The Ramonat Seminar: Fabolia; or, The Church of the Catacombs

Oh, how plans fall apart! I was originally going to do my project on the portrayals of Catholic females by Catholic authors in the 19th century. However, after stumbling across a work of historical fiction by Cardinal Wiseman, my research project has taken a rather abrupt u-turn. The featured image above is from the 2012 reprint of the novel. 

Written at a seminal moment in English Catholic history, with the reestablishment of the Church’s hierarchy there, Fabiola is a strange text in of itself. It’s a part of a small segment of fiction by a church official, chiefly concerned with theoretical musings, with an ultramontanist(pro-Pope), anti-Protestant lean. Wiseman’s other works of fiction called The Witch of Rosenburg and The Hidden Gem, A Drama in Three Acts are the only others I’ve found. First discovered in a primary source (a collection of works written by Catholic authors up to that point in England, Ireland, and America), I then tracked down a version of Fabiola in HathiTrust.

So far, I’ve been reading my main primary source as a reflection of the author’s worries and hopes for English Catholics at the time. I believe he’s using the Early Church as an analogy for their present situation. Studying the history of this book will be a challenge but, one I hope is rewarding in the end. Below is the cover of the 1880 version published in New York that I’m reading. As I read through the actual text, its impact as a cultural work has raised some interesting questions.

Why do spiritual sequels (or works of fan fiction in my professor’s own words) like Fabiola’s Sisters by A.C. Clarke, Callista by John Henry Newman, Sebastion; or, The Roman Martyr by Thomas D’Arcy McGee, as well as plays like The Youthful Martyrs of Rome spring up so quickly around Wiseman’s work?

One search of the novel shows it being translated into languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Dutch, to Chinese (1982), Arabic (1888) and Japanese (1935), relatively shortly after its original publication. Why is it continually republished? What made it have transatlantic appeal despite its specific location and illusions to the ancient church? Being that it was written in response to a supposed anti-Catholic work entitled Hypatia by Charles Kingsley, Fabiola’s broad appeal is something worth noting. This all cumulates in its most bizarre iteration in 1960, a sword and sandal movie adaption, reminiscent of Christian classics like Ben Hur.

With all that said, I have a lot of work ahead of me tracking this mid-19th-century novel up to its mid-20th-century reception in the form of movies, art, etc.! I’ll be back on the 29th to describe the outlining process, in preparation for writing my first draft in March. Till then!


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