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Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture

by Patrick R. O'Malley

It has long been recognised that the Gothic genre sensationalised beliefs and practices associated with Catholicism. Often, the rhetorical tropes and narrative structures of the Gothic, with its lurid and supernatural plots, were used to argue that both Catholicism and sexual difference were fundamentally alien and threatening to British Protestant culture.


It has long been recognised that the Gothic genre sensationalised beliefs and practices associated with Catholicism. Often, the rhetorical tropes and narrative structures of the Gothic, with its lurid and supernatural plots, were used to argue that both Catholicism and sexual difference were fundamentally alien and threatening to British Protestant culture. Ultimately, however, the Gothic also provided an imaginative space in which unconventional writers from John Henry Newman to Oscar Wilde could articulate an alternative vision of British culture. Patrick O'Malley charts these developments from the origins of the Gothic novel in the mid-eighteenth century, through the mid-nineteenth-century sensation novel, toward the end of the Victorian Gothic in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. O'Malley foregrounds the continuing importance of Victorian Gothic as a genre through which British authors defined their culture and what was outside it.

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'O'Malley's impeccably researched Catholicism, Sexual Deviance and the Gothic serves as a valuable reminder of the centrality nonetheless of issues of religious belief to Victorian public and private life. … O'Malley elegantly traces the history of the anti-Catholic anxiety, ranging fluently across responses to Ritualism and the Oxford Movement as well as to European Catholicism in sources such as Punch, polemic pamphlets and periodical writing. His account of how Ruskin appropriates and naturalises Gothic as the normative English identity, and of how Protestantism is appropriated as the original Christian church - and Catholicism a heretical deviation - is excellent. … The accounts of the novels are at their strongest in the attention paid to crucial details, where close reading teases elaborate meanings from Stoker's use of physiognomy, or from figurative language in novels of Walter Pater. … readers will find their sense of all of the texts he discusses enlarged.' Advance Access

'This is a study 'dedicated to the task of tracing the metaphorical gargoyles and arches that produced nineteenth-century British concepts of sexual and religious difference' and it does so with wit, theoretical dexterity and scholarly depth.' Andrew Tate, University of Lancaster

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Cambridge University Press
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Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture Series, #51
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5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.83(d)

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Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-86398-8 - Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture - by Patrick R. O'malley

Introduction: skeletons in the cloister

There are few of us who have not sometimes wakened before dawn, either after one of those dreamless nights that make us almost enamoured of death, or one of those nights of horror and misshapen joy, when through the chambers of the brain sweep phantoms more terrible than reality itself, and instinct with that vivid life that lurks in all grotesques, and that lends to Gothic art its enduring vitality, this art being, one might fancy, especially the art of those whose minds have been troubled with the malady of reverie.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

In 1859 John Everett Millais exhibited at the Royal Academy a painting entitled The Vale of Rest, which portrayed a young nun digging a grave while another sits to the side, staring frankly – even immodestly – at the viewer. Images of death fill the painting. The digging nun stands in an open grave while her companion sits on a gravestone; other crooked gravestones – and, beyond them, a darkened wall – surround them. A “coffin-shaped cloud” hangs in the darkening sky above a fading autumn sunset; at the bottom right corner of the painting, two funeral wreaths lie withering over each other, mimicking the position of wedding bands,and the supervising nun's rosary includes a small skull.1 Contemporary critics were not, in general, positively disposed to the subject matter of the painting, though several praised its technique. The Athenæum, for example, noted not only the morbidity of the image (“the rank growth of the burial ground grass, thick and dank from its horrible nurture”) but also its implication of a disruption of gender roles: “Mr. Millais has caught admirably the awkwardness and weakness of the woman using the unaccustomed spade, and has thrown a fine ascetic meditativeness over the face of the seated nun, – not that her red skull of a face and staring, coarse, black eyes are pleasing, – far from it, they are as hard and painful as those of some of Hogarth's viragoes.”2

