always present, integral to present realities, and which demands to be seen and understood. I demonstrate that Landon’s story’s horrific conclusion is not the anti-Catholic image it first appears to be, but expands the familiar ‘truth’ of England’s Catholic past imaginatively by way of the ‘real’ and the ‘possible’ that help to ‘emplot’ the past in narrative form.

Researcher Dr Leanne Bibby joined Teesside University in September 2015. She previously taught at Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Trinity University, and as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language at Language Study Centres, Action English Language Training, and the Centre for English Studies, all in Leeds.

Leanne received a PhD from Leeds Beckett in 2012 for a thesis on the cultural history of intellectual women in the fiction of British author and critic A. S. Byatt. Her research and teaching interests cover feminist and intellectual cultural histories, the relationship of literary texts to historical narrative, and literature’s critical and historiographic capacities in a range of cultural contexts.

Please meet in the Foyer of Social Sciences, Humanities & Law (1st Floor Clarendon Building) at 3.45pm for tea and coffee.

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