It's time for another installment of Victorian didactic fiction. Today, as a change from the usual diet of Protestant fiction, we have a Catholic novel: The Biblicals; Or, Glenmoyle Castle. A Tale of Modern Times (Keating & Brown, 1831). Although the publisher is based in London, the novel is written and set in Ireland, two years before Catholic Emancipation; while not, strictly speaking, a "historical novel," the anonymous author reminds the reader in the preface and occasional footnotes that the book's setting is very historically specific. From a literary-historical (or, indeed, even a historical-historical) POV, the novel's interest derives from two things: first, its critique of the so-called "Second Reformation" in Ireland; second, its indirect response to Grace Kennedy's influential Father Clement*, as announced in the preface. (Father Clement generated at least two other rejoinders, Father Oswald and Charles Constantine Pise's Father Rowland.) Moreover, for those of us who spend our days reading such novels, The Biblicals underlines the common pool of narrative and argumentative strategies shared by nineteenth-century controversial writers.
The Biblicals has a plot--or, at least, purports to have a plot. The central characters are Charles O'Neale, an earnest young evangelical, and the Maurices O'Bryan (father and son), who are stalwart Catholics. O'Neale is in love with O'Bryan's daughter, Emma, and yearns to convert her and her family. He is also under the sway of rakish Colonel Sanderson, whose claims to "biblicism" seem to be of the superficial variety; Mrs. Sanderson, however, evinces considerably more enthusiasm. The Sandersons and their officer friends spend a lot of time hunting the Whiteboys, who never actually materialize (the novel represents them as mainly a figment of the Protestant imagination), and generally stirring up trouble among the Irish peasantry. While all this is going on, a popular evangelical, Macklyn, comes to town in order to proselytize. To the reader's no very great surprise, Macklyn is a hypocrite; among other things, he connives with one of Sanderson's friends, Lord George, to do something very unpleasant (abduction and probably rape) to a naive convert, Kitty. In the course of events, Sanderson kills Maurice O'Bryan (the father) in a duel, O'Neale realizes that Protestants are pretty much entirely insane and converts to Catholicism, and Macklyn is semi-redeemed after an ill-treated Catholic peasant shows true charity by saving him from imminent drowning. This anonymous Catholic anti-Protestant novelist shows about as much skill as the average Protestant anti-Catholic novelist, as the storytelling can politely be described as "clumsy": there's at least one completely extraneous chapter; Emma starts off well and then rapidly becomes a non-entity; psychological verisimilitude is nowhere to be found (in particular, Kitty shows no sign of angst even after she realizes that Lord George won't marry her, and Maurice O'Bryan's death [forgotten after about a chapter or so] sets up a cataclysm that never happens). There's some heavyhanded sexual humor as well, including a missionary whose naked "fundament" suffers the indignity of a tattoo and a young lady who falls into Macklyn's lap (much to his obvious pleasure).
The real meat of the book, as one might expect, appears in the controversial dialogues, which track O'Neale's eventual conversion to Catholicism. When it comes to the novel's structure, the author here shows a little more subtlety than elsewhere. The first two dialogues feature O'Neale in controversy with Emma (over the right of private judgment) and a young servant, Shemus (over justification by faith alone). In both cases, Emma and Shemus are clearly in the right--Emma by force of logic, Shemus by force of literal interpretation--but neither bothers O'Neale unduly. Both Emma and Shemus argue by pointing out internal contradictions in O'Neale's position, but they fail to draw on either Catholic tradition or scriptural evidence. By contrast, Maurice O'Bryan (both of them) attacks O'Neale by drawing on the Protestant arsenal. He quotes St. Peter to argue against private judgment (42). Later, in a clever trick, O'Bryan double-teams with an Anglican priest to show that there is no basis in either Scripture or tradition for justification by faith alone (120-25), and then quotes heavily from the Bible to demonstrate that prayers for intercession by Mary or the saints is not idolatrous, with a flourish from John Gother for additional support (126-36). Finally, O'Bryan does in O'Neale's final scruple, about transubstantiation, with an extended discussion of hermeneutics (when is a figure a figure?), yet more Scripture, and a hefty dose of liturgical history (255-72). The dialogues themselves adhere to the same guidelines as those in Protestant novels--the prooftexting, the appropriation of authorities from the opponent's own "side," the opponent always reduced to silence--with the goal reversed. But the author's decision to have O'Bryan quoting from the Bible is significant, given the frequent evangelical charge that Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible; here, the Catholic out-prooftexts the Protestant. Moreover, the author also distinguishes between Emma's and Shemus' unsophisticated strategies, which at best provide adequate self-defense, and Maurice's theologically sophisticated approach, which results in a conversion. Since the writer warns that only "very ignorant catholics" (197) fell prey to evangelical effforts, he or she clearly wants to emphasize the importance of Catholic religious education. As in evangelical fiction, the novelist uses Maurice to itemize the best authorities for keeping the opposing side at bay, or perhaps even winning them to the right side. Whether or not a Protestant reader would find Maurice convincing, of course, is another story.