Millais had conceived the idea for The Vale of Rest during his wedding tour through Scotland in 1855. It may seem strange that the artist would commemorate his honeymoon with this image of conventual celibacy and death. And yet perhaps not so strange: Millais's new wife was the former Effie Ruskin, who just the previous year had annulled her marriage to the prominent art critic and lecturer on the grounds that he refused to consummate it. With its image of the withered wedding bands, the painting hints that the nuns are versions of Millais's vision of Effie Ruskin herself, a woman trapped in a celibate marriage that was no marriage, a state of oppressive sexlessness. Indeed, the last time that Millais had depicted a nun, in 1854, it was a drawing based on a sketch of Effie, then still married to John Ruskin. The sketch was intended for a proposed portrait of Effie to serve as a pendant to one of her husband; the fact that Millais failed to complete the double portrait and instead transformed Effie into a nun uncannily tropes the increasing decay of the marriage itself.3

This earlier image's implication in a visual rhetoric of sexual frustration and transgression goes yet deeper. Millais presented the drawing to Effie through her husband, who suggested to her that it represented his friend's proto-adulterous designs. Effie saw something else in it, however, observing in a letter that the painter had substituted his own face for hers, making of the nun not only the symbol for thwarted sexuality but also a transvestite self-portrait: “The Saint's face looking out on the snow with the mouth opened and dying-looking is exactly like Millais' – which however, fortunately, has not struck John who said the only part of the picture he didn't like was the face which was ugly.”4

Adultery, celibacy, mannishness, cross-dressing, coarse frankness of gaze, the incongruity of the masculine and potentially phallic spade, the “self-immolation” of the convent, the sexless marriage. All of these violations of normative gender and sexual roles – mutually exclusive though they may at points seem – surround the figures of Millais's nuns. As Susan David Bernstein has pointed out about Millais's The Vale of Rest, “This scene, which intimates some kind of illicit conduct, capitalizes on the anti-Catholic trope of not just nuns as prostitutes but even the Church of Rome as ‘the Great Whore,’ rhetoric lifted from Revelations.”5 That the nun might stand simultaneously as a symbol for erotic deficiency and for erotic excess might look like a contradiction, but in turning to the Catholic orders for the very trope of both sexual extremes, Millais's work draws on an increasingly potent association in mid-nineteenth-century England: that between Catholicism and sexual deviances of all kinds.

It is the argument of this book that there is a persistent conjunction of tropes of Catholicism with those of nonnormative sexual expression or identity in the literary, artistic, and polemical culture of nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland and, further, that that conjunction reflects an ongoing contest over Britain's sectarian purity as well as its sexual values. In particular, the Gothic, both architectural and literary, becomes a privileged rhetoric for the nineteenth-century coupling of Catholicism and sexual deviance, as Millais's The Vale of Rest – with its pendant skull, open grave, and carceral convent – suggests. Occasionally the concerns around the intersections of religion and sexuality manifest themselves in approbation, in the argument that the introduction of variant religious and sexual expressions might improve British social and cultural life. Much more frequently in the works under analysis here, the concerns are marked by anxiety, even hysteria, at the dangers that religious and sexual difference pose to British norms. What might happen if these nuns were to escape the convent walls, leave Scotland (or Catholic France, as the Athenæum reviewer suggested the setting might be6), and bring their alien creed and their peculiar erotics to the heart of England itself?

This book is an analysis of how the language and imagery of Gothic comes to be the most significant discursive medium for the production, exploration, and dissemination of an understanding of those deviances – religious and sexual – as inextricably linked. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, Oscar Wilde's invocation of the Gothic appears immediately after his appeal simultaneously to a “new Hedonism” and to a “new spirituality.” Two paragraphs before the one that includes my epigraph, Dorian considers “the worship of the senses”; two paragraphs after this one, he muses on “the Roman Catholic communion” (126, 128).7 The invocation of Gothic art itself mediates between an erotic and a sectarian aestheticism, each of which stands as a kind of anachronism, a resurrection of an older form. In evoking this relationship between religious and sexual deviation, Wilde enters into a tradition that stretches back to the roots of the English Gothic in the eighteenth century. But in producing that relationship as a modern and specifically English set of identifications, Wilde suggests his own implication in history, his participation in the social anxieties and desires of the later Victorian period.8 The Gothic, as I will argue in this book, moves from the Continent to England precisely because the deviances it describes increasingly come to be seen as native rather than foreign threats.

