Pointed Arches, Papist Danger. The Echoes of the Debate on the Church Architecture in the Victorian Novel

Monika MazurekPedagogical University, Kraków


In English culture Gothic architecture enjoyed ambiguous reputation: on one hand, it was obviously connected with pre-Reformation times and therefore suspect. This reputation was strengthened by the Gothic novel which associated Gothic buildings with oppression and tyranny allegedly characteristic for Catholic countries. On the other hand, as a supposedly “native” English style, in contrast to imported classicism, it was hailed as the true product of free English spirit. This dichotomy proved to be particularly interesting in the 19th century, the age of the Gothic Revival. As more and more Anglican churches were restored or built in the style propagated by A. W. Pugin and John Ruskin, the English public, in particular its Low Church faction, was ambivalent or even hostile towards the growing influence of the style associated with Roman Catholicism, the enemy of Protestant England. The article discusses the selected passages from Victorian novelists, both well-known (Brontë, Trollope, Borrow) and minor ones, which describe Gothic architecture and analyzes them in the context of this debate.

keywords: Gothic, Gothic revival, Catholicism, Protestantism, Victorian novel


In novels of many Victorian writers, both of the renowned ones (Brontë, Borrow, Trollope) as well as minor ones, one can come across descriptions of Gothic and Gothic Revival Churches.[1] These descriptions turn out to be particularly interesting when read in the context of the dispute on the ecclesiastical architecture which erupted through England in the 1840s and 1850s, inspired by the fears aroused by the Catholic Emancipation of 1829 as well as the activity of the Oxford Movement and the Gothic church renovations performed under its influence. These changes, in the eyes of many, made the Anglican Church lose irrevocably its Protestant character and renounce its Reformation heritage. The main question around which this argument revolved was whether the Anglican church architecture could include Gothic elements despite of the strong association between this architectural style and Roman Catholicism, the old enemy of the Anglican Church.

One could not possibly discuss the Gothic Revival in England and controversies around it without mentioning Augustus Welby Pugin, whose name became for his contemporaries a byword for the new church architecture, as the quote below shows.

We ought to have our Abbey back, you see.

It’s different, preaching in basilicas,

And doing duty in some masterpiece

Like this of brother Pugin’s, bless his heart!

I doubt if they’re half baked, those chalk rosettes,

Ciphers and stucco-twiddlings everywhere;

It’s just like breathing in a lime-kiln: eh?

These hot long ceremonies of our church

Cost us a little–oh, they pay the price,

You take me–amply pay it![2]

With these words, tinged with pragmatism bordering on cynicism, starts the monologue of Bishop Blougram, a fictitious Catholic hierarch, in Robert Browning’s Bishop Blougram’s Apology. In 1855, when the poem was published, Augustus Pugin had been already dead, but as the above quote shows, his work changed irrevocably England’s landscape, both the architectural and the mental one. Despite the fact that many people voiced their doubts similar to the one’s expressed by the Bishop, Pugin’s success in propagating neo-Gothic as the most appropriate architectural style for churches was undeniable.

[1] This issue has not been discussed thoroughly yet in any of the numerous books devoted to Victorian medievalism in literature. Most of the works concentrate on the inspirations provided by medieval art, the fascination with the medieval mode of life and the nostalgia for idyllic pre-industrial society. Some of the most important works are: A. Chandler, A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature, Lincoln 1970; K.L. Morris, The Image of the Middle Ages in Romantic and Victorian Literature, London–Sydney 1984; A. D. Culler, The Victorian Mirror of History, New Haven 1985; R. Chapman, The Sense of the Past in Victorian Literature, London–Sydney 1986. Another notable work is M. Bright Cities Built to Music (Columbus 1984), devoted wholly to the aesthetic theories of the Gothic Revival.

[2] R. Browning, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, in: Men and Women and Other Poems, London 1993, p. 86.

[3] Cf.: R. Hill, God’s Architect, London 2007, pp. 371–372; C. Powell, Augustus Welby Pugin, Designer of the British Houses of Parliament, London 2006, pp. 98–99; D. Moore, The Catholic Context, in: A.W.N. Pugin: Master of Gothic Revival, ed. P. Atterbury, New Haven 1995, pp. 44–61.

[4] B. Ferrey, Recollections of A.N. Welby Pugin and His Father, Augustus Pugin, with Notices of Their Works, London 1861, p. 115.

[5] Quoted after: P. Allitt, Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome, Ithaca 1997, p. 48.

[6] N.N. Holland, L.F. Sherman, Gothic Possibilities, in: “New Literary History” 8, 1977, p. 279.

[7] J.H. Newman, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vol. IX: Littlemore and the Parting of Friends May 1842 – October 1843, Oxford 2006, p. 87.

[8] Cf.: S. Bradley, Englishness of Gothic: Theories and Interpretation from William Gilpin to J.H. Parker, in: “Architectural History”45, 2002, pp. 325–346.

[9] C. Brooks, The Gothic Revival, London 1999, p. 68.

[10] Ibidem, p. 55.

[11] Quoted after: R. O’Donnell, The Pugins and the Catholic Midlands, Leominster 2002, p. 10.

[12] F. Close, Church Architecture, Scripturally Considered, From the Earliest Ages to the Present Times, London 1844, pp. 79–80.

[13] K. Clark, The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste, Harmondsworth 1964, p. 151.

[14] Quoted after: R. Smith Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses. Anti-Catholicism and American Church Designs in the Nineteenth Century, Chapel Hill 2006, pp. 84–85.

[15] [E.J. Whately?], Kate and Rosalind, London 1853, p. 33.

[16] [E.J. Whately?], Quicksands on Foreign Shores, London 1854, p. 223.

[17] G. Borrow, Lavengro, London 1851, p. 321.

[18] G. Borrow, The Romany Rye, London 1872, p. 207.

[19] Ibidem, p. 207.

[20] C. Brontë, Villette, Peterborough, Ont. 2006, p.111.

[21] J. Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, vol. 1: The Foundations, London 1851, p. 371.

[22] Ibidem, p. 373.

[23] K. Garrigan, Ruskin on Architecture, Madison 1973, p. 19–20, quoted. after: Allitt 1997, see footnote. 5, p. 50–51.

[24] Allitt 1997, see footnote. 5, p. 50.

[25] Quoted after: P. O’Malley, Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture, Cambridge 2006, p. 70.

[26] N.C. Smith, George Gilbert Scott and the Martyrs’ Memorial, in: “Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes” 42, 1979, pp. 195–206.

[27] C. Sinclair, Beatrice, or, The Unknown Relatives, London 1855, p. 376.

[28] Ibidem, p. 272.

[29] Ibidem, p. 348.

[30] A. Trollope, The Warden, Oxford 1980, pp. 160–161.

[31] Ibidem, p. 21.

[32] M. Zgórniak, Wokół renesansu w architekturze XIX wieku. Podstawy teoretyczne i realizacje, Kraków 1987 (=Ze­szyty Nau­ko­­we UJ. Prace z Historii Sztuki, 18), p. 88.

[33] J. Patrick, Newman, Pugin, and Gothic, in: “Victorian Studies” 24, 1981, pp. 185–204.

[34] T. Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Oxford 2005, p. 3.

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" III, 2010. Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.