Catholic Writers

26th Jul 2013

Muriel Spark
How can you tell if you're reading a religious writer? Can you tell from symbols they use, from their tone, from the subjects they choose to write about? And if you can, and you don’t share their beliefs, how does it make you feel?


I’ll start by acknowledging that the first two questions are deliberately fairly stupid, because obviously it depends on the writer. In the second of this occasional series on female writers and their beliefs this piece focuses on Catholic writers; some of their works are specifically religious, others decidedly not.

Muriel Spark once told an interviewer: “I’ve never had any desire to change people’s characters or to convert them to any idea of mine. I like to express my ideas but… People are what they are, you know. I don’t like to go round changing people.”

If you read Spark’s books you do get a sense of her belief that there is more to life than just what we do here – there are deaths predicted (see The Driver’s Seat) and themes of superstition preceding evil.

But Spark was an erratic church-goer who wrote a lot of guilt-free sex and remained robustly pro-contraception – her Catholicism was not what you might call orthodox.

Spark converted to Catholicism in 1954, a year before avant-garde poet Edith Sitwell, who was 67 when she converted. Interestingly, fellow Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh supported Spark during her conversion and then acted as Sitwell’s godfather.

Catholicism doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference to Sitwell, who converted because she desired ‘the discipline, the fire and the authority of the Church’; she had always been a Christian, and her body of work was stuffed full of religious symbolism.

It is, clearly, easier to spot a writer’s religious concerns if she happens to write directly about them, as contemporary author Sara Maitland has often done. Maitland converted to Catholicism in 1993 after her marriage to an Anglican vicar broke down.

Since then she has written a number of non-fiction books, including A Big Enough God, about her search, as a committed feminist, for a theology that enables her Catholicism and feminism to thrive harmoniously, and a book on the spirituality of silence.

Her novels and short fiction are informed more by her feminism and her interest in fairy tales and folklore than by overt religious themes.Her novels and short fiction are informed more by her feminism and her interest in fairy tales and folklore than by overt religious themes.

Anne Rice’s novels on the other hand have been largely informed by lust and vampires. It’s possible to plot her unusual religious trajectory through her back catalogue.

She was raised a Catholic, left the Church and wrote a lot of decidedly un-Christian books including Interview With the Vampire, returned in 1998 and wrote two devout books about Jesus, left again in 2010 after concluding she could not stay in a church that did not allow people to be gay or have abortions, and now retains her faith in God without the interference of organised religion.

In the 1980s, during her atheist period, Rice wrote a trilogy of BDSM novels under a pseudonym, and she thinks sex is a good thing. Spark was always interested in sex and wrote a lot of it.

Flannery O’Connor, who never married and probably never had a sexual relationship, wrote about it regularly but you’d be hard-pressed to find a handful of people in her fiction with healthy sex lives.

Understanding a religious writer’s concerns is often as dependent on the reader’s background as the writer’s. Much as an atheist kid might not get the symbolism in The Chronicles of Narnia (this atheist kid certainly didn’t), an atheist adult won’t necessarily understand O’Connor’s recurring use of the Omega Point.

This is a Catholic concept of a place where all things converge in God and where O’Connor’s characters find insight despite some continuing bafflement. She usually puts some horrific violence in around the same point. Of that motif she wrote:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.”

In a way O’Connor is the warped Catholic mirror of Muriel Spark; O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, was published in 1952, only five years before Spark’s first; The Comforters.

Spark wasn’t sure whether her Catholicism came out in her writing except through a specifically Catholic character – in The Comforters this character is Caroline who is struggling with her own conversion.

But O’Connor, who described Wise Blood as “a comic novel…about matters of life and death” pushed hers in readers’ faces as her way of imparting White Southern evangelism.

To go back to the third question – how do people feel about that? O’Connor’s consistently impressed Amazon reviewers can’t all be fellow Catholics, and the Guardian readers who enjoyed Wise Blood as part of their Book Club certainly weren’t all Catholic.

A quick read of Spark’s own Amazon reviews unearths very few people who even mention her religion, let alone allow it to stop them reading her books.

It looks like regardless of a writer’s connection with Catholicism, over the years it has proved to be more of an inspiration than a hindrance.