There's no better way to mark the end of a long holiday weekend than by reading some religious historical fiction, courtesy of the Victorians.* And, as this is Thanksgiving weekend, I thought it might be a good idea to go the transatlantic route. Caroline Snowden Whitmarsh Guild's The Sisters of Soleure (1857; rpt. in UK the same year) is set in late-sixteenth century Switzerland. Although it is a Reformation tale, the novel stages nearly all of the period's major events either offstage or in retrospect. Instead, Sisters uses the Reformation as a pretext for anatomizing mid-nineteenth century American sectarianism, although the novel's critique would probably have resonated with its British readers as well.
Guild's title is deliberately ambiguous, as there are two sets of sisters: first, Marie and Emmeline, who are orphaned during an especially brutal anti-Protestant raid; second, Marie's daughters, Marie and Beatrice. Both Maries remain staunch Protestants, but the elder marries a Catholic, the soldier Count Julien, who nevertheless allows her free rein in the education and religious training of their children. Although this interfaith marriage is, we are told, a sin (39), the elder Marie felt that it was the only way to save herself from the persecutions of the evil Alfric, a "stern and bigoted Romanist" (36); unable to have his way with Marie, Alfric seduces and betrays Emmeline, who bears him a son and flees to a convent. He then murders Marie's and Emmeline's father during the aforementioned anti-Protestant raid. Alfric--who, as you may have gathered by now, is Not a Nice Man--arranges for infanticide, but the woman he hires instead takes the boy to Alfric's sister, Sybilla. And Sybilla, unbeknownst to Alfric, raises him as her own son. (Everyone with me so far?) At the beginning of the novel, the elder Marie dies, and Count Julien sends both Marie and Beatrice off to the excitement of court life in Turin. While there, they run into Alfric, who (it figures) is now a Cardinal. Alfric sets his sights on converting the weaker Beatrice to Catholicism; to that end, he calls on Francisco, a Handsome Young Jesuit. Francisco inadvertently reenacts Alfric's relationship with Emmeline by romancing Beatrice, ultimately tricking her into conversion by promising her marriage. He succeeds, but when the trick is revealed, she becomes badly ill and he, in anguish, commits suicide. Somewhat inconveniently for all concerned, Francisco turns out to be (as I'm sure you've already guessed) Alfric's supposedly dead son, now really quite dead. Thanks to a stroke of Providence, both Beatrice and Sybilla wind up in Emmeline's convent, where they eventually experience an authentically Protestant spiritual rebirth. Alfric dies (unpleasantly), Sybilla dies (saved) during an attack on the convent, Marie (still Protestant) marries a converted priest, and Beatrice (reborn) spends the rest of her life unmarried and atoning for her sins.
During all these goings-on, the novel advances two positions simultaneously: on the one hand, a thoroughgoing attack on Roman Catholicism as a persecuting religion; on the other, a thoroughgoing attack on anti-Catholicism. Guild's position on the former is hardly unique; she warns the reader that "[o]ne great difference there is, which should ever be strongly marked, between Rome and all other classes of religionists : Rome persecutes in obedience to the dogmas of her faith; all other sects persecute in direct disobedience to the Book which they profess to take for their guide" (90-91). For Guild, the impulse to persecute results from the Fall, but only Roman Catholicism effectively enshrines man's worst impulses in "dogma." Thus, at first blush, the novel seems to equate Catholic and Protestant sectarianism by criticizing Protestant intolerance and bluntly warning against the evils of much evangelical anti-Catholic rhetoric: "Loving, truthful words may do good; but bitter, angry words must do harm" (89). But Alfric is the extreme signifier of Roman Catholicism's violent signified, whereas the novel's various misguided Protestants merely signify postlapsarian man's natural depravity. For example, while Sisters denies the righteousness of Protestant military action, using Zwingli as an example (dramatized at much greater length in Annie Lucas' The City and the Castle ), such action deviates from Protestantism; it does not define it. Protestants may persecute, but the novel holds that there is no essentially Protestant persecution.
Moreover, in the figures of Alfric, Francisco, and a couple of incompetent priests, Sisters deploys all the tropes of anti-Catholic propaganda and denies that such rhetoric can be used against the Catholic laity. In effect, the novel endorses anti-clericalism, as opposed to a generic anti-Catholicism. This makes sense if you remember the proposition that the Roman Catholic Church sacralizes persecution. In the novel's logic, Cardinals, priests, and the like represent those dogmas in action; it is possible to be a Catholic layperson and a Christian, but not a "good" Catholic priest and a Christian. To become a priest, let alone a bishop or cardinal, requires that the self be overwritten by anti-Scriptural dogma. Priests and nuns may become Christians, but only by abandoning the Church's teachings, whether through conversion or just quiet rebellion.
But the novel further insists, along with J. A. Froude and Thomas Carlyle, that anti-Catholicism is pointless because Roman Catholicism is, in fact, disappearing. In this triumphalist historical narrative, Catholicism melts away beneath the bright light of Protestant truth; Catholic violence partly embodies the Church's unwilling recognition of its impending doom. Sisters puts this position squarely on the table after the attack on Emmeline's convent--itself a direct allusion not to Reformation persecutions, but to the burning of the Ursuline Convent at Charlestown, MA in 1834. (As a small child, Guild experienced the riot firsthand.) Unlike the evil Alfric and his minions, the men who attack Emmeline's convent are uneducated, superstitious simpletons, "loose characters" (248) easily reined in once their pastor arrives on the scene; far from exemplifying evangelical virtues, these men use their faith as an excuse for "the indulgence of lawless and predatory habits" (248). Violent anti-Catholic persecution thus becomes the province of social deviants of all sorts, rather than the logical corollary of Protestant belief. If these men had been proper believers, according to the Pastor, they would have understood that the convent "was just dying a natural death," thanks to Protestantism's growing strength in the region (260). Protestants, in other words, can afford to be tolerant of the convents in their midst, precisely because such apparently dangerous spaces have already toppled over into anachronism.
*--OK, OK, your mileage may vary. But I've got a book chapter to write and a conference paper to deliver in April.