Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jesuits On The Run

God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot
by Alice Hogge

Alice Hogge's book reads like a hagiography of Henry Garnet -- nevermind that he was never beatified, let alone sanctified. The subtitle both reveals and elides the actual subject(s) of the book. Though indeed _God's Secret Agents_ is the story of "Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests", the Gunpowder Plot is ancillary to the main action. The first two-thirds of the work is a powerful, well-sourced description of The Mission, the Jesuit project to continue Catholicism in England despite the laws that made it criminal and the political opportunism that weakened the One True Faith over the last twenty years of the 16th Century. Though Hogge is careful to portray both the powerful faith of the English Catholics as well as the realpolitik that drove their oppression, her sympathies are obviously on the side of the Catholics caught in a Great Game between Britain and the Spanish, French, and Papal forces. The nobility of her heroes -- Garnet and Gerard and Campion -- is limned in every paragraph, while her objectivity sometimes seems forced as she writes, for example, of Robert Cecil's surprising tolerance in his private letters at odds to his political invective against the Romish Church. The book hits surprising doldrums after Father Gerard's escape from the Tower of London in 1597, as the author has to somehow traverse the next six years to finally arrive at the foothills of the Gunpowder Plot. The death of Elizabeth seems to cast a pall on the narrative as well, and Hogge's lively tale of priests on the run becomes a fairly dry exposition of Catesby's plotting and the tenuous, ambiguous connections of Garnet to the same. The use of these connections by the Government to destroy The Mission almost utterly is a foregone conclusion, and the book limps to a close like Frodo and Sam wending their way to Mount Doom. For all that, this is a very good book; the descriptions of the 'hide holes' constructed for the Catholic 'Resistance' are worth the price alone. Just don't read it expecting to get more than a quick overview of the Gunpowder Plot (which is all it deserves, after all). Hogge's work, instead, portrays the perilous world of the distaff faith, detailing the passions and tough moral choices that created the world in which Guy Fawkes could contemplate his terrible vengeance.

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