As it happens, a number of novels were available up to just a few years ago, but have since vanished from the face of the earth--or, at least, from the face of Books in Print. However, acquiring them should not be excessively difficult.
James Anthony Froude, Nemesis of Faith (Harry Ransom HRC, 1991). The narrator slowly but surely loses his faith, with unfortunate results for all concerned. There's a brief biographical sketch of Froude available from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain, ed. Alan G. Hill (Oxford, 1986). The nineteenth century's most famous conversion novel. The best online source of information about Newman is The Newman Reader, but see also the Victorian Web.
Mrs. Humphry Ward, Robert Elsmere, ed. Rosemary Ashton (Oxford, 1987). One of the great bestsellers of the late Victorian period, despite being a lengthy thesis novel. Clergyman with the same problem as Froude's narrator, but he manages to develop his own philosophy out of it. On Mrs. Ward, see The Mary Ward (Mrs. Humphry Ward) Website.
---, Helbeck of Bannisdale, ed. Brian Worthington (Penguin, 1983). Young woman raised without faith falls in love with a devout Catholic. The outcome is not good. (This was actually turned into a radio drama in the 1980s.)
Mrs. (Josephine) Wilfrid Ward, One Poor Scruple, ed. Bernard Bergonzi (Tabb House, 1985).The dangers of interfaith marriage (among other things) from a late-Victorian Catholic perspective; has some similarities to Helbeck of Bannisdale, although Josephine Ward's preface denies any connection.
Charlotte Yonge, The Heir of Redclyffe, ed. Barbara Dennis (Oxford, 1997). High Church bestseller, featuring secret love, skepticism, illness, and death. See The Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship for more information about Yonge.
It's also worth keeping a look out for the books published in Robert Lee Wolff's "Novels of Faith and Doubt" series, although these get very pricey.
Imagine a young specialist in nineteenth-century fiction as she stands in front of her partly-empty bookshelves, considering her next purchases. She has all the usual suspects--Eliot, the Bronte sisters, Hardy, Gaskell, Dickens, Collins, Thackeray, etc. But she wants to branch out to lesser-known works. Should she go for the Gothic? Condition of England fiction? Early detective novels? Dystopias and utopias?
Well, as this imaginary specialist is currently appearing on my blog, you know what she's going to do: she's going to invest in nineteenth-century religious fiction.
This post and the ones following it are aimed at those who believe they should know more about religious fiction, but who don't necessarily want to spend the entirety of their lives researching it.
The list excludes unedited POD reprints (a number of which are printed straight from GoogleBooks, complete with all the flaws). It also excludes abridged/rewritten modern versions.
Post #1 is, I fear, the shortest.
Grace Aguilar, Selected Writings, ed. Michael Galchinsky (Broadview, 2003). One of nineteenth-century Britain's most famous Jews, and its most famous Jewish novelist until Israel Zangwill. Includes her controversial tract The Perez Family, short fiction, and excerpts from her nonfiction prose. Useful Aguilar links include Michael Dugdale's site and Galchinsky's entry at the Jewish Women's Archive.
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, ed. James Cochrane (Penguin, 1966). Famous attack (published posthumously) on evangelicalism also takes on Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics, and various other Christian denominations and groupings. See David Clifford's biographical sketch at the Victorian Web.
Benjamin Disraeli, Lothair (Nonsuch, 2007). Protestant? Catholic? Young Lothair must decide. Meanwhile, he fights for Garibaldi. Along with George Eliot's Romola, one of the British novels inspired by the Risorgimento. Garibaldi and the Risorgimento provides useful context.
Maria Edgeworth, Harrington, ed. Susan Manly (Broadview, 2004). Edgeworth's anti-anti-Semitic novel, written after the American Jewish educator Rachel Mordecai Lazarus complained about The Absentee. For Edgeworth, see Manly's entry at the Chawton House Library; for Lazarus, see Emily Bingham's entry at the Jewish Women's Archive.
Amy Levy, Reuben Sachs, ed. Susan David Bernstein (Broadview, 2006). Extremely controversial novel--then and now--that satirizes both the late-Victorian Jewish middle class and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. See Linda Hunt Beckman's biographical sketch at the Jewish Women's Archive.
George MacDonald, Lilith (Eerdmans, 1981). Late-Victorian Christian fantasy. The Golden Key is devoted to MacDonald's work.
