As my (occasional) readers know, I like to joke that "I read these things so you don't have to." Still, the by-now infamous "Top 40 Bad Books" at American Book Review did make me think about whether or not what I'm reading is genuinely bad, and by what criteria.
In the case of nineteenth-century religious fiction and poetry, there's an inconvenient brick wall right in the middle of any discussion about quality, because most of these works weren't written to be aesthetically pleasing--they were written to convey a particular didactic message. Granted, not every author was quite so self-incriminatingly honest as the Rev. James Page, who informed his readers (victims?) that "he is more ambitious of being considered a good Protestant, than a good Poet" (vii). Religious literature happily borrowed conventions from every genre under the sun, ranging from the Gothic to the romance to the historical novel (my purview as of late), but it did so in order to inculcate "correct" modes of thinking about everything from St. Augustine's mission to Britain in the sixth century AD to Catholic emancipation in the nineteenth. Frequently, of course, with the intent of converting the reader. This was "wholesome" reading, designed to convey information in relatively engaging fashion, introduce would-be proselytizers to the best soundbites, and model proper ways of understanding/narrating an apparently messy world. If you were to ask one of these authors how they wanted to be judged, you would likely get back a response along the lines of "did I change my readers' minds," or "did I confirm them in their beliefs," or "did I provide them with useful information," or even "did I proselytize successfully." It's not that these works weren't expected to be entertaining, because they were--providing carefully moralized enjoyment was part of the package. But the entertainment was not the end of the exercise, but a means to higher things.
Judging these novels according to their own rules is actually rather difficult. Arguments from the "dustbin of history"--that is, the work only makes sense when animated in its historical context--don't quite apply here, because a number of these novels continue to have audiences. What about making judgments from social effects? Grace Kennedy's Father Clement was a big seller throughout the nineteenth century, but insofar as it's an anti-Catholic novel that apparently converted several people to Catholicism (we have a number of autobiographical testimonials to that fact), was it successful? (A great illustration of how even the most didactic novel escapes the author's intentions, to be sure.) We know a fair amount about how proselytizers used some of these texts in their work, but not so much about real-world outcomes. Book reviews, which are helpful, reveal that nineteenth-century reviewers had exactly the same problem I'm having in this post, especially if the reviewer was outside the target demographic. Controversial fiction was itself, well, controversial. On the one hand, many of them conceded that controversial novels were structured in such a fashion as to conceal difficulties, instead of helping the reader work through them. As one review originally published in the Edinburgh Review noted, "In a fictitious dispute upon such a controversy as that between the Catholic and Reformed Churches, a decisive victory is at best a suspicious event. But a rapid, easy, unresisted victory, is too much for the credulity of the most careless reader. Surely, he will reflect, there must be some plausible arguments for a creed which satisfied Newton and Locke. Surely there must be some excuse for doubts which did not shock Hooker or Tillotson. These eminent men may have been mistaken; but they must have had something to say in their defence." (The reviewer was not exaggerating--in most of these novels, the person in need of converting either collapses immediately or throws a massive temper tantrum. Nobody on the "wrong" side can support their own positions.) On the other hand, many critics insisted, reasonably enough, that novels of whatever stripe were still novels. In the words of one exasperated reviewer of Florence; Or, the Aspirant, "[i]t may contain an accurate exposition of Catholic Theology; but, as a novel, it has no merit, and it is exclusively as a novel that it appears before the public. Indeed, we can hardly conceive a more ridiculous story than the one here unfolded." (Always glad to find someone from the nineteenth century agreeing with me.)
Considered from a purely mechanical point of view, most of the novels I work with probably qualify as mediocre/competent instead of truly bad. That doesn't stop them from being of considerable literary-historical interest, although it probably discourages most readers from picking them up. They have plots; they're written in perfectly readable "plain" style; they deploy whatever genre conventions they're using in service of a clear didactic message. More ambitious novelists play around with structure (the multiple narrators of Elizabeth Rundle Charles' diary novels), try to fiddle a little more actively with tropes (Laetitia Selwyn Oliver's revision of the Gothic), or engage in more detail with questions of historical authority (Emily Sarah Holt's attempts to do actual history in fiction). But a general, secular reader with no interest in religious history would probably not enjoy nineteenth-century controversial novels, aside from a few rare exceptions--Mrs. Humphry Ward's Helbeck of Bannisdale, for example (several notches higher on the literary scale than anything I've mentioned so far), or John Henry Newman's Loss and Gain. If you are interested in religion, though, even a lousy novel can come alive. The much-maligned Florence, for example, is one of the very first Catholic attempts to write a controversial novel; in fact, it runs into problems precisely because it's one of the first. Now, that's interesting.
Nevertheless, I suspect that I'm still going to be reading these things so that you don't have to.