Synopses & Reviews
John Cornwell evokes a vanished time and way of life in this moving and, at times, troubling memoir of an adolescence spent in the isolated all-male world of the seminary.
Born into a destitute family with a dominating Irish-Catholic mother and an absconding father during World War II in London, John Cornwell's childhood was deeply dysfunctional. When he was thirteen years old he was sent to Cotton College, a remote seminary for boys in the West Midlands countryside. For the next five years Cornwell lived under an austere monastic regime as he wrestled with his emotional and spiritual demons. In the hothouse atmosphere of the seminary he strove to find stable, loving friendships among his fellows and fatherly support from the priests, one of whom proved to be a sexual predator.
The wild countryside around the seminary, the moving power of church ritual and music, and a charismatic priest enabled him to persevere. But while normal teenagers were being swept up by the rock 'n' roll era, Cornwell and his fellow seminarians continued to be emotionally and socially repressed. Secret romantic attachments between seminarians were not uncommon; on visits home they were overwhelmed by the powerful attractions of the emerging youth culture of the 1950s. But when they returned to Cotton College, the boys were once again governed by the age-old traditions and disciplines of seminary life. And like many young seminarians, Cornwell struggled with a natural adolescent rebelliousness, which in one crucial instance provoked a crisis that would eventually lead to his decision to abandon his dream of becoming a priest.
Written with tremendous warmth and humor, Seminary Boy is a truly unforgettable memoir and a penetrating glimpse into the hidden world of seminary life.
"Cornwell's well-crafted memoir is filled with vivid descriptions of people and places and a young boy's struggle to find himself." Library Journal
"Cornwell, who says he based his memoir on 'unaided personal recollections' (no diaries,etc.), remembers with remarkable clarity the daily events and conversations of a half-century ago. Capably written, but cynical readers may raise an occasional eyebrow." Kirkus Reviews
Author John Cornwell recalls how, as a 13-year-old Catholic boy, he was sent to the seminary of Cotton Cottage, on the outskirts of the English city of Birmingham, in a chronicle that is a remarkable, though by turns disturbing and poignant, account of his years at Cotton Cottage.
About the Author
Cornwell is an award-winning journalist and senior research fellow at Cambridge University.
Reading Group Guide
Transporting readers to a vanished and in many ways troubling world, Seminary Boy
is a provocative memoir that stirs questions about faith, family, and the dramatic cultural transitions unfolding after World War II. The author of a dozen previous books, including the explosive bestseller Hitler’s Pope
, John Cornwell now turns his perceptive eye to his own history: an adolescence spent in an isolated Catholic seminary.
Cornwell was just thirteen years old when he left his destitute family and became a student at Cotton College, a remote “minor seminary” in England’s West Midlands countryside. He would study there for the next five years, steeped in a community that was decidedly foreign to his working-class roots. Seminary Boy brings to life the intricacies of this all-male institution, where Cornwell wrestled with deep emotional and spiritual demons and attempted to train for a life of celibacy. Each trip home for holidays only heightened his awareness of his family’s dysfunction, and the volatile dance between Cornwell’s domineering Irish-Catholic mother and disabled father. Returning to the seminary, he would seek fatherly support from the unpredictable priests, one of whom proved to be a sexual predator. Secret romantic attachments between seminarians were not uncommon, but open rebelliousness was dealt with swiftly. Against a bedrock of ancient, powerful rituals and haunting religious music, Cornwell attempted to find not only solace and strength but also his true self–a quest that eventually led him to abandon his dream of becoming a priest.
With candor, humor, and eloquence, Cornwell has created endlessly fascinating memoir. We hope that the following topics and questions will enhance your reading group’s discussion of Seminary Boy.
1. John Cornwell begins with an epigraph from seventeenth-century poet Richard Crashaw, who describes a picture of St. Thérèse of Avila in “The Flaming Heart.” How does this quotation play out in the memoir? Does it match your understanding of suffering?
2. How would you characterize Cornwell’s memories of his father? Who were his more loving father figures? Who were the most damaging ones?
3. The early chapters of Seminary Boy describe the many ways in which Hitler’s bombings devastated the lives of ordinary British civilians. How did these events affect the psyche of Cornwell’s family members? What tone is set by this time period?
4. Discuss the unique structure of the book. What was the effect of reading Cornwell’s narrative in a series of more than one hundred precise scenes? What changes are reflected in the division of four parts?
5. What does Seminary Boy indicate about the formation of faith? What is your opinion of religious indoctrination, both in general and as it was experienced by Cornwell? How were your own beliefs about spirituality formed?
6. In chapter eight, Cornwell recalls the day a rocket struck an Anglican church, killing most of the congregation. He was told that this was God’s way of punishing Protestants. In subsequent chapters, he writes of the numerous Catholics who were brutally executed for their allegiance to the Pope. In what way does Britain’s religious history shape this memoir? How did this history shape Cornwell’s identity?
7. In chapter thirteen, Cornwell describes being molested in London, an experience that understandably marked a transformation in him. What did role did religion play in his life in the months after this incident? How did he perceive himself after the assault?
8. Discuss the pivotal women Cornwell describes. How does his attitude toward his mother change throughout the memoir? What is the source of her controlling power? What does he learn from Nurse Philomena, who rejects him in chapter seventy-seven?
9. How did economics and class influence Cornwell’s sense of self? What did it mean for him to lose his cockney speech style, or to take note of his mother’s malapropisms? How did it affect him to arrive at Cotton without the luxuries so easily afforded by the other students? After reading of his near-fatal illness, how did you reconcile his mother’s eagerness to commit him to a summer of heavy physical labor and the seminary’s determination that he needed an extended period of rest?
10. How did you react to the sexual repression described throughout Seminary Boy? How was Cornwell taught to define sexual immorality? How do you define it? Did this memoir change your understanding of recent scandals regarding pedophile priests?
11. In chapter forty-five, Cornwell is intrigued to witness clergy in disagreement with each other. Discuss the range of approaches presented by the various priests in Cornwell’s memoir, from his neighborhood’s Father Cooney to the boisterous Father Armishaw and the austere Father Doran. Who were his ultimate role models for living a devout life?
12. What accounts for the way Cornwell abandons the priesthood, as described in the book’s postscript? Why was he unable to walk away from seminary life sooner? While many of his peers went on to become lifelong priests, Cornwell eventually not only questioned but exposed corrupt religious authorities through his writing. What accounts for these two distinctly different paths?
13. In his postscript, Cornwell also describes reading Paradise Lost and The Origin of Species at Christ’s College, Cambridge: “The underlying tension between these two versions of reality, I realized, had been forcing me into a kind of intellectual schizophrenia.” How would you address chasms between perceptions of the supernatural and the scientific?
14. Contemporary memoirs encompass a broad range of experiences, but they often feature the resolution of trauma. In what way do the revelations in Seminary Boy underscore the healing themes in other memoirs you have read? In what way is Seminary Boy unlike any memoir you have read?
15. Cornwell describes the dilapidated state of the seminary when he visited it years later. What cultural losses are represented in the demise of schools like his minor seminary? What has been gained and lost in the post-Vatican II world? What would have become of Cornwell without Cotton College?