David Lodge on Edmund Randolph – forgotten Catholic novelist

Before he made the big time as a fully fledged comic novelist David Lodge was principally a literary critic who wrote the occasional novel. When I was taught by him at Birmingham University his reputation rested not on his four novels—Ginger You’re Barmy, The Picturegoers,  The British Museum is Falling Down, and Out of the Shelter, but on his doorstep-sized anthology of literary theory and his books and articles on mainstream twentieth century Catholic novelists.

Lodge’s article on the hardly known late Victorian novelist Edmund Randolph, which I discovered in a copy of the Aylesford Review for Spring 1960, belongs to the period when he regarded himself as primarily a writer on the history of Catholic novel, a subject he had chosen for his M.A. dissertation at London University. This research involved reading a number of ‘forgotten Catholic novelists‘of the nineteenth century. Clearly, he had not been impressed by their quality:
‘…Between the waves of the Oxford movement and the Decadence there lies a trough in which English Catholic novelists produced little besides sentimental pietistic romances and propagandist historical novels…’
Lodge argues that although Randolph himself was guilty of some of the faults of his contemporaries in this field, his best novel, Mostly Fools; a Romance of Civilisation (1886) deserves to be regarded as the ‘ the most impressive English Catholic novel to appear between Newman’s Loss and Gain (1848) and Mrs Wilfred’s Ward’s  One Poor Scruple (1899).’  This is a glowing recommendation from a notoriously severe critic, but Lodge backs it up. Mostly Fools, he avers, is remarkable in that it is unafraid to take on some of the glaring faults of the late Victorian Catholic church, which Randolph felt was unwilling to ‘come to terms with nineteenth century thought, in political, social, intellectual and scientific matters ‘, a viewpoint which, according to Lodge, took considerable courage to express.

Roman Catholic College Kensington (now Heythrop College)
The novel, whose hero, Roland Tudor, was a heroic projection of Randolph himself, aimed satirical barbs at a number of Catholic institutions. These included the religiously hidebound public schools of his time personified in the author’s own alma mater of Downside. Roland also ridicules one of Manning’s pet projects—the Catholic University College in Kensington—which was established to give young men of the faith a higher education that would shield them from the liberal and sceptical influences of Oxford and Cambridge, but which ended in abject failure. The Oxford Movement itself is criticised by Roland for not producing enough capable Catholic laymen and by failing to recruit supporters from among the working classes.
Disillusioned by his brushes with the modern Catholic church, Roland marries and then obtains a commission in the British army but becomes so bored that he emigrates to make a name for himself in the Carlist wars, only to return home to his old regiment. The ludicrous picture he paints of a bumbling, inefficient military system reminded Lodge of Evelyn Waugh’s early novels. After a while, Roland resigns his commission and enters Parliament as an Irish Nationalist candidate, but resigns when his ideals are frustrated. At this point the action is set in the near future (around 1900). Roland emigrates to South America, where by dint of an accelerated military career which ends in him becoming a benevolent dictator, he decides that he will ignore the clamour of the Church to return Protestant Europe to Catholicism and instead establishes religious toleration in his own country. Not long after, he dies during his return from the battlefield. Randolph himself passed away in 1889, just three years after his novel appeared.
Lodge compared Randolph’s ‘paranoic fantasy’ to that of Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo), although he felt that a more useful comparison might be made between Randolph and Belloc, both of whom were Catholics who distrusted democratic systems. In conclusion, Lodge felt that although  Mostly Fools is vitiated by’ a dichotomy between its satirical and romantic elements’, it remained a novel that  ‘ should still command our interest and admiration’. Unfortunately, fifty-five years later, Lodge’s reassessment doesn’t appear to have revived any interest in either Randolph or his three novels. Wikipedia has nothing to say on the author and only reprints are available through Abehbooks. [R.M.Healey]

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