Let's take a brief vacation from our usual diet of anti-Roman Catholic fiction, and turn to a slightly more esoteric arena: anti-Anglo-Catholic fiction. Elizabeth Jane Whately's Maude; Or, the Anglican Sister of Mercy (first ed., 1869) has been of note to specialists in the history of the Anglo-Catholic movement, thanks to its harsh attack on Priscilla Lydia Sellon, and some of the novel's incidents derive from anti-Sellon propaganda.1 Moreover, Whately herself had an important pedigree: she was the daughter of Richard Whately, the Archbishop of Dublin. GoogleBooks only has the 1878 second edition available, which appeared after the anti-Ritualist Public Worship Regulation Act (1874)--and, for that matter, after Sellon's death in 1876.
Whately poses as Maude's "editor," although the narrative's structure undermines the editorial fiction. This is a semi-epistolary novel, with Mother Angelica (the Sellon clone) and Sister Ursula dominating the letters; Maude, meanwhile, inhabits the novel's third-person limited POV. Learning to read the letters turns out to be an integral part of the novel's moral: Maude resists, acquiesces to, and resists the letter's psychological demands, but the narrator constantly juxtaposes Maude's readerly journey to that of her own, staunchly Protestant position. Maude eventually converts, but the narrator has already arrived. After the first extended epistolary exchange, which incorporates Mother Angelica's and Sister's Ursula's letters but suppresses Maude's replies, the narrator explains that
[t]he letters of the Superior and Sister Ursula are given verbatim here and throughout the narrative. It is worth remarking that the strength and plausibility of these letters lie in their being so nearly true. All that is said of single-hearted devotedness to God and close following of Christ, is in itself right; the fallacy which Maude very naturally overlooked consists in ignoring that this devotedness to God can only be acceptable to Him when it leads us to follow His leading, not our own ; to do ' what our hand findeth to do,' not what our will chooseth. He has given us our home ties and duties ; and to set these aside for work planned and devised by ourselves is not in reality following Him, but following ourselves. (17)
In a sense, the narrator exposes the reader to Mother Angelica's and Sister Ursula's rhetorical seductions, their appeals to a life of "the heart satisfied" (14) in devotion to Christ, and then applies the interpretive remedy. Maude "naturally" misreads these letters, for in invoking her higher instincts, they actually appeal to her lowest. By exposing the "fallacy" of these letters, though, the narrator both declares her own immunity to their appeal (she perceives their almost-veracity) and immunizes the reader to what follows. We are invited to watch Maude fall and rise, but not to duplicate her spiritual journey. This second edition underlines that point by having Maude chime in at the end, recommending that the "editor" render certain points more explicit (161); unlike Maude, the reader should have no chance to stumble along the route to salvation.
Although Angelica and Ursula cast the struggle in terms of God vs. world, the real struggle turns out to be between duty to mother and duty to the Mother Superior; by abandoning "home ties and duties," Maude effectively declares that she can choose her own mother. Even the act of reading and writing letters turns out to be a form of rebellion. Visiting her mother in France, Maude receives a letter from Angelica "in an envelope addressed to one of her Roman Catholic friends, whose direction in Paris she had given to the Superior, as Lady Deerswood objected to her corresponding with any of the Sisterhood at Westonbury" (29). Although Maude eventually manages to resist Roman Catholicism's appeal, this Roman Catholic relay service suggests just how interchangeable the two systems might be, while it simultaneously indicates the extent to which Maude is rebelling against her mother's strictly Protestant rule. In leaving her mother's staunch Protestantism, Maude quite literally leaves her mother Church, opting for the false (and, it becomes clear, ineffective) "mothering" of the Mother Superior--the woman who encourages her to "mak[e] her mother feel that all comfort in the society of her child was gone, and that it was happiest for both that she should part from a daughter who now lived at home as a stranger" (31). Angelica effects this transformation by cannily manipulating Luke 14:26, a manipulation to which the novel returns several times (beginning, in fact, right after the passage quoted above). Maude's willingness to accept Angelica's interpretation of this verse again signals her inability to read properly--this time, because she fails to realize that Angelica's prooftext doesn't hold up when restored to its original context. Angelica, far from being angelic, models bad reading and bad writing.
It's not surprising, then, that Maude's required reading consists of Roman Catholic devotional literature, like the Jesuit Alonso Rodriguez's Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection (1609). Indeed, in an observation intended to chill Protestants to the bone, the narrator observes that "[t]here was but little time in the busy religious observances of the day for searching the Scriptures, indeed none; for though every one in the community had her Bible, the only time for reading was taken up in studying any particular book given by the Superior, and the rule of each sister provided for her entire day" (72). By stripping the Sisters of independent Bible reading, the Sisterhood reveals its true Roman Catholic colors: sola scriptura collapses under the dead weight of church authority. "The interpretation of Scripture belonged to the Church," says the narrator, "and the sisters were never to question what their spiritual guides taught" (72). During her two years as a Sister of Mercy, Maude abandons her Protestant right to "search the Scriptures" for herself; for the narrator, giving up this right amounts to giving up interpretation altogether, enrolling herself instead in "spiritual slavery" (85). By contrast, when Maude finally undergoes her conversion experience, she does so in part by remembering "[p]assage after passage of the Word of God" (94). Angelica's dominion slowly crumbles once Maude contrasts Catholic devotional literature to the Word itself, not least because, in a revealing moment, Maude realizes that Angelica yearns to be the Word: "My child, when you hear me speak, you should think it is the voice of Jesus Christ" (128). In this moment of megalomania, the Mother Superior aspires not just to be the Savior, but to be the source of an entirely new Scripture...
Fittingly, Maude's final break with the community comes in a spurt of letters. First, her mother "command[s]" (127) Maude's return, and Maude accedes to her birth mother's control, going so far as to refuse to "re-write" (127) her reply to suit the Mother Superior's own demands. Once at home, Maude finds that the clash between her domestic obligations and the Mother Superior's own epistolary commands leads only to a sad confusion, one not eased by the letters she herself "continued to write" (133). Maude's distress turns out to be the necessary result of her growing resistance to Angelica's texts; in refusing to "re-write" herself according to Angelica's desires, Maude unconsciously throws in her lot with the Bible, and opts for private judgment instead of church authority. Still, Maude tries to stand firmly on both stools at once, only to trap herself in "real untruth" (135). Her final spiritual triumph--which is actually a crushing moment of humiliation, once she realizes the extent of her bad behavior--comes when "Mother Angelica's own letters" reveal to her "the falseness of the Westonbury system" (136). Maude escapes from Angelica's language only once she receives the textual key that decodes its true meaning--a letter from Angelica to Lady Deerswood, which blatantly lies about the Sisterhood's theological leanings. After reading this letter, Maude becomes aware of Angelica's rhetoric as persuasive rhetoric, and no longer finds it convincing. Moreover, she learns to read the Bible through the Epistles, which her tutor, the Archbishop of Canterbury (!), describes as the "keys" to the rest of the text (153). Unlike Angelica's self-contradictory and ultimately self-revelatory epistles, which are "keys" only to a whited sepulchre, the Biblical epistles reveal that the Bible provides its own authoritative guide to interpretation. By the end of the novel, Maude has become a good Protestant reader, alert to the structures of deception that mark Anglo-Catholic piety, and we are invited to join her in listening to the right "Voice" (161).
1 For an overview of some of the controversies surrounding Sellon, see Rene Kollar; Anne Hartman, "Confession as Cultural Form: The Plymouth Inquiry," Victorian Studies 47.4 (2005): 539-42.