Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Tudor Historical Novel of Conversion

According to Goodreads, "Denis Meadows was born in London and educated in England. After commencing a career in the foreign service, he fought in World War I and later settled in America. He is the author of four novels and a nonfiction work about the Catholic Church." (From what I find on-line at least, I think he wrote one novel and several historical works, including a survey of Catholic Church history, a study of Abelard and St. Bernard of Clairvaux (A Saint and a Half), and this novel, Tudor Underground.) This site adds the detail that Meadows studied with the Society of Jesus for ten years and wrote about his experiences in a 1954 book titled Obedient Men--background that certainly informs Tudor Underground, especially when the protagonist, Hugh Rampling, completes the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

In 1950, Kirkus Reviews commented:

Personalities, hangings and quarterings, spies and Elizabethan religious turmoil provide a tempestuous background for a relatively pallid story of religious conversion. Hugh Rampling, young Catholic heir of an aquiline-nosed (and therefore, of course, loyal) English family attempts to align his hereditary Catholicism with a neutralized religious position which his career with the Protestant Principal Secretary, of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Francis Walsingham, demands. Aiding in the Secretary's spy ring formed to root out Catholic infiltration into England, Hugh, in successful adventures with a female demon aiding the purge, pursuers in Rome and in other narrow squeaks, is on the way up. However, in the midst of this uneasy neutrality, Hugh meets one of the most coveted prizes of the State -- Father Persons, a Jesuit priest. Not only does the priest induce Hugh to allow him and other followers to escape, but brings Hugh back into the fold, and positive action for the Catholic mission. Some elements of a good story here, but Hugh as the hero is the usual blank cartridge bright boy not peculiarly adaptive to heavenly meditation. A sprawling, uneven historical.

I take issue with the description, "a relatively pallid story of religious conversion." How can any story of religious conversion be relatively pallid? I found Meadows' novel to be intricate and complex, as much as the real decisions Catholics faced in 16th century England were. Hugh Rampling is a young nobleman who decides to give up everything for his Catholic faith--home, family, career, his chosen wife--even his sins! From working for Sir Francis Walsingham as a spy on Catholics abroad, only those Catholics who are actively betraying their queen, Elizabeth I, to helping Father Robert Persons, SJ escape capture more than once, Rampling struggles to decide which side he is really on. His decision is complicated by the fact that he is deep in Mortal Sin, committing repeated acts of adultery with an Italian noblewoman who pretends to be a devout Catholic while working to bring Catholic priests and laity to torture and to death.

Everything attractive seems to be on the side of established Church, and Rampling, like his father, conforms, attending a Church of England service and receiving communion--but does not take the Oath of Supremacy. Crucially, because of a bet he'd lost, he has to fulfill his wager: make the spiritual exercises under the guidance of Father Robert Persons. Confronted with the heights and depths of the glory of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery, Rampling confesses his sin and returns to the Catholic Faith.

Meadows keeps this story of conversion and adventure moving briskly, introducing the historical characters Sir Francis Walsingham, Persons, St. Edmund Campion, and St. Henry Walpole. He tells the story of Campion's Decem Rationes, its printing and distribution, his capture, and his execution, including the important detail of Walpole leaving Tyburn with blood splattered clothing. Like Persons, Rampling escapes England, but first faces torture and execution while in prison (visited by his former lover, who delights in thinking of how he will suffer), and an epilogue--which may be the weakness of the novel--looks back to tell the story of his life in exile before his return to England during the reign of James I.

I recommend Tudor Underground; it is available from many used book sources on-line.


  1. Crusading MedievalistNovember 24, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    Will look for it! Always on the lookout for novels of the English Reformation.

  2. Hope you like it, Crusading Medievalist!