Hannah More, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, ed. Patricia Demers (Broadview, 2007). Enormously-popular nineteenth-century novel, in which the title character hunts all over England for the perfect, virtuous bride. For background on More, see the Victorian Web.
David Malouf, Ransom: A Novel (Pantheon, 2010). Achilles, Priam, and Hector's body. (Amazon [secondhand])
John Burnside, The Glister (Talese, 2009). Creepy killings in a dying town. (Amazon [secondhand])
Christian Opinion and Revisionist I (1882). What appears to be the full run of this weekly periodical, devoted to church news and, more importantly, commentary on the Revised Version (1881). This bound volume--well, it used to be a bound volume--originally belonged to Ezra Abbot. (eBay)
The Churchman's Monthly Penny Magazine, and Guide to Christian Truth X-XI (1856-57). Two volumes bound in one ("bound" is a courteous way of putting it...) of this Protestant monthly. I also own volume XIII. (eBay)
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 Reviewdid 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 Reviewnoted, "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.
An example (from the USA) of the problems for reviewers posed by the Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell pseudonyms, courtesy of Edwin Percy Whipple (brief bio here):
[...] The truth is, that the whole firm of Bell &
Co. seem to have a sense of the depravity of human nature peculiarly
their own. It is the yahoo, not the demon, that they select for
representation; their Pandemonium is of mud rather than fire.
This is especially the case with Acton Bell, the
author of Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and, if we
mistake not, of certain offensive but powerful portions of Jane Eyre.
Acton, when left altogether to his own imaginations, seems to take a
morose satisfaction in developing a full and complete science of human
brutality. In Wuthering Heights he has succeeded in reaching the summit
of this laudable ambition. He appears to think that spiritual wickedness
is a combination of animal ferocities, and has accordingly made a
compendium of the most striking qualities of tiger, wolf, cur, and
wild-cat, in the hope of framing out of such elements a suitable
brute-demon to serve as the hero of his novel. Compared with Heathcote,
Squeers is considerate and Quilp humane. He is a deformed monster, whom
the Mephistopheles of Goethe would disdain to acknowledge, whom the
Satan of Milton would consider as an object of simple disgust, and to
whom Dante would hesitate in awarding the honor of a place among those
whom he has consigned to the burning pitch. This epitome of brutality,
disavowed by man and devil, Mr. Acton Bell attempts
in two whole volumes to delineate, and certainly he is to be
congratulated on his success. (396)
"Heathcote"? Oh, dear. In any event, it's interesting to see Whipple ascribe the role of dominant author to Anne Bronte, whom he believes must be a man. As you can see, Whipple also believes that Jane Eyre has been co-authored. A good example of how Victorians reacted to Heathcliff, though. Modern readers will probably sympathize with Whipple's assessment of Bulwer-Lytton: "the most superficial writer that ever acquired the reputation of a great novelist" (404).
It may be inappropriate to begin a review of yet another novel about Charlotte Bronte by borrowing a turn of phrase from George Eliot--but why always Jane Eyre? Sheila Kohler's Becoming Jane Eyre, part of the most recent batch of Bronte biofics, inadvertently provokes this question when it dwells at such length on Bronte's time in Brussels, which--along with her teacher, Constantin Heger--inspired Villette. And yet, the novel details the crafting of Bronte's initial success, Jane Eyre, and not what her nineteenth-century readers thought her most brilliant work. Jane, as the title hints, is Bronte's secret double, not the chillier, appropriately-named Lucy Snowe, just as Jane's romance plot supposedly acts out Bronte's secret fantasies in a way that Lucy's broken, ambivalent end does not. In fact, Becoming Jane Eyre's rather abrupt ending suggests that Bronte's marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls averted the impending Villette-ness of her life plot (although only insofar as Bronte could not, in the end, write her own conclusion). While the novel is hardly as aggressive about chasing romance conventions as either The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte or Jane Eyre's Daughter, it certainly glories in Jane Eyre's idealized vision of married life: although Bronte's marriage will be "all too brief," nevertheless she and her husband "will truly become of one flesh and one bone, as she has described in her masterpiece" (231). The imagined passion does, after all, come true, even if only for the most fleeting moment.
