One of the points I've made here before is that controversial fiction is almost never intended to convert Catholics to Protestants, Jews to Christians, Protestants to Catholics, or anything else of the sort; instead, it's usually written to shore up beliefs already held by adults, or to reinforce the communication of those beliefs to their children. (Which is not to say that controversial fiction was never used "in the field," as it were.) A case in point is the anonymous Montmorency: A Roman Catholic Tale (1846-48), serialized in The Protestant Magazine before being released in single-volume form by Seeleys. (The amount of time involved is misleading: it's a very short novel, serialized in equally short chunks.) The Protestant Magazine was published by the staunchly anti-Catholic (and still extant) Protestant Association, originally under the editorship of the Irish evangelical Charlotte Elizabeth [Phelan Tonna]. The magazine usually avoided novel-length fiction, sticking instead to allegories or sketches, although it did have a penchant for somewhat unfortunate poetry (bottoming out with a thirteen-line sonnet by someone who was not John Hollander).
The first installment of Montmorency comes sandwiched between an urgent call to the Irish to throw off the priests (culminating in an example of the aforementioned unfortunate poetry) and a letter celebrating the fall of Sir Robert Peel; later installments during the first year sit between exposes of Catholic doctrine and warnings to fellow Protestant associations, or an account of a young Cambridge scholar converted to Catholicism and encouraging words to Irish Protestants. In practice, this means that the studied ambiguity of the subtitle--Catholic novelists also used variants of "Roman Catholic Tale"--simply vanishes. More to the point, the novel both sensationalizes and sentimentalizes the magazine's frequently apocalyptic rhetoric. Sensationalizes, because of the standard-issue Gothic trappings that frequently characterize novels in this genre (wicked Jesuits, a dungeon, a murder, a young woman threatened with torture); sentimentalizes, because not only does the narrative play out in terms of conflicts within and between families, but also in terms of frequently overwrought emotional responses. Contemporary Catholics frequently grumbled about Protestants (especially of the evangelical variety) and their turn to "feelings," and this is a novel in which religious feeling is very much on display.
As in several post-Father Clement novels, two families square off: the slightly decrepit but aristocratic Montmorency family and their relatives (Catholic, French) and the Willoughby family and their relatives (Protestant, English). Given this plot structure, it's no surprise that the novel dwells heavily on Roman Catholicism's supposedly deadly effect on the nuclear family. Thanks to the influence of The Evil Priest (TM), Sir Hubert ejects Philippe, a loyal family retainer, after he converts to Protestantism, setting off a chain of events that leads to Philippe's martyrdom and his wife Annette's death. Later on, when Sir Hubert's daughter Clara herself converts--thanks partly to her memories of Annette and the providential arrival of her orphaned children--he connives at having her kidnapped, imprisoned in a convent, and eventually sent to the convent's dank and gloomy dungeon (this being an anti-Catholic novel, dungeons are an important fashion accessory). Matters are not materially improved by Clara's cousin Frances, a fanatical Catholic who assists with the kidnapping, becomes a nun herself, and eventually rises to the position of Abbess (but is unhappy, of course). Hubert, meanwhile, hangs out with the Willoughbys, and is riddled with doubt after he witnesses the "good death" of his friend, Ernest Willoughby. After all, his own mother, Lady de Montmorency, had died in fear and doubt, terrified that her own Church had led her astray: "'Nay, dear Hubert, pray to the Saviour. What if she told me truth! Oh! horrible uncertainty! all is dark! I see no light. Great God! if I die trusting in delusion, grant me thy pardon!'" (VIII.369). Lady de Montmorency's spiritual testimony, delivered in terror, is a providential warning instead of the requisite calm exhortation to the living; this is hardly an instance of someone "resigned to God's will, able to beg forgiveness for past sins and to prove his or her worthiness for salvation."1
This conflict between Ernest's good death and Lady de Montmorency's bad one drives the novel: the end of life, represented here as the true test of religious faith, reveals that only Protestantism supplies the believer with authentic grounds for assurance. Urging Hubert not to "'grieve,'" Ernest reminds him that "'No fires of purgatory await my departing spirit, but a Saviour's bosom, a father's arm, an inheritance undefiled. Yet why? Not that I am worthy; ah, no, from first to last a sinful creature. I die as I have ever lived, and Calvary's cross, Emmanuel's perfect sacrifice, procure me pardon now, peace, perfect peace, and glory, immortal glory, in the world to come'" (IX.38). The novel advances the usual argument that Catholics are terrified of purgatory and unsure of their eventual salvation. Ernest, by contrast, figures the next life as a new domestic haven, resting on the "Saviour's bosom" (an image as maternal as it is paternal) and a "father's arm," not the false allures of a wrongly-elevated Virgin. Lady de Montmorency's belief that she could perfect herself on earth through obedience, confession, penance, and the like comes to naught at the end; Ernest's belief in his own depravity and the sufficiency of Christ's atonement, meanwhile, turns death into a joyous homecoming.
The test, then, is how you feel. After Lady de Montmorency's death, Hubert sorrows without respite; later, he is tormented by much "painful musing" on her death (VIII.397), and Clara admits to him that she can only "'fear God'" now (VIII.398). Years pass, and Clara suffers from "restlessness" (VIII.424), a sign of religious ennui, but her openness to the truth manifests itself in the classically sentimental "flood of tears" she sheds after hearing of Philippe's and Annette's fate (VIII.427). Again, after Ernest dies, Hubert finds himself beset with "conflicting feelings," a "loss of self-command," and an "agony of feeling," which turns into "horror" when he berates himself for befriending a Protestant (IX.72). This welter of confused feelings, combined with what we are to take as the "unnatural" posthumous rejection of the friendship, once more dramatizes Roman Catholicism's sheer uselessness in the face of death. Even for a sentimental novel, the undirected quality of Hubert's reaction is problematic--it provokes no real self-reflection and has no positive (evangelical) impact on society at large. In fact, the Evil Priest (TM) takes advantage of the illness that follows to convince Hubert to bring Clara back to the Protestant fold (only temporarily, as it turns out). By contrast, Frances, the devout Catholic, brings "ambition" (IX.104) to her religion--in these novels, a frequent sign of a would-be nun--and icily denounces those who hope for her ex-lover Ernest's salvation as proponents of "false liberality" (IX.147). Hubert's ungoverned sentimentalism meets its match in Frances' willed heartlessness. But even though both function here as products and proof of Catholicism's inadequacy, Hubert's excessive feeling, provoked by doubt and fear, is better preparation for conversion than Frances' antagonism to feeling, which she controls with physically and emotionally self-destructive disciplines.
In this logic, either the Catholic explores doubt by reading the Bible and embracing its message, or represses doubt through an ever-more rigorous regime of ritual observances. (Jane Eyre's Eliza Reed, who chooses Catholicism precisely because of the structured rituals, is a direct descendant of characters like Frances.) But Frances' route ultimately leads to a life of permanent spiritual lack, registered in the "doubts" and "misgivings" that continue to plague her long after she takes the veil (X.9). Without even Lady de Montmorency's tentative gestures toward Protestantism, Frances dies badly, "fearfully shrinking from the judgment to come" (X.10). By contrast, Sir Hubert, even though still "nominally" Catholic (X.8) dies well, leaving his children with pious words of wisdom. It's no wonder that Clara, now fully Protestant, nearly breaks out into a "smile of exulting joy" when she thinks of her father's welcome into Heaven (X.8). Here, finally, is true Protestant feeling, the "tear of natural grief" (X.8) overcome by her total trust in Christ.
1 Pat Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: OUP, 2000), 26.