Indeed, the cultural history of religion and sexuality in nineteenth-century England is a cultural history of the Gothic. Wilde himself would, just four years after the publication of the novel version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, seem to be a character in his own Gothic narrative, as his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry (the father of Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas) would suddenly turn into an inquisitorial examination of Wilde's own life and art. The opening speech of Edward Carson, Queensberry's defense lawyer during Wilde's failed suit, repeatedly associates religious blasphemy with sexual impropriety. Taking as his text J. F. Bloxam's short story “The Priest and the Acolyte,” which had appeared in 1894 in The Chameleon, a journal to which Wilde also contributed, Carson declares that “he [Wilde] knows of no distinction between a moral and an immoral book and he cares for none. Nor does he care whether an article in its very terms and in its very essence is blasphemous.” Compared with Wilde's letters to Douglas, “It is exactly the same idea, exactly the same notion, that runs through that story of ‘The Priest and the Acolyte’, of a man using towards a man the language which men sometimes use, and perhaps legitimately use, towards women.” Continuing the conflation of transgressions against religious and sexual norms, Carson notes that when the boy is discovered in the priest's bed, “the priest makes the kind of defence that Mr Wilde made in the box yesterday… ‘oh, the world does not understand the beauty of this love.’”9

Carson's charges can slip so easily between religious and sexual transgression because by the 1890s they function as metaphors for each other, an epistemological slippage that the Gothic itself made possible. Accused simultaneously of sodomy and blasphemy, Wilde ultimately dies an exile in France, the nation where The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe's foundational Gothic novel – opens. Upon leaving England after his imprisonment, he had taken on the name “Sebastian Melmoth” in tribute to Charles Robert Maturin – Wilde's great-uncle – whose Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer had been reissued in England just a few years before.10 Like Maturin's Melmoth, Wilde is an Anglo-Irishman forced to wander far from home; like Radcliffe's heroines (and like Millais's nunlike Effie Ruskin), he is trapped – literally locked up – in the aftermath of his history, both personal and national.

* * * * * *

All three of the fundamental terms of this study – sexual deviance, Catholicism and the Gothic – require some scrutiny. The details of Wilde's case, for example, too easily confirm a tendency to collapse sexual deviance into homosexuality alone. As Alan Sinfield has powerfully argued, the consolidation of various types of deviations from normative sexual and gender roles into a recognizably modern “homosexuality” occurs largely through Wilde's trials; and so, for example, “Up to the time of the Wilde trials – far later than is widely supposed – it is unsafe to interpret effeminacy as defining of, or as a signal of, same-sex passion.”11 That does not mean that effeminacy itself was not recognizable as a challenge to normative gender relations before the last years of the nineteenth century, merely that it is a challenge separate from that of homosexuality. We risk losing the complexity of Victorian thought on sexual difference if we focus exclusively on one type of deviance, even as important a one as same-sex erotic expression. It may be difficult for postmodern readers to recuperate adultery, premarital sex, prostitution, cross-dressing, rape, and even celibacy as deviance, as threatening not only to social standing but also to identity itself. Yet for the nineteenth century, they could very well be. This study will certainly consider the rhetoric of homosexuality in relationship to that of Catholicism, but as only one term in a shifting set of relationships.

