One of the counter-intuitive things about religious controversial literature (the conversion novel included) is that, all appearances to the contrary, the target audience is rarely the opposing side. Grace Kennedy's Father Clement may be a "library in itself on the errors of Romanism," as a self-important evangelical insists in George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life, but while some ex-Catholics claimed that it converted them to Protestantism, most of its readers were already committed Protestants. Whether Catholic or Protestant, these novels are convenient handbooks, using comforting fictional formats to model the right way of answering challenges to one's faith, and to dramatize the proper strategies for evangelizing others. (The modern nonfiction equivalent would be something like this.) But what about novelists who really do want to target their religious opposite numbers?
Mrs. [Matilda Bedingfield] Stanley Cary's The Out-Quarters of St. Andrew's Priory; A Tale of the Penal Times (1864) is one of several Catholic historical novels set during the enforcement of the Penal Laws. (Most novels cluster around the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but there are some tracing the effects of the statutes up to the late eighteenth century.) The Out-Quarters traces the conflicted relationship between the Marsdale and Trevillers families, who are new neighbors in Cornwall. Mr. Marsdale is a good, sedate Protestant, with an unfortunate penchant for indulging the violent whims of his spoiled younger son, Humphrey; he has a bad habit of not listening to his virtuous elder son, Gerald. Last but not least, he has a lovely daughter, Alice, who soon manages to strike up a close acquaintance with Urcella, the only daughter of the Catholic Sir Algernon Trevillers. This is somewhat awkward all around, as Humphrey is forwarding his father's lawsuit against Sir Algernon over a piece of disputed property; to make matters worse, Humphrey turns out to be pals with Sir Algernon's ultra-dissolute nephew, Geoffrey. Sir Algernon, however, has bigger preoccupations than his property: his brother Francis, a Jesuit, has returned on the English mission, and will be executed if caught. Francis (appropriately saintly) rescues Alice from a fall off a cliff (!), but his identity is never revealed to the Marsdales--something that comes back to haunt them, for Humphrey, backed up by Geoffrey, persuades Mr. Marsdale to have Sir Algernon and the Rev. Fr. Francis arrested. They're arrested, convicted, then rescued at the nick of time by none other than Gerald (in superhero mode). By the end of the novel, Sir Algernon and company are happily settled abroad, Geoffrey and Mr. Marsdale are both dead, Alice is married to the remarkably non-evangelical local Protestant minister, and Gerald has finally married Urcella...and converted to Catholicism.
This last point is dispatched in the novel's final sentence: "Thus, in perfect security, did Gerald Marsdale see traced out before him a happy future, one that was soon rendered brighter still, by finding himself in a position to carry out certain well-matured religious convictions, whereby he was enabled to pour out his daily thanksgivings to the Most High at the same altar as his beloved wife" (208). The phrasing is remarkable in its lack of overt proselytizing intent: Gerald enters into a mixed marriage, which, thanks to its apparent blissfulness, provides the context in which already-extant "convictions" can be put into play. Moreover, the primary benefit of this conversion appears to be total marital harmony, enacted "daily" in Catholic worship. In fact, while the novel repeatedly mourns the secular effects of the Reformation--the dissolution of St. Andrew's Priory "spread destruction from one end of the parish to the other" (18)--it stays far away from any real critique of either Protestantism or Protestants. Unlike more assertively Catholic novels, The Out-Quarters makes no attempt to link specific moral failings to Protestant belief. Mr. Marsdale's genteel anti-Catholicism is a product of "circumscribed education" (206), but he's otherwise a "kind-hearted, good man" (206) who suffers no untoward deathbed agonies. If anything, most of the novel's Protestants are inclined to let Catholics be: the rector is soon persuaded that Jesuits have been maligned, and many of the townspeople would prefer not to see one executed. Instead, the novel diagnoses anti-Catholicism as either an overly harsh application of the law, untempered by mercy (the persecuting Justice Sandford) or just a cover for the exercise of greed and vengeance (Humphrey and Geoffrey). The average Protestant, the novel insists, believes that Catholics should be allowed to enjoy their religion in peace.
The Out-Quarters balances this appeal to Protestant good nature with a healthy dose of self-censorship. Unlike Fanny Taylor or Georgiana Fullerton, for example, Mrs. Cary does not work explanations of Catholic faith into the plot, let alone the rituals of Catholic worship. The Mass is described in the vaguest of terms. There are no mentions of saints or the Virgin Mary, let alone confession and transubstantiation. When the Rev. Fr. Francis attends to the dying Geoffrey while both are imprisoned, the result, on the surface, is identical to an evangelical deathbed scene, with Geoffrey's final "confession" not explicitly framed as such. The primary reason for remaining loyal to the Catholic Church, as far as the reader can tell, appears to be a matter of history instead of faith. Gerald's conversion at the end is startling (although not unexpected) because neither Protestantism nor Catholicism appears to have any content. What "convictions" could he possibly have?
Apropos of Grace Aguilar's The Vale of Cedars, a Jewish historical novel that maintains a similar silence about religious specificity, Michael Galchinsky has argued that "in a mainstream literary medium, the reformer attempts to call for Jews to perform their peculiar cultural practices behind a veil of secrecy."1 Cary does not call for the reconversion of England, even though her novel endorses Catholic attempts to identify themselves with Englishness and English national history. Instead, she accedes to the post-Reformation status quo, asking for toleration only on the basis of what beliefs Catholics share with the Protestant majority. Religious differences should be tolerated because, after all, they aren't truly "differences" in the first place. Tellingly, although Gerald and Urcella finally manage to live happily on the Trevilliers' lost estate, St. Andrew's Priory still cannot be resuscitated--for historical reasons, obviously, but also for symbolic ones. The new Catholicism resides entirely within the household, at the altar shared by husband and wife.
1 Michael Galchinsky, The Origin of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 166.