Francis Phillips interviews Catholic writer Joseph Pearce about his new book on a private pilgrimage
Author Joseph Pearce, who has written biographies of Hilaire Belloc, CS Lewis and GK Chesterton among many other writings, has just published a deeply personal account of a private pilgrimage he made through England.
Entitled Merrie England (TAN Books), it is accompanied by evocative black and white illustrations of places as varied as the tower mill at Stansted and Goathland Railway Station.
Is the book simply an exercise in nostalgia? Pearce admits to me its chapters were written between 2001 and 2003 for the St Austin Review, the Catholic cultural journal of which he is the editor, immediately after he moved to the US, “so it would be fair to say that there’s an element of nostalgia about them.”
But he adds, “They are more a representation of a philosophical musing on the timelessness of all that is good, true and beautiful about England: what Hopkins would have called the ‘inscape’ of England’s history, culture and landscape.”
Does he think England ever had a ‘Golden Age’? Pearce stresses that it would be “folly” to seek for one. “In my book I have chosen to accentuate the “golden” aspects of England’s past – but I have not denied that there was much that is rotten in all periods of English history.”
His book shows his love for the grand cathedrals of England. I ask which one is his favourite. Pearce promptly responds that if he had to choose, “I would probably select Ely. I love its slightly quirky architecture, its poignantly mutilated Lady Chapel and the fact that it is situated so quixotically in the midst of what is not much more than a village in the midst of a romantically desolate landscape.”
And his favourite English saint? Again, Pearce’s reply is unhesitating: “St Robert Southwell.” He has a devotion to the English Martyrs “and a profound admiration for the price they paid for their adherence to the Faith of their Fathers. I like Southwell especially because he was a poet and writer whom I have embraced as my personal patron. My closeness is further accentuated by his closeness to Shakespeare and his undoubted influence on some of the Bard’s finest lines, as well as by the fact that he is a native of Norfolk” – which is, in Pearce’s eyes, the place where “I finally found a rooted “home”.
Finally, I want to know what Pearce means by describing England at the end of his book as “forever Our Lady’s dowry”. He is emphatic: “What is good, true and beautiful does not cease to be so because of the presence of evil in the cosmos. We are fallen but we are still made in God’s image. England is also fallen but is nonetheless made in God’s image, insofar as the manifestations of her historical faith are a reflection of her love for Christ and of Christ’s love for her, and insofar as the beauty of her landscape is “charged with the grandeur of God”.
He reflects: “The title of Our Lady’s Dowry is a sign of this covenant between God and the nation of England, a title that is very dear to me, because I lived for many years within walking distance of Our Lady’s shrine at Walsingham.”