I use the term “deviance” (for nonnormative religious or sexual expression) with some hesitation but with the conviction that it is the best available, though it is not a term that seems to have been used in this way during the period. In particular, I want to distinguish it from “sexual dissidence,” a term increasingly prevalent in queer studies since Jonathan Dollimore's influential 1991 study of that name. Dissidence implies a conscious resistance to prevailing ideological norms, similar to the progressive reaction that the Anglican-to-Roman-Catholic convert John Henry Newman himself resisted in the term “Protestant.”12 In the rhetoric of the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic polemicists, the fantasized sexual transgressions of Catholicism are not part of any reasoned or even implicit social program. The terms that these controversialists do use for Catholic sexuality are telling. “Passion” is a frequent descriptor with both its implications of excessive desire and its sly allusion to the spectacle of Christ's death. “Fascination,” with its suggestions of almost irresistible attraction to evil, likewise appears commonly in descriptions of Catholic ritual, vestments, architecture, language, and sexuality.13 Increasingly as the century progresses, the term “perversion” moves, as I will demonstrate, from a notion of religious violation to one of sexual transgression. In some ways it would be the most historically precise term to use, but it is by now so overlaid with Freudian notions that it has become difficult to disentangle it from a psychoanalytic framework that largely arises only at the end of the century and that largely privileges male sexualities.14

There are complications in the term “deviance” for the kind of abjected variation from social and sexual norms that I am intending it to convey. For one thing, it is not part of nineteenth-century discourse. While the verb “deviate” dates at least as far back as the early seventeenth century, the Oxford English Dictionary lists only twentieth-century usages for “deviance,” “deviancy,” and the nouns “deviant” and “deviate.” Further, various versions of this word have entered into the modern lexicon of criminology, a history which is largely beyond the scope of this project (though, as I will argue, real or imagined Catholic infiltration into Protestant domestic space was occasionally described as “a case for the police”). In part, I am choosing “deviance” precisely because – unlike “perversion” – it is not implicated in its own nineteenth-century history of rhetorical revision. But – like “perversion” this time – it does resonate with the persistent nineteenth-century spatial metaphors for understanding religious and sexual difference. When Newman attempts to articulate a “Via media” or when an anti-Catholic polemical tract claims to have uncovered an “Oxford and Roman Railway,” or even when Tractarians or their detractors announce an Oxford “Movement,” the notion of de-viance lurks in potentia. At the root of “deviance” is a notion both of a “right” way (via) and the inevitable possibility of turning from that way into corruption, sin, apostasy, and lust.

For this book, however, it is important to stress that I am not simply claiming that Protestant writers and thinkers described Catholicism and various sorts of nonnormative sexual activities as deviating from right practice; that claim, while true, is largely tautological. Any number of behaviors or theologies might be thought of as deviant, given a particular orthodoxy. And of course, what is deviant varies from sect to sect and writer to writer. Evangelical controversialists often saw clerical celibacy in itself as a kind of perversion, whether or not it masked enacted debauchery; Newman, in contrast, hinted that “the Protestant system, as such, leads to a lax observance of the rule of purity.” It is not the purpose of this book to devise a definitive catalog of what I am calling deviances, but rather to understand how each work constructs its own set of abjected practices and sentiments.

And most importantly, I am arguing here that the particular contours of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Gothic literary tropes and narratives provided a language for a specific cultural epistemology during and after the Oxford Movement; both Protestant and Catholic writers relied on Gothic resonances for powerful rhetorical support for their claims about the mutually constitutive functions of sexual and religious differences and – ultimately – identities. The notion that the Gothic could underwrite polemical claims about the particular relationships between those sexual and religious differences persisted throughout the nineteenth century, well after the Gothic itself as a literary mode was imagined to be extinct; and, further, that insistent invocation of the Gothic for those polemical claims shapes the cultural history, producing an intertwined genealogy of sexualities and religious identities (as well as literary tropes) that continues to influence our cultural understandings.

