One of the things I'm enjoying about The Antichrist's Lewd Hat is the authors' ability to delineate both loose, overarching communities of belief (Catholics, Puritans, anti-Puritans...) and the hot-blooded sniping that often went on within those communities (Jesuit vs. anti-Jesuit Catholics, various brands of Puritan...). Lake and Questier want us to remember, in other words, that patterns of broad-flung agreement coexisted with patterns of internecine warfare--"different styles of divinity, differently constructed and prioritised ideological syntheses constructed from much the same ideological materials, contending for the moral highground and the political initiative in a more or less unified rhetorical and ideological field" (313). In other words, a binary opposition like "Protestant vs. Catholic" may sound adequate at first, but fails to address the multiple theological, political, and social divisions within what seem like close-knit groups. (To bring this into the Victorian period, think of John Henry Newman's post-conversion difficulties with his new co-religionists.) As Ophelia Benson likes to ask: what do we mean when we say "community"?
I'd like to bring this sense of historical energy to my next book project, which I'm ever so slowly but surely trying to refine to a manageable length. One can, of course, talk about "Christian" Victorian fiction (historical or otherwise), but that's a remarkably useless adjective--not least because many Victorian Protestants, whether Anglican or Dissenting, did not think that Roman Catholics were Christians.* In Britain, most nineteenth-century religious/didactic fiction is Protestant, occasional Catholic and Jewish cases aside. But, then, what kind of Protestant? Anglican or Dissenter? If Anglican, High, Broad, or Low? If High, the self-identified Protestant variety or the post-Tractarian, Anglo-Catholic variety (pretty tart about denying the "Protestant" label)? If Dissenting, Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist, Presbyterian...?
The Dissenters pose some interesting problems for my project, because they aren't well-represented at all in the nineteenth-century British religious fiction market. Certainly, there were some Dissenting novelists roaming about the Victorian literary landscape, whether high or low culture (even the occasional Unitarian, like Elizabeth Gaskell), but most didactic novelists belonged to the Established Churches. Nevertheless, the Dissenters were responsible for quite a bit of popular ecclesiastical history and biography, and their theological politics created all sorts of potential historical haywire for their Anglican readers (of whatever stripe). Robert Vaughan, for example, turned Wycliffe into a proto-Congregationalist--which is not shocking, given that Vaughan was himself a Congregationalist. But Vaughan's enthusiasm hints at the potential landmines awaiting Anglicans who wanted to appropriate Wycliffe for their own ecclesiastical projects. As a general rule, the higher the churchmanship, the lower the opinion of Wycliffe. And if, like John Lingard, you're Catholic, then your opinion of Wycliffe is so low as to be buried six feet under. Speaking of Lingard, his own history's popularity meant that he was influential in circles where some thought he ought not to be influential; check out Agnes Strickland's biography of Queen Mary I for an example of Lingard at work.
I've joked before about my tendency to write great galumphing things--articles that run on for thirty-five pages and have eighty footnotes. What I'm trying to do is reconstruct how nineteenth-century religious historical fiction contributed to a very lively popular conversation--make that an extremely heated popular conversation--about the religious, national, and social histories that shaped Victorian culture. Like op-ed writers today, nineteenth-century novelists regularly bemoaned their readers' lack of historical and theological awareness. (Has there ever been a time when anybody has known anything about their history? One begins to wonder.) Hence the justification for writing novels, especially among those who felt that novels, as a general class, were morally suspect. Many of these novelists were trying to hit the historical and doctrinal high notes: this, in other words, is what an evangelical ought to think about St. Augustine of Canterbury, or justification by faith alone, or whatever. But how did writers from one denominational tradition handle significant historical works from outside that tradition? What to do, for example, with someone who seemed as "rationalist" as Henry Hart Milman? This issue runs alongside a question I've mentioned here before: the role played by imported religious texts (mostly from America, but also from the Continent), which came accompanied by their own national concerns and rhetorics.
*--Of course, there's a substantial set of twenty-first century Protestants who don't class Roman Catholics with the Christians, either. This really shouldn't have been such a shock...