Becoming Jane Eyre tells its story in kaleidoscopic form, rotating between multiple points of view--the sisters, a nurse, publisher George Smith, Mrs. Smith, Tabby, Patrick Bronte. Patrick Bronte bookends the novel, roused by "the scratching of a pencil against a page" (3) at the beginning and, bereft, imagining that "he hears the sound of a pencil scratching" at the end (232). Although not the Gothic monster of Bronte biographical legend, Patrick nevertheless represents much of what Charlotte struggles against: the favoritism with which he treats Branwell and his oldest daughter, the domineering nature that traps them all in the house, his sexual brutality, his spiritual sterility. (Screams his dying wife, "Help me! Your words are not helping me" .) Sophia Lear comments that Kohler's men are all "unreliable, shallow creatures," but Arthur Bell Nicholls, who stands "howling at the gate" and "wrote her so many desperate letters, just like those she wrote to her teacher and her publisher" (230), manages to win Charlotte's heart by practically being Charlotte; the ideal man turns out to be the woman's emotional twin. There's a certain narcissism here that the novel doesn't question too closely, heightened by the total absence of Nicholls' own POV: not only does he double Charlotte, he winds up absorbed back into her consciousness.
Much of what the novel has to say about Jane Eyre has already been said. As is so often the case, Bronte's fiction turns out to be not just reimagined autobiography--and the novel's title already subordinates the "real" CB to her creation--but also direct transcription. Thus, Mrs. Reed's injunction that Jane acquire "a more sociable and child-like disposition" turns out to derive from Charlotte's employer, who complains that she really needs "a more sociable and cheerful disposition" (92). Kohler occasionally stops to tell us where CB is in the progress of her story, explicating whatever autobiographical connections Jane Eyre makes along the way; everything has some real-world correspondence, or serves as imaginative payback, or fulfills some wish. At times, the connections are inaccurate: for example, "[l]ike her Jane before her abortive wedding, Charlotte buys a flurry of new clothes" , except that the whole point of JE's shopping scene is that Rochester buys the clothes...and, Jane realizes, treats his future wife like an object. For some reason, Charlotte's religious faith is handled rather awkwardly, both acknowledged and forgotten for long stretches. (Kohler's handling of Charlotte's anti-Catholicism, on full blast in Villette but certainly obvious in Jane Eyre, is rather strange: she mentions it a couple of times, but also twice imagines Jane praying--first spontaneously, then again with greater intent--in front of "the image of the Virgin"  in the Heger's Pensionnat. Unless there's some extant documentation for this, the real Jane would probably be appalled.) The various Bronte personalities will be equally familiar to most readers, and even the hints that Charlotte was not altogether pleasant to be around have been dropped more trenchantly elsewhere, as in Mardi McConnochie's Bronte-esque Coldwater.
In the end, the problem with Becoming Jane Eyre is the same one that afflicts most biofictions: "mere" authorship is not enough; the author must have the psychological equivalent of his or her characters' passionate experiences. All novels are autobiographies, even if in redacted or inverted form. Who wants to admit that Anthony Trollope might have been right about authorship being a businesslike undertaking? We're interested in the Brontes because they wrote, but the act of writing is not interesting--especially on realist terms.
I sometimes tell students who study the Victorian novel with me that, from a certain nineteenth-century POV, I'm corrupting their minds. (Novels are bad for you, inspire dangerous cravings for "excitement," make it impossible to read boring works of theology, etc.) For some reason, the students usually appear unconcerned about this momentous statement. However, it's also clear that I may have delivered a deadly blow to my students' morals by asking them to read both Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and her poetry:
On exactly the same grounds, would we bid our readers avoid works of
distempered excitement; even when such are of the highest excellence in
their class, as those of Ellis Bell and
Edgar Poe, we would deliberately sentence them to oblivion: their
general effect is to produce a mental state alien to the calm energy and
quiet homely feelings of real life, to make the soul the slave of
stimulants, and these of the fiercest kind, and, whatever morbid
irritability may for the time be fostered, to shrivel and dry up those
sympathies which are the most tender, delicate, and precious. Works like
those of Edgar Poe and this 'Wuthering Heights' must be plainly
declared to blunt, to brutalise, and to enervate the mind. Of the
poetry, also, of Ellis Bell, it must be
said that it is not healthful; that its beauty is allied to that wild
loveliness which may gleam on the hectic cheek, or move while it
startles, as we listen to maniac ravings.
ETA: The author is the Scottish moralist and critic Peter Bayne.