The Construction of an Anti-Catholic Ideology in the Nineteenth Century: Sexuality, Gender, Patriarchy and the Discourse of Fear

  • Diana Peschier


Mid-nineteenth-century anti-Catholic discourse was fuelled by stories of girls being inveigled into convents, terrible ‘goings on’ within the convent walls, and warnings of how Roman Catholicism could destroy even the bonds of matrimony. Two very well known and sensational cases of the time were The case of Maria Monk and Connelly v. Connelly. Maria Monk claimed that she had been lured from her home and served for five years as a novice and two years as a Black Nun. During her time at the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal, Canada, she was ‘debauched’ and gave birth to a baby which she saved from destruction by fleeing the convent. Her ‘Awful Disclosures’ (1837) give a picture of torture, dark underground cells, licentious priests and the murder of innocent babes. The Connelly case was far less sensational and related to two American Episcopalians who had converted to Catholicism in 1835 and had received a papal separation so that Pierce could become a priest and Cornelia a nun. They moved to England where Pierce quarrelled with Cardinal Wiseman, left the church and sued Cornelia in the Arches Court (1849–51) for the restitution of conjugal rights. Newspaper reports focussed on the Pope’s claim to dispense with the vows of matrimony.1 The danger to the Protestant family posed by the escalation of Roman Catholicism in England was illustrated by such ‘true’ accounts and led writers such as Catherine Sinclair to warn young girls about being tricked into convents and being approached whilst walking in public gardens:2


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  1. 4.
    See Robert Lee Wolff, Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England (New York: John Murray, 1977), p. 30.Google Scholar
  2. 19.
    Rev. Michael Hobart Seymour, The Talbot Case (London: Seeleys, 1851), pp. xvi–xvii.Google Scholar
  3. 25.
    Rev. M. Hobart Seymour, Convents or Nunneries a Lecture in Reply to Cardinal Wiseman (London: Seeleys, 1852), p. 10.Google Scholar
  4. 30.
    For an example of how this idea developed see Stead, ‘Maiden Tribute’ ‘The Brothel Keeper’, in Pall Mall Gazette (London: 1885).Google Scholar
  5. Ronald Pearsall, The Worm in The Bud (London: Pimlico, 1969), p. 350 states: ‘The exploitation of young girls is the most repellent aspect of Victorian sex’.Google Scholar
  6. In Ivan Bloch’s Sexual Life in England (1938 edition) a woman in the West End is reported as saying that ‘In my house you can gloat over the cries of the girls with the certainty that no one will hear them besides yourself — a statement confirmed by other sources.’Google Scholar
  7. 34.
    John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England: Addressed to the Brothers of the Oratory (London: Burns and Lambert, 1851), p. 88.Google Scholar

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© Diana Peschier 2005

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  • Diana Peschier

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