Elizabeth Hardy's The Confessor: A Jesuit Tale of the Times, Founded on Fact (1854) was one of the initial offerings in the "Run and Read" library, a series of cheap didactic books intended to entertain ("entertain") railway passengers. (However, unlike the GoogleBooks scan, the original was presumably not missing five pages near the end.) Its title is a positive cornucopia of controversial code words: there's "confessor," which warns us that we're about to run into that great evangelical bogey, the confessional; "Jesuit," which indicates that conspiracy theories are about to be afoot; "tale of the times," which lets us know that the author is diagnosing some contemporary social malady; and, of course, "founded on fact," which usually means that nothing of the sort is involved. As is often the case with anti-Catholic fiction, the novel argues that Roman Catholicism maintains its power by destroying both the family and normative gender roles. In the introduction, the Rev. C. B. Tayler warns us that "[u]nhappily for our once favored country, the arts and wiles of the Jesuits are spreading throughout all ranks of society; and, from time to time, some case like that of Miss Talbot, or Margaret Griffith, or Miss Knight, or that of the two young ladies who were lately removed from Preston, finds its way into the public newspapers, and proves to us what is secretly going on all the while, wherever the Jesuits are at work" (v), thereby turning The Confessor into a timely intervention against the effects of Catholic toleration. Young women are especially at risk, Tayler warns, because Jesuits (perhaps somewhat loosely defined) want to lure them into convents; the wrong men seek control over innocent women, in part by denying them their rightful, divinely-ordained roles as wives and mothers. Although Tayler makes the usual claims about this novel's basis in Hardy's real-life experience (iv), its actual source is Michelet's Priests, Women, and Families, which Hardy repurposes in a rather remarkable melange of plot devices, including kidnapping, theft, and wrongful commitment to an insane asylum. All of these sensational events occur in the framework of two popular controversial plots: the interfaith marriage plot and the alienated property plot. But the oddest thing about this novel is that it's a controversial novel about the dangers of engaging in religious controversy.
The 1850s were a hot spot in the annals of Victorian anti-Catholic agitation, thanks to widespread angst (helped along by Lord John Russell) about the so-called papal aggression. Hardy, however, sets her novel's "now" in 1829, a particularly loaded choice of date: not the year of the papal aggression, but the year of Catholic Emancipation. For those classed in the "ultra-Protestant" category, it is no exaggeration to say that 1829 was the year in which the British government capitulated to Antichrist. Like many other Protestant controversialists, Hardy believed that if Catholics returned to power, "it is by no means certain that conscientious Romanists would not rekindle the fires of Smithfield, because persecution unto death is an unrepealed mandate of their church,—an ' act of faith,' of imperative obligation; and, what is more, would evince, according to their creed, the height of Christian duty" (xiii). The events of this tale, then, are supposed to exemplify the most likely outcomes of tolerationist policies. Needless to say, the outcomes are extreme.
The Confessor has a first-person male narrator, a Scotsman named Major Melville, who represents the novel's ideal of strong Protestant masculinity. In addition, there are two inset narratives, one by the Englishwoman Mary Trevillion (with whom the Major is in love) and the other by Clotilde de Montmorency, later Lady Trevillion, the French and Catholic wife of Mary's brother Charles. Mary's romance with Melville has been in abeyance while she searches for the mysteriously vanished Clotilde, and her inset narrative explains the sad cirumstances. Although Clotilde and Charles had "talked over the interesting subject of religion, and entered into a mutual agreement that each should be to the other conscience free, that it should never interfere with their domestic peace" (24), it soon transpires that Charles cannot reconcile himself to the confessional, especially given the vulgar nature of the novel's first Confessor, Mr. Mac Cardwell. For Charles, the relation of confessor and penitent seems inescapably erotic: "[...] his eyes, when he would have fixed them on his wife, were attracted to the deep recess—the half-drawn curtain—the deep arm chair. He pictured Mac Cardwell its occupant, and Clotilde upon her knees; and he thought that his senses must forsake him" (41). If this image of illicit privacy and female submission were not enough, Charles complains that in a space where "the husband is excluded," the wife may be revealing her "very imaginings" (42) to the priest. Later, an enraged Charles describes his wife's attempted secret rendezvous with Mac Cardwell as an "assignation" (81). As Jenny Franchot puts it, "[t]he inquiries of the confessor signaled the sacrilegious invasion into the unspeakable region of sex"; in a sense, the confessor is actually a mock-sanctified consumer of pornography.1 Matters are not improved when Charles finds that Mac Cardwell has conspired to steal a valuable casket from the corpse of a woman dead in a shipwreck; anxious to stop Mac Cardwell's escape, Charles struggles with him. As a result, a few chapters later, Clotilde is ordered to "separate" from her Protestant husband, and she vows to enter a convent if she survives her second pregnancy (121). Here, the hierarchy explicitly interferes in the marriage bed, consigning husband and wife to an unnatural and improper celibacy.
Both Protestants and Catholics were interested in the interfaith marriage plot, which played an important symbolic function in both the national tale and the historical novel. Strictly speaking, only Protestant authors (and liberal ones, at that) showed any signs of finding it a useful narrative resolution to international or religious conflict; Catholics, by contrast, consistently deconstructed the interfaith marriage plot as a Protestant power-grab. (They had reason: in nineteenth-century English law, custodial disputes between Protestants and Catholics skewed strongly in the Protestant parent's or family's favor.) More conservative Protestants like Hardy, however, had no truck with it either, and once we get beyond the confessor's interference, her account of the marriage's collapse--complete with kidnapped children and Clotilde's temporary insanity--actually hews fairly closely to Catholic tropes. (In a Catholic novel, however, the Protestant father would have been doing the kidnapping.) Once we have finished with Mary's long inset narrative about the marriage's failure and Clotilde's disappearance, the second half of the novel tracks Major Melville's heroic and picaresque attempts to find her and the two missing children. Along the way, he discovers that Clotilde's second confessor, Father Austin, is actually her cousin Augustine, who successfully maneuvers her into signing away her rights to some French property she has inherited (for the Church, of course). Major Melville's Protestant chivalry stands in stark contrast to Mac Cardwell's and Austin's effeminate plotting, as well as to the unwillingness of his sometime (and stereotypically chatty) Irish assistant, Bourke, to resist being excommunicated. When Bourke immediately knuckles under to a priest's threatening letter, an enraged Melville complains that his excuse is "most absurd and unmanly" (221). No man, the novel makes clear, can be Catholic--not just because of the hierarchy's interference with sexuality, but also because, to borrow from Oliver Buckton's account of the Kingsley-Newman controversy, the "openness, honesty, and straightforwardness" purportedly intrinsic to Protestant masculinity were impossible under the confessional's regime.2
Thus, it is hardly surprising that when the novel successfully resolves itself, Clotilde converts to Protestantism. However, this conversion does not occur through controversial disputation, and here is where the novel takes issue with mainstream evangelical controversial fiction. Every explicit attempt to make Catholic characters back down on points of theology simply fails. (Bourke is willing to engage in some convenient close reading of his orders, but he still abandons Melville.) There is a long and relatively technical debate between Mac Cardwell and the Protestant Doctor Bentley, but the only result is that Mac Cardwell forbids "all Scriptural allusions and conversation in the hearing of Clotilde" (60)--which, while a standard "loser's" gambit in the controversial novel, does not signal the confessor's impending conversion. Much more dangerously, Charles and Mary actually try to convert the far more suave Father Austin:
Hurried on by our desire to "snatch a brand from the burning," we hunted all the libraries for the most approved theological works; attended every church where the preacher was likely to make our subject his; took notes of anything that suited our purpose, and returned home, thus stored and thus instructed, with renewed vigor to the charge. We forgot, all the while, that books as yet unread by us, and arguments to us so novel, had formed the chief study of our opponent—if opponent he might be called. We overlooked the fact, that, while our spiritual education had been chiefly derived from Bible truth, his had comprised the whole range of controversial defence; and we were unmindful, that while we sought to gain the end by a straightforward path, our antagonist was enticing us into a labyrinth, which might entrap us to our ruin. (102)
In fact, their attempt to convert him inadvertently precipitates the crisis with Clotilde. This denunciation of naive Protestant assaults on highly-educated Catholics (let alone Catholic priests) directly attacks Grace Kennedy's Father Clement, in which young Protestant laymen and -women successfully proselytize the titular priest. Granted, the novel argues, the Trevillions' "spiritual education" is far superior, from the point of view of practical Christianity; nevertheless, it is sheer arrogance for them to claim that they can say anything that a cultured Jesuit would not already know. Even Dr. Bentley refuses to help them, warning that "his conversion is not dependent on us; that it is neither your's, nor mine, nor any mortal interference, that can effect such an end" (104). True conversion, Hardy insists, is a work of God, not of everyday men and women playing rhetorical games with Minotaurs in labyrinths. In that sense, Hardy winds up denouncing her own genre for cultivating the deadly sin of pride.
1 Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California P, 1994), 125.
2 Oliver S. Buckton, Secret Selves: Confession and Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Autobiography (Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1998), 25.