I'm about a third of the way through John N. King's Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Early Modern Print Culture (2006), and took special note of this observation:
...Martyrological tales and the letters appended to them bring to life scribal practices through their dramatization of the writing and circulation of manuscripts. They portray a collective process of writing, copying, and circulation of manuscripts as a means by which prisoners in extremis attested to their religious faith and attempted to sustain and comfort their coreligionists. Affording insight into habits of reading and writing within a company of beleaguered coreligionists, they open a window into a world in which manuscripts and the writing materials functioned in a manner akin to that of discredited religious relics. (45-46)
Victorian Protestant religious fiction--and not just historical fiction--frequently preoccupies itself with the same questions: how do religious texts circulate, how are they read, and what do those processes mean? In a sense, these narratives produce a fictionalized history of the book. Or, more precisely, the Book, because most novelists concern themselves with strategies for disseminating and reading the Bible. In historical novels, Bibles circulate in manuscripts, in fragments, in clandestine printed editions; they are concealed in secret compartments, hidden in special pockets, smuggled into jail cells. Communities coalesce, develop, and sometimes disintegrate around the buying, giving, and receiving of Bibles (and sometimes other Protestant devotional texts as well). Here's a random example, plucked from a pile of books near my desk. The novel is L. Pocklington's The Secret Room: A Story of Tudor Times (1884; RTS, ), set during the Marian persecutions:
"Aunt Joan has the Bible writ in Latin; but I never came across those words [Matt. 11.28-30] the few times I looked in it," said Bertram, with a sigh. "I trow you speak of an English version."
"Yea, verily! I know Latin but out of a priest's mouth," said the weaver, smiling. "See, here is my book. And he took a short thick volume from his breast, and laid it open on the table. It was one the children had seen him reading by the light of their stolen candles on one or more of their previous interviews, but he had always thrust it out of sight on their approach. (93)
This exchange may look like it's not saying much, but it's actually heavily loaded. Our speakers are an upper-class boy (his sister is looking on) and a common working-man; the former comes from a Catholic family, the latter is Protestant. The Catholic child has no access to a vernacular Bible and no particular interest in the Vulgate, even though he is educated enough to read it. Moreover, the novel claims, he cannot find "those words" because, in an obvious nod to centuries-old Protestant arguments, the Vulgate mistranslates the Scriptures. In a standard polemical move, then, Pocklington establishes a social and educational hierarchy only to invert it, because it's our weaver (working-class, literate only in the vernacular) who is better-educated: he, after all, not only knows the Bible, but also knows it in a "good" English translation (Tyndale's) and, as we discover very shortly, helps convert Bertram's mother to Protestantism by reading aloud. Indeed, the weaver, unlike Bertram, both regards the Bible as the text (not just a text) and reads it constantly--even though such reading is clearly identified as illicit. Our weaver embodies a new religious energy that animates the lower classes through the force of the vernacular Bible, making the workers into the proper spiritual "instructors" of their superiors (but, not surprisingly, without actually subverting social distinctions; like most novelists, Pocklington has little truck with the more radical Reformation movements). At the same time, the weaver helps shape an illicit, underground community of Protestants through his Bible readings, amongst those who "met in secret to read and expound the blessed Scriptures" (94). The novel is typical in its back-and-forthing between representations of secretive and solitary Bible reading and secretive and communal Bible reading, which work together to distinguish Protestant identity from its Catholic counterpart, grounded in ritual spectacle. Within the novel's overall narrative, with its very presentist reading of the Marian persecution's significance, this fictional history of the vernacular Bible marks both the emergence of a Protestant future and its potential other, the lurking threat of a resumed Catholic persecution (a response, of course, to the growing visibility of Catholicism during the nineteenth century).