Most of my forays into nineteenth-century religious fiction involve controversial novels, which foreground doctrinal disputes (frequently to the disadvantage of the plot). Such novels feature extensive debates over religious topics, encyclopedia-style "dialogue," and sometimes footnotes or endnotes explicating thornier questions. Although they don't really model real-life religious debates, seeing as how the opponent always loses (and usually can't even muster a response), they do offer sound bites to those who might be on shaky ground when it comes to their own denominational background. Christiana Jane Douglas' Father Godfrey (1873), though, is less in the vein of Grace Kennedy's Father Clement and more in that of Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels or Margaret Oliphant's Chronicles of Carlingford. The characters all have their particular theological "slots," which drive the novel's primary conflicts, but despite Father Godfrey's topicality--it responds to the ongoing debates over Ritualism that would result in the Public Worship Regulation Act the following year--it has virtually nothing to say about the content of any one slot. The uninformed reader will come away from this novel thinking that Ritualism is something that involves a lot of sewing. Thus, the novel emphasizes social comedy (and, having peeked ahead, tragedy) over theological quibbling. Moreover, the narrator's faintly ironic attitude to a number of her characters suggests Austen, and the first volume, at least, has a slightly Pride and Prejudice-ish tint to it.
Father Godfrey is a multiplot novel that tracks the intersections of three families: the Wynfords, the Foxleys, and the Godfreys. The Wynfords and Foxleys are both old, landed families with more-or-less idealized conservative patriarchs. Squire Wynford is a "liberal landlord" (I.31) who maintains his estate in the spirit of mutual obligation celebrated by Victorian medievalists. Echoing Carlyle, the narrator informs us that "[s]upply and demand, noninterference, every-one-for-himself notions had no place at Thorleigh Court, where political economy, even in these days, had made but small advances, and where the very idea of an agricultural strike would have caused little less astonishment than a sudden eruption of fire and lava from the placid green summit of the Bloomshire Beacon, just visible on the northern horizon" (I.31-32). Wynford's estate thus appears to be a haven from the pressures of nineteenth-century industrialism and laissez-faire capitalism, which elsewhere impress themselves harshly on the landscape. And his tenants joyously embrace this nineteenth-century echo of feudal culture, resisting (indeed, not even acknowledging) modernity. Even more medieval are the Foxleys, "a noble family before the coming of the Conqueror" (I.55), headed by the somewhat Dedlockian Colonel Foxley, and boasting of an eminently beautiful daughter with the suitably Olde Englishe name of Elfrida. But unlike the wealthy Wynfords, the Foxleys are deeply impoverished. Moreover, they appear to be tapped out in another way: whereas Wynford son and heir Leigh is a reasonably intelligent, albeit spoiled, fellow, Elfrida is of the "blank-sheet class of mind" (I.127). Impetuous, not very smart, and given to what the novel hints are calculated fits, Elfrida turns out to have angelic looks but an unthinkingly selfish center--thus rendering her easy prey for the novel's resident Evil Anglo-Catholic Clergyman, Summerwood. (The eponymous Godfrey's nickname for Elfrida, St. Frideswide, turns out to be both prophetic and ironic.) Last but not least, we have the shabby middle-class Godfreys, who have come down in the world since the death of the father, a successful clergyman. The devout Frederick Godfrey attends Oxford (along with Leigh) with the intention of gaining a first and eventually helping his brothers and sister; however, he derails his family's plans by becoming a Roman Catholic priest instead, much to the fury of his anti-Catholic mother. Stranded without Frederick's financial contributions, the family is at a loss until his cultivated and strong-minded sister, Helen, volunteers to work as a governess in order to pay for her younger brothers' educations.
As the first volume unfolds, it becomes clear that the narrator simultaneously sympathizes with the older generation and admits that they have become anachronistic--even, in some ways, self-destructive. Her praise for their moral values sits alongside the effