Verschoyle: A Roman Catholic Tale of the Nineteenth Century (Hatchard, 1837) is not, despite its subtitle, a pro-Catholic novel. Instead, it participates in the post-Emancipation angst of many early Victorian evangelicals, who saw the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) as a direct strike against both the Reformation and divine providence. The novel certainly suggests the rapidity with which anti-Catholic novelists became fixated on particular character types (the unhappy priest, the religiously-confused heiress) and plotlines (in this case, the threat of property transfer from Protestants to Catholics). But its interest lies in its double critique of nominal Protestantism and fervent Roman Catholicism--a critique echoed later, from a much more conservative High Church position, by William Sewell .
The eponymous Kenelm Verschoyle holds the plot together. Verschoyle is an Irishman and former Church of England clergyman who has converted (or, a Victorian would say, perverted) to Catholicism, emigrated to Italy, and become a Catholic priest. Before we meet Verschoyle, though, we encounter Millicent Aylmer, a well-educated (she's fluent in Latin) but overly emotional young heiress, who has grown up in a very nominally Protestant household; as a result, she "almost wholly rejected its [Christianity's] holy truths" (9). This is despite the repeated visits of the saintly Mr. Vernon, who, as the reader might guess from his name, is Verschoyle's opposite number and, eventually, spiritual rescuer. Millicent winds up in Italy partly thanks to her aunt's decision to have her educated at a convent, a dangerous move frequently condemned in Anglo-American anti-Catholic texts. There, Millicent is fascinated by Roman Catholic aesthetics, impressed by Roman Catholic religiosity, and exposed to the wiles of the wicked Sister Allegra. Despite the warnings of a former friend who has been forced into a novitiate by her Catholic father, Millicent never manages to extricate herself from Sister Allegra. Nor, more importantly, can she free herself from Verschoyle, who effects her conversion to Roman Catholicism--although this conversion results more from unrecognized erotic feeling ("...there was to her, as there has been to others similarly circumstanced, a satisfaction in being of the same religion as one whom, to say the least, she held in very great esteem" ) than authentic religious conviction. Millicent returns home a convinced Catholic; while Vernon hopes that Millicent's guardian, Lady Ashton, will disinherit her in favor of a Protestant, Lady Ashton is too tolerant and does not act on his request. To make matters worse, Millicent marries an extremely militant Catholic, and the two of them set about Catholicizing the previously Protestant parish. Meanwhile, Verschoyle has a massive crisis of faith, and after seeing a letter sent to Millicent by Vernon, he strikes up a correspondence (under an assumed name) with him. Eventually, Verschoyle returns to England, converted to Protestantism but suffering from the effects of a wound dealt to him by (oops) Millicent's husband . Verschoyle has a patented Good Death scene, whereas poor Millicent, who apparently never returns to the Protestant fold, lives out a miserable existence.
The novel's simultaneous critique of contemporary Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism pivots on the term "liberality," which both sides misuse. As used here, "liberality" is less a clearly-defined political ideology or a coherent theological position than it is an ill-defined and intellectually incoherent attitude to religious toleration . Lady Ashton, who believes in any religion in a storm, contributes money for a new Catholic chapel, and remarks to Mr. Vernon that she "would have at most expected from your liberality that you would have done the same" (15); by contrast, Vernon argues that "[t]he liberality of the present day is seeking to overturn everything..." (17). Echoing Vernon, albeit from the opposite direction, Verschoyle sighs that "[t]he liberality of the present day has extended itself even into the bosom of our church, and there are not those wanting who will affirm that Protestants too may be saved; but they know little of the truths of our holy religion; they are heretics, and as such will suffer" (105). Nominal Protestants like Lady Ashton identify liberality with an extreme tolerationist position, which holds that all visible differences are fundamentally adiaphora (things indifferent). Catholics, by contrast, identify liberality with any claim that salvation is possible outside the Church. In Verschoyle, the former position destroys religious faith and attacks the foundations of the Reformation itself, while the latter position overstates the importance of the visible church. By contrast, Vernon warns that while "there have been" and "there are" true Christians in the Catholic fold (19), it is no "real charity" (16) to refrain from proclaiming scriptural truths. There can be no offense, in other words, in speaking against Roman Catholicism, precisely because the content of that speech derives from the Bible and not from personal opinion; the Protestant evangelist merely serves as a local vessel for the divine Word.
Protestant liberality, in the bad sense, creates the cultural conditions within which a reinvigorated Catholicism can thrive. As one minor character cheerfully observes of England, "[o]n a late visit, I lately saw not a few Catholic works read there, and even a Catholic historian greatly prized, and his authority quoted in opposition to Protestant writers" (161). (The historian in question is most likely John Lingard.) Catholic texts disrupt the fabric of Protestant discourse--even, in this instance, usurping Protestant intellectual and theological positions. Worse still, from the novel's point of view, Catholics openly and literally repopulate the countryside. At one point, Vernon sadly contemplates the chapel mentioned earlier, which "added greatly to the beauty of the landscape" (189); the narrator follows this acknowledgment of the chapel's aesthetic quality by warning the reader against "the broad inlet making for this flood of ignorance, in whose depths Britain was once so greatly sunk" (190). Riding on the "flood" of Protestant liberality, Catholics reconquer the country in part by appealing to secularized norms of beauty. Later, Millicent and Fitzgerald undertake a number of religious building projects, including schools, and import priests of varying degrees of unpleasantness. The implication is clear: Catholic landed gentry actively work against the Protestant interest, undermining England's religious and political stability.
As I said, most of the novel's stock figures themes and stock figures are not original. Evil nuns and nasty Jesuits were a well-established staple by this point. Similarly, the Catholic priest who dies after converting to Protestantism appears to have been pioneered by Grace Kennedy in Father Clement (1823); Frances Trollope used this topos again in Father Eustace (1847). Like many anti-Catholic texts, the novel serves as a Protestant religious manual, offering Biblical prooftexts (and some Catholic documents) in support of various evangelical doctrinal positions. (Vernon's epistles cover the Biblical canon, Bible reading, church authority, papal authority, the Council of Trent, saints, images, masses for the dead, and, above all, free grace.) Still, there are some occasional twists on old ideas, usually through parallelism. While Verschoyle is reconverted in part through exposure to a Protestant Bible, Millicent is initially attracted to Catholicism by an exquisitely-decorated antique, an Italian Bible from 1471. Significantly, "on its broad margins notes by an abbe had been added, more distinguished for the exquisite beauty of the penmanship than for the luminous expositions of the sacred volume" (52). Aside from the questionable nature of the text, from a Protestant point of view (it's a Vulgate Bible, in Niccolò Malermi's translation), the Bible itself has literally been overwritten by scholarship, guaranteed to appeal to the intellectual Millicent's interests. Moreover, the "exquisite beauty of the penmanship," which echoes the book's complicated and expensive binding, potentially distracts the reader from the text's true worth. Thus, while Millicent theoretically exposes herself to "religion," she is actually contemplating something that comes much closer to a secular object of high art. The novel also innovates on the evangelical "good death" scene: Verschoyle converts after a dying Catholic parishioner urges him to discover true faith, but both he and the parishioner miss the point. The dying man has discovered the need for a "change of heart" after hearing "the Bible read in our own dear Irish" (94)--the operative term being "the Bible." This old man's peace, in other words, derives from the Bible, not the Catholic Church, but both he and Verschoyle mistakenly reverse that formulation. Verschoyle's own death scene, then, with its explicit Biblical allusions, exemplifies proper deathbed testimony.
 In Hawkstone. For a recent account of Sewell's anti-tolerationist (and anti-Evangelical) position, see Elizabeth Griffin, Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 69-78.
 The progress of their apparently lightning-fast courtship would be a little clearer if the person scanning the text had not skipped those couple of pages! (Ah, the joys of GoogleBooks.) I'm going to have to get my hands on the missing pages at some point...
 Michael Wheeler discusses some rather more advanced debates about liberalism in The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in Nineteenth-Century English Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), 245-72.