Bleeding Nuns

Posted by Marie Mulvey-Roberts on April 06, 2011 in Dr. Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

Has anyone had any recent sightings of bleeding nuns? I am collecting a few for a “Bloodwork” conference at the University of Maryland and am hunting through The Demon of Sicily, son of The Monk etc….  I have also been reading Patrick O’ Malley’s Catholicism, Sexual Deviance and Victorian Gothic Culture for inspiration.  Below is the cover image taken from Millais’s painting of a nun digging a grave.

By strange coincidence, three of us recently went to visit a dear friend, a contemplative nun, whose place of enclosure at an appropriate European location, is due for closure.  On previous visits, I had never managed to visit the convent garden so I asked her if it would be possible on this occasion, but she refused in grief-stricken tone. This was because forty coffins of dead nuns dating back to the 1860s were currently being dug up to be re-interred in the local cemetery, as the convent and its land was going to be sold to developers.  That image in my mind’s eye has been hard to shut out ever since particularly since the last section of the Gothic Literature course on which I teach is premature burial. The vision was exacerbated further by my reading The Demon of Sicily where the wicked monk comes across a nun – buried alive! It gets even more ludicrous when he finds himself overcome with lust as he gazes at her lying in the habiliments of the grave….I hope that our contemplative friend will forgive my blasphemous incursion into the more lurid aspects of the early nineteenth-century Gothic novel, particularly those which are anti-Catholic, but as Maria Purves has indicated in her fairly recent book The Gothic and Catholicism, this was not necessarily the case.

Purves provides examples of Gothic novelists who were positive about the Church, seeing the convent as a haven from patriarchal tyranny. Within the walls of the convent, as Ann Radford has indicated, religion could be a comforting if not sublime experience.  Britain had become a refuge for clerics and religious fleeing the persecution brought about by the French Revolution.  As a result,  convents and monasteries were being set up on British soil.  During the 1790s Purves argues, there was a nostalgic hankering back to the times when Britain was a Catholic country,  seemingly reflected in these sentimental Gothic novels . Indeed, she insists that during the long eighteenth century, Britain was sympathetic towards Catholics and this greater toleration was reflected by the passing of legislation including the Catholic Relief Acts, though it cannot be denied that  The Gordon Riots was not an inconsiderable protest against the Papist Acts of 1778. In order to contain the civil disobedience and extensive damage to property, hundreds were shot and wounded by the militia and around 50,000 people had taken to the streets. But commentators such as Horace Walpole regarded the riots as a symptom of social tensions rather than anti-Catholicism saying “negligence was certainly its nurse, and religion only its godmother”.

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