There is by now a wealth of critical analyses of nineteenth-century genders and sexualities both within and without Freudian or Foucauldian interpretive traditions.15 These analyses are – individually and collectively – absolutely necessary to this present book. What I want to suggest, however, is that the production of nineteenth-century genders and sexualities so persistently both shapes and is shaped by that of religious identities and practices that cultural studies must consider them in relation to each other.16 Indeed, like “perversion” and “passion,” “Catholicism” was itself a contested term in Victorian religious controversy, particularly in the aftermath of the Oxford Movement. Begun in 1833 as a series of meetings of Anglican men concerned with the directions of the national Church, the Oxford Movement was also popularly known as the “Tractarian Movement” (after the affiliated polemical series called Tracts for the Times, edited by Newman). It was, at least in part, an attempt to bring certain rituals (including auricular confession and the veneration of the saints) and theologies (such as the Real Presence of Christ at the Eucharist and apostolic succession, for example) back to the Church of England. Several well-known Oxford Movement figures, including the clergymen John Keble, Edward Bouverie Pusey, and Richard Hurrell Froude (all three, like Newman, fellows at Oriel College), remained within the Anglican Church. Newman's ultimate rejection of his earlier arguments that a High-Church Anglicanism could combine the best aspects of both Protestantism and Catholicism (the “Via media”) and his embrace of the Church of Rome itself, however, was attacked by evangelical Protestants as the inevitable result of too close an association with the seductive powers of papism.17 And indeed, by the end of 1850, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church was reestablished in England for the first time since the Reformation, the Spanish-born Irishman Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman at its head; calling this move the “Papal Aggression,” anti-Catholic Protestants (both Anglican and Dissenting) constructed it as a form of violence, at the intersection of national invasion and rape.18

Within the arena of Protestant controversy of the middle and later nineteenth century, then, there were several possible stances vis-à-vis Catholicism. Among them was that of High Anglicanism, Tractarianism, or ritualism (sometimes disparagingly called Puseyism after one of its most prominent advocates). These terms are not, in historical accounts, identical. In fact, the relationship between the Oxford Tractarians and the ritualists of the latter part of the century remains a subject of historical debate, and there were Tractarians themselves who viewed the later ritualists with suspicion or even hostility. The historian John Wolffe has, on the one hand, claimed that “ritualism, which owed more to the Gothic revival and the development of Eucharistic doctrine than to the direct impact of the Oxford tracts, marked a substantial discontinuity within Anglo-Catholicism and should not be allowed to obscure the moderation of the majority of Tractarians where ritual was concerned.”19 Wolffe suggests that ritualism itself began not in the 1830s but in the 1850s, and he points out that “It was not until the formation of the Church Association in 1864 that there was a major Evangelical society exclusively concerned with the question of ritualism.”20 On the other hand, Nigel Yates has more recently argued against a clear distinction between Tractarianism and ritualism, asserting that, “on balance,” “ritualism was a logical extension of the developments in Anglican High-Church theology known as the Oxford Movement.”21 Yates observes, for example, that while Pusey (a major force among the Tractarians) resisted or only halfheartedly supported several ritualist fashions, he was by no means consistent in that opposition: “by the 1870s even Pusey was prepared to make some concessions towards ritualism to express his support for the doctrinal position of which ritualist innovations were the outward expression.”22

John Shelton Reed has helpfully distinguished between the Oxford Tractarians and the later ritualists in terms of emphasis rather than doctrine or even devotional sympathy. “[A]s its name implies,” Reed argues, “the Oxford Movement was largely an academic affair; more than that, it was largely a clerical movement, and its concerns and its style reflected that fact . . . [A]s long as the movement was confined to Oxford common rooms and the studies of rural vicarages, its principal mode of expression was verbal.” More a supplement to and an enthusiastic enactment of the Oxford doctrines than a distinct movement, ritualism is, for Reed, a set of “distinctive ceremonial and decorative practices” derived from the theological developments of Oxford, “the ceremonial froth it stirred up later.”23 This “froth” came to include such spectacles as neomedieval chapels, incense, candles, crucifixes, and colorful ecclesiastical vestments within the Church of England.

As the nineteenth century progressed, in any case, the larger British literary culture – and, in particular, opponents of Catholicizing influences in England – typically read ritualism as an outgrowth of Tractarianism. When Thomas Hardy, in Jude the Obscure, calls ritualism “Christminster sentiment and teaching,” it is no accident that, within his fictional Wessex, “Christminster” is Oxford. And when the anti-Catholic polemicist Walter Walsh published The Secret History of the Oxford Movement in 1897, it was not general historical interest that inspired him; it was the conviction that the ritualism of the 1890s was intimately and insidiously rooted in the theological debates of the 1830s and 1840s. As Reed notes, “from early in the course of the Oxford Movement, the impulse to restore old churches and to build new ones on old models became identified in the public mind and in fact with Tractarianism.” Further, he continues, “So did the impulse to ornament the ministers of those churches in pre-Reformation style, to restore the worship of the Church to old patterns, to reintroduce old practices like sacramental confession and old institutions like religious orders, to revitalize or (in some cases) to reintroduce old beliefs and doctrines – apostolic succession of bishops, the real presence of Christ in the Euchararist, the invocation of saints, Purgatory. All of this, as both the movement's opponents and its uneasy allies feared, was latent in the movement in its earliest years.”24

