The Papist Represented: Literature and the English Catholic Community, 1688-1791

Document Type



The century between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791 was the most important period of transformation for the English Catholic community’s relationship with the Protestant majority since the reign of Elizabeth I. While literary scholars generally treat the Catholic community of this period as culturally moribund and disengaged from Protestant society and culture, historical scholarship of the past several decades has demonstrated that English Catholics formed a dynamic and adaptive religious minority of great complexity, one which remained active within the dominant culture while retaining its own sense of group identity. Drawing upon this scholarship, The Papist Represented: Literature and the English Catholic Community, 1688-1791 is the first sustained study to situate major eighteenth-century literary texts within the history of the English Catholic community and its interactions with the Protestant majority. In doing so, it illuminates literature’s contribution to the softening of anti-Catholic hostility after the Glorious Revolution, allowing for the passage of Catholic toleration a century later; and it traces the influence of the English Catholic community on the development of eighteenth-century literary history. By returning the Catholic community to that history, it challenges common assumptions about the development of eighteenth-century English literature as a fundamentally Protestant enterprise.

While most representations of English Catholics in the eighteenth century were hostile to them and their religion, The Papist Represented performs case studies of literary texts by five major writers, Catholic and Protestant, who sought to insinuate more positive or realistic representations of English Catholics into the public imagination. These writers responded to moments of crisis in England’s religious settlement by attempting to humanize English Catholics, rendering them palatable to Protestants through strategies of displacement, misdirection, or elision. Catholic writers such as John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Elizabeth Inchbald sought to build solidarity within the English Catholic community while simultaneously eliciting Protestant sympathy for it. This study argues that their works, with their protests against Protestant hegemony and engagement with the Catholic community’s internal social and political concerns, deserve greater attention from scholars as an early form of minority literature. Meanwhile, Protestant authors Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, while both anti-Catholic to different degrees, also understood that extremely negative representations English Catholics were unsustainable given England’s changing religio-political dynamics. Their realist fiction provides insight into transformations in eighteenth-century anti-Catholic attitudes, as well as the discursive strategies that were undertaken to bolster, hone, or soften those attitudes. Taken together, these case studies reveal that the Catholic community’s anxieties and desires (and the anxieties and desires it provoked in Protestants) fuel some of the most celebrated and experimental literary works of the century, in forms and modes including closet drama, the Gothic, and the novel; and they demonstrate the key role played by literature in re-conceptualizing the English Catholic community for the eighteenth-century English elite, imaginatively transforming it from a dangerous and pervasive fifth column into an unthreatening minority that could be safely indulged with liberty of conscience.

Publication Date