Not surprisingly, the novelist inverts anti-Catholic stereotypes. All evangelicals (even, at times, O'Neale) are fundamentally hypocritical--obsessed with sex (the missionaries urgently request more wives), with cash (according to Macklyn, evangelicalism is actually a ruse to distract the peasants from the more pressing issue of tithing to ministers of the Established Church), and with various other things of the flesh (like drinking). Only the weak-minded convert to Protestantism, just as Protestants claim that only the weak-minded convert to (or remain in) Catholicism. Even O'Neale's epiphany that Protestantism is just a "monstrous, ever-changing chaos of sectarian contradiction" (249) echoes Protestant claims that Catholicism is just one vast rubbish-heap of irreconcilable arguments. The novel's critique of Protestant foreign missions, as well as its representation of the desperately over-scheduled Mrs. O'Neale, anticipates Charles Dickens' Mrs. Jellyby.
In terms of artistic or satirical achievement, probably the best thing about the novel is a long set-piece, recounted in free indirect discourse, in which Macklyn holds forth. I'll quote the entire thing:
Macklyn now ascended the rostrum. All ears and eyes were distent [sic] with expectation. He noticed the interesting and affecting detail which Owzel had made, and the pathetic narration of the Hebrew.—In such hands, he said, the cause must speed apace—and then proceeded in a voice of thunder. He was come, he said, to level to the earth the mound of corruption, the hoary accumulation of centuries, which obscured and disfigured the fair edifice of the Word. The reverend gentleman who preceded him, had borne testimony to the spread of the gospel in distant climes, in Afric’s sandy shores and barren wilderness. But HE would bring before the notice of the meeting a subject more interesting—because it was domestic; the diffusion of knowledge at home. –It was in aid of that mighty work he now stood on that platform. He was come to raze to its very foundations the strong-hold of the Philistine, and to pluck up the roots of the dreary, withering Upas-tree of ignorance, whose poisonous exhalations had blighted the fair flower of the faith in its bud. He was come, he said, to enlighten the spiritual darkness which prevailed, with the bright light of truth; to clear away the rubbish he had to encounter with the sword of the spirit, to shed the clear luster of the gospel sun on this benighted clime, which night cimmerian [sic] shrouded in one vast o’erwhelming fog of spiritual death! The harvest was ripe for the sickle. Already did the Lord of the vineyard summon his labourers to work the good work—to fight the good fight, against the BEAST—THE SCARLET WHORE—THE MAN OF SIN. The viper in the tail of the beast was ever ready to put forth his sting when unopposed; and he called upon the friends of salvation to come forward,--not sparingly, nor grudgingly, for the gifts of a cheerful giver were most acceptable; and it was indispensably necessary to equip the members of some bible society, in whose advocacy he was engaged, with scrip, sword and staves. Popery had received a shake. Give it but another shake, and the prodigious structure of imposture and wickedness which had tyrannised for ages over human reason, would crumble into atoms. The second shake would be materially assisted by the subscription which he advocated; and after the accomplishment of this desirable object, the eloquent enthusiast doubted not that peace would spread her balmy wings aloft and the bright era of truth recommence and the light of the gospel be diffused and the sun of holiness arise and the vineyard flowers wave their fragrant breath around the borders of our isle and the utmost aspirations of the Saints be realised and the cause of the word advance with rapid strides to the utter demolition of the idolatrous altars of anti-christ and the perfect security of the spiritual seed and carnal matter of the elect! (109-111)
Admittedly, that mindblowing run-on sentence at the end overeggs the pudding. But the novelist does hit all the right high points. There are the hallmarks of tub-thumping oratory, such as repetition, accumulatio, and thundering parallel clauses. The allusions to Antichrist, as well as to "ignorance" and light, come straight out of anti-Catholic discourses. So does the speaker's invocation of "reason" and his conviction that Catholicism is on the verge of collapse. Even if the run-on is somewhat excessive, the breathless concatenation of cliches, linked by that coordinating conjunction "and," highlights the Arnoldian machinery involved. Of course, the writer sneaks in that little allusion to cash--the "subscription"--which undermines Macklyn's supposed unworldliness. The "perfect security of the spiritual seed and carnal matter of the elect" is, apparently, financial in nature.
*--Father Clement's subtitle, A Roman Catholic Story, frequently tricks people into thinking the novel is pro-Catholic. Au contraire.