The various responses to ritualism demonstrate the difficulty in distinguishing what “Catholicism” itself means in the nineteenth century. In fact, neither “evangelicalism” nor “Catholicism” is, in the nineteenth century, restricted to one official sectarian denomination; on the contrary, as Wolffe has suggested, both terms are most useful as descriptors of tendencies within and across denominations. Regardless of actual sectarian designation, evangelicalism, as Wolffe points out, represents a theological orientation stressing individual salvation through faith, an emphasis on Scripture rather than tradition as the basis of religious orthodoxy, and a resistance to ecclesiastical decoration; Canon Hugh Stowell, for example, the mid-century incumbent of Christ Church in Manchester whose anti-Catholic rhetoric frequently relied on language made familiar by the Gothic, belonged to the evangelical wing of the Church of England even while he strongly critiqued Dissenters. Similarly, Wolffe sees Catholicism, in whatever denomination it may occur, as emphasizing “the divine authority of the visible Church, given greater weight in proportion to the authority of the Bible and ‘private judgement’ than is the case with evangelicals and other Protestants. It follows that clergy and bishops are accorded greater reverence, and that salvation for the individual lies not so much in an internalized personal conversion as in faithful participation in the rites of the Church and in deference to its authority.”25 Increasingly, adherents of the High-Anglican wing of the Church of England adopted the name “Catholic,” though many argued that this English Catholicism was in fact the best safeguard against the encroachments of popery. Others – like Newman – demonstrated the slippage between these terms by converting (or, in the contemporary vernacular, “perverting”) to Roman Catholicism itself. And finally, there is the “Catholicism” of the anti-Catholic evangelical imagination, which frequently made no distinction between these, arguing with alarm that both types of “Catholicism” were more or less identical threats to English civic, religious, and familial life.

For this study I attempt to use the term that most closely reflects the rhetoric of the particular author under analysis. Newman will use “Catholicism” in a different way than will the Anglican Bishop William Wilberforce or the anti-Catholic polemicist Walter Walsh (though it is also true that Newman's own understanding of the term shifts in the course of his life). In general, however, I (like most of the subjects of this study) use “Catholicism” broadly, encompassing both its Roman and Anglican forms. When a distinction is necessary, I will make it by distinguishing between “Roman Catholicism,” “Romanism,” or “papism” on the one hand and “Anglo-Catholicism,” “ritualism,” or “Puseyism” on the other.

Finally, the term “Gothic” itself is notoriously slippery, even in the nineteenth century.26 Although Dorian Gray may seem very plausibly “Gothic” today, its invocation of a “resilient” Gothic was in the 1890s a provocatively recherché claim. In 1892, the year after the publication of Dorian Gray in novel form, the Saturday Review published an admiring account of a new edition of Maturin's 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer:

The fame of Maturin may be said to have suffered not so much through a decay as a forgetting, a result that is due to his association with an extinct school of fiction. English critics have commonly regarded him as the last exponent of Gothic romance, and this, no doubt, he was . . . But Maturin was something more than a Radcliffian terrorist and the last of the Goths, and the sources of his remarkable influence must be sought for in what is individual and peculiar in his genius rather than in what is generic in his school.27

The reviewer points out that Maturin's novel had been much more popular in France than in England throughout the nineteenth century, in part because to the English it represented the last moment of a dead and repudiated genre, the Gothic. To praise Maturin here is to bury his predecessors, since for the Saturday Review, Maturin's power lies precisely

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Patrick R. O'Malley is Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University.

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