Sometimes, I come across a book that reminds me of how little I actually know. I’ve read a lot of books over the years, but as I’ve said elsewhere, my learning is broad but shallow. So, I always appreciate reading an author with true depth of knowledge is a specialised subject – e.g., A. C. Southern’s Elizabethan Recusant Prose: 1559-1582.
Who is A. C. Southern? I actually couldn’t find much about him, except that this work is a revision of his Ph.D. thesis. I only stumbled on this book by accident, and all I could find when searching for more information were reviews of this book from about the time of its release in 1950. As for his book, it’s an overview and bibliography of exactly what the title describes: the prose works of Recusant authors (i.e., those Catholics who fled the persecution of Queen Elizabeth).
The subject is a semi-obscure one. Most literate people are aware that there were Recusant authors, especially in more traditional Catholic circles thanks to the Douay-Rheims Bible, which itself receives extensive attention from Dr. Southern. However, few people know the names and works of the Recusants in any detail, and understandably so. From the Elizabethan era onward, English literature has been, by and large, Protestant, albeit with a few notable Catholic authors. However, England had been Catholic up to the Sixteenth Century, and the Recusants represent an alternate path that English literature could have taken in both content and style. For example, Dr. Southern points out that these authors tended to favour the plain style, in contrast to the more lavish prose popular among their Protestant contemporaries. As he explains:
[W]e note that the chief characteristic of these writers is their insistence upon logic in expounding an argument or arranging a pleading, and, correlatively, the importance they attach to construction as a primary element in prose composition. In this manner they were reviving the earlier tradition of the schools of rhetoric, where composition (Invention and Disposition) were regarded as at least of equal importance with elocution or ornament. […]
He adds, though, that plain does not mean boring, but rather straightforward, and they could be quite imaginative in their writing:
Our writers, as trained rhetoricians, knew the value of metaphor and its kindred imagery for aiding thought or stirring emotion, and they understood, and indeed shared, the taste of their generation for the use of proverbs, proverbial similes, and wise sayings as a means to emphasis or vivid simile.
The Recusants did choose the plain style deliberately, since the bulk of their writing was in apologetics, and their main goal was that their arguments be understood. This is why Thomas Harding, answering a sermon by Bishop John Jewel, says that he chose to write in a style some may find “colde, lowe, flatte ād dull.” He also notes that, in writing as in cooking:
Some require swete iunkettes, some sower and sharpe sawces, some esteme the curiositie of cookerye, more then the holesomeness of viandes, some can like no dishe, be it neuer so well dighte. […] I wene the best waye is, if a man herein mynde to doo ought, to make his prouision of the thinges only, wich be holesome. So shal he displease many, hurte none, and please al the good.
Oh, and yes, since this is a scholarly work the authors’ original spelling is retained throughout. This takes some getting used to, but it’s not so bad, especially if you’re aware that ‘i’ was often used for ‘j’ and that ‘u’ and ‘v’ often appear switched to our modern eyes.
Anyway, the large majority of the Recusants’ work was, again, in apologetics and responses to contemporary controversy, which is unfortunate because it means that much of this material is of interest primarily to those specifically interested in the era. That’s really the book’s main shortcoming, though it’s not exactly a fault since the intended audience is specialists in Elizabethan literature. As for Dr. Southern’s bibliography, I really can’t say how relevant it still is seventy years later. I also don’t know if there’s been any significant follow-up work done on the subject.
Is this book worth reading, then? If you have to ask, likely not. If it does pique your interest, though, it is a well-organised and thorough introduction to the subject.