One of the most popular conventions in the anti-Catholic and anti-Ritualist novel is the relationship (or "relationship") between a priest and an innocent young woman. In some cases, there are no sexual overtones at all, as in Grace Kennedy's Father Clement (1823). However, post-Father Clement novels tended to inject eroticism into the polemical mix, whether on the priest's side, the woman's, or both. "Benevolent" versions--e.g., Verschoyle (1837), C. G. H.'s Constance Lyndsay (1841), Frances Trollope's Father Eustace (1847)--transform the priest/female convert or penitent relationship into a thwarted romance plot that normally ends with the priest's conversion to Protestantism and subsequent (picturesque) death. Aside from his Catholicism, the priest is a genuinely benevolent figure, who may nevertheless be manipulated by his superiors. These plots drive not toward sexual consummation, but instead the priest's "authentic" consummation of his relationship with God; the young woman may or may not follow a similar path. "Villainous" versions, like Caroline Snowmarsh Whitman Guild's The Sisters of Soleure (1857), Julia McNair Wright's Secrets of the Convent and Confessional (1872), and M. G. Murray's anti-Ritualist The Vicar of St. Margaret's (1899), do not necessarily involve a sexual relationship between priest and penitent, but they may involve seduction plots (Sisters), outright sexual manipulation to further the church's goals (Secrets), and improprieties verging on the sexual (Vicar). In Susan M. Griffin's words, "[a]n 'infallible,' uncurbed clergy is represented as violating family intimacy and personal privacy and eroding individual and husbandly authority."1 (Ex-priest and nun narratives, straightforward anti-Catholic propaganda, and the like often go for the straight-out sex.) Here, the only comic conclusion possible is the young woman's escape to Protestantism; the priest may or may not be punished, but his redemption is not on the plot's menu.
In one of those "oh, of course" moments every scholar has, I realized that both versions of this plot were riffing on Abelard and Heloise while I was reading Maria Purves' recent book The Gothic and Catholicism. Purves extensively documents the popularity of their letters in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England, along with the various poetic and fictional responses they provoked. She argues that Pope's Eloisa, in particular, enables a new mode of representing convent life, in which "images of the convent could be viewed sympathetically as part of a sentimental reading[.]"2 Combined with another influential Catholic novel, Claudine Alexandrine Guerin de Tencin's Memoirs du Comte de Comminge (1735), Gothic novels in the Eloisa tradition make "Catholic spirituality" part and parcel of the heroine's virtue (70), while also celebrating the power of faith to make both monk and nun achieve an elevated devotion to God that transcends mere earthly desires. (Later in the nineteenth century, Robert Bateman and Edward Leighton both took Abelard and Heloise as a theme, emphasizing the romantic phase of their relationship.) But anti-Catholic controversial novels veer off on a different path from Purves' Gothics: both versions of the anti-Catholic priest/woman plot parody the Abelard and Heloise conventions. The "benevolent" version at the very least disrupts the convent or monastery as a site of spiritual reflection; moreover, the unconsummated romance simultaneously inverts the Abelard and Heloise/Comminge plot (the priest falls in love/drifts after taking his vows) while reinstating it as a different sort of triumph (the priest's conversion experience and subsequent death). The "villainous" version offers an entirely unredeemed and irredeemable Abelard, who preys on (or at least uses) female sexuality as a means of advancing either the Church's interests or his own pleasures. The Heloise figure, meanwhile, seeks virtue through Catholicism, only to find that the narrative does not pan out.
I think I'll explore this tack a bit in the article I'm currently writing. (Or will get back to writing, as soon as I finish this conference paper that I have to deliver in about three weeks.)
1 Susan M. Griffin, Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 157.
2 Maria Purves, The Gothic and Catholicism: Religion, Cultural Exchange and the Popular Novel, 1785-1829 (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2009), 65.