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Stephen Hamrick. The Catholic Imaginary and the Cults of Elizabeth, 1558–1582. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6588-5, 240 pp., b/w ill. Hbk. GPB 55.00

Reviewed by Alison Shell

[1]  In a striking scene towards the end of Shekhar Kapur’s film Elizabeth (1998), where the young queen power-dresses for her new role, it is made clear that she is borrowing her costume, make-up and hieratic pose from a painted statue of the Madonna. This surely alludes to the long-standing debate about the nature and degree of iconographical continuity between the Virgin Mary and the Virgin Queen, given definitive shape by Frances Yates and refined by such scholars as Philippa Berry and Helen Hackett. In the study currently under review, Stephen Hamrick intervenes in it by consciously striking out in a new direction. To quote his own characterisation of his research, it ‘enables us to chart the early development of the cults of Elizabeth without the need to revert solely to the analysis of Marian or anticatholic symbolis (188).  Instead, his book paints a broader canvas in which a range of beliefs, practices and institutions associated with traditional religion – processions, ritualism, the sacrifice of the Mass, confession, hagiography, purgatory and Catholic funerary rites – are deployed by writers operating within the genre of love poetry or deploying the Petrarchan mode. For this reason alone, it should be essential reading for anyone interested in English Petrarchanism.

[2]  Sexual love was often the last thing on the minds of poets working within the Petrarchan tradition. Most relevantly for this study, the mode – so well suited to extracting quasi-religious ardour from the dynamics of power and subservience – invaded various forms of political discourse from early on. Hamrick illustrates the versatility and glamour of Catholic-inflected political poetics with a wealth of examples. In the 1575 version of the courtier-poet George Gascoigne’s Don Bartholmew of Bathe, for instance, the hero receives a letter from his beloved Ferenda which, it becomes apparent on opening, is written in blood. Like the Host in the Mass, this revelation of hiddenness becomes a source of grace for the devotee, who vows, using traditional christological imagery, that he was ‘restored unto breath, / By one that seemde lyke Pellycane to playe, / Who shed his blood to give me foode alwaye’. Through Ferenda’s transubstantiationist sacrifice, Elizabeth, her referent, is presented two ways. She is a source of eucharistic succour for her followers, but also a woman with a proactive attitude towards the opposite sex: a potent gambit at a time when Elizabeth’s matchmaking manoeuvres were empowering her on the international stage, but generating some concern at home. Not confessionally Catholic, not anti-Catholic either, Gascoigne’s allegory occupies a middle ground typical of the poets discussed in this book.

[3]  The term ‘Catholic imaginary’ has a wide remit, describing both Catholics’ imaginative responses to aspects of their faith and non-Catholics’ imaginings of Catholicism. Here, it is somewhat under-explained: though Hamrick references Louis Montrose’s passing use of it in The Subject of Elizabeth (2006), it was recognised by historians and theologians some time before Montrose took it up. Full-frontal engagement with other users of the term, or with those whose work has been seen to deserve the term – perhaps along the lines of the discussion in Kelly Oliver’s Reading Kristeva (1993) – would have enhanced the book’s interdisciplinary clout. But a term that includes pejorative, neutral, ambiguous and confessional imaginative approaches to Catholicism is a useful one for literary critics to have around, and works well as the book’s shaping principle, provided one accepts its portmanteau and slightly random quality. Hamrick’s examples are striking case by case, but can be difficult to generalise from without reaching for words like  ‘contested’, ‘hybrid’ and ‘contradictory’, which, so far from advancing a broader argument, argue the impossibility of one.

[4]  Hence, his approach works best as a response to Stephen Greenblatt’s desacralisation model, the elegance of which has both encouraged and hindered study of the religious element in Tudor and Stuart literature. Of the drama of the period, Greenblatt has written that ‘when the Catholic ritual is made into theatrical representation, the transposition at once naturalises, denaturalises, mocks and celebrates’: even celebration being, secularly enough, a demonstration of theatre’s power rather than religion’s. Hamrick argues instead that ‘the seriousness with which both Protestant and Catholic readers reject the transfer of Catholic imagery and practices to the cults of Elizabeth suggest that such a transposition, at least within published poetic texts in this period, failed to fully denaturalize or secularize Catholicism and images of Catholic practice’.  More broadly, he contends that the Catholic imaginary – like Reformation Christianity in general – carries forward some aspects of medieval religion while loudly repudiating others. As he himself points out, it may be no coincidence that his conclusions are reached from a study of poetry rather than drama; did secularising imaginative experiments work better on stage than on the page?

[5]  The literature of the early Elizabethan era remains less studied than it should be, in part because C.S. Lewis’s notion of the ‘Drab Age’ has proved so resilient. Like Cathy Shrank’s Writing the Nation in Reformation England (2004) Hamrick’s book poses, among other things, a sustained argument for its stand-alone quality. Plugging a chronological gap in scholarship on the topic, his study is thorough and freshly sourced in a way that Early English Books Online has surely empowered. Yet no book is ever exhaustive, and a few lacunae remain, suggesting opportunities for further research. There is, for instance, no extended consideration of Catholic authors – surely the single most important body of writers to have contested mainstream Elizabethan notions of the Catholic imaginary  – though a few are suggestively mentioned: Robert Persons’s pamphlet account of Richard Atkins’s execution by fire in Rome is deployed in a discussion of apostasy’s frenzied passions, while George Marshall’s 1554 denunciation of the Edwardian Reformation as a time when ‘Cupido and Venus in England beganne / As gods for to governe bothe woman and man’ is quoted at the very beginning of the book. Yet this, in turn, cries out to be contextualised in terms of Mary I’s reign. During those five years, poets prematurely celebrated the conquest of heresy and lavished Marian tributes upon the sovereign, shaping an agonistic agenda for the Protestant writers of early Elizabethan England.  This book’s fascinating chapter 1, examining the implications of Elizabeth’s refusal to participate in a Christmas mass in 1558 during which the Host was elevated, deserves a prequel along those lines.

[6]  Here and elsewhere, this book’s unswerving focus on a relatively narrow chronological period, something more often associated with historians than literary critics, is both a strength and a weakness. On the positive side, it enables Hamrick to achieve his stated aim of thick description, and gives him the space to accord Gascoigne, Barnabe Googe and Thomas Watson expansive treatment without their being crowded out by Shakespeare and Spenser. His repositioning of these writers shows their sophistication and his own originality; the treatment of Gascoigne, in particular, is one sign among many of a rise in this poet’s stock, and should be read alongside Gillian Austen’s and Gabriel Heaton’s recent revaluations. Yet this sharp focus also results in a loss of peripheral vision; the book reads less like a full-length study than a series of articles, with an under-utilised introduction and conclusion. While looking neither to right nor to left can be the sign of a disciplined doctoral thesis, in a monograph it betrays a lack of confidence. The book’s tangled and hurried prose, too, has an anxiously provisional air; when completing his next major project, Hamrick should take time both to survey the wider prospect and to polish his writing.

[7]  More haste and less speed at copy-editing and production level may be the reason for the book’s weak presentation. There are several proofreading errors within the main text, including a missing footnote signalled in the main text on p.23; the title of the concluding chapter, ‘Reformation Petrarchanism and the Cults of Elizabeth’, becomes ‘Revolution Petrarchanism…’ in its running title, intriguingly but anachronistically; the author’s name is misspelt on the back cover, as is “Petrachanism” (sic). Finally, the index does not meet usual minimum standards, leaving out a number of proper names that figure in the main text.

University College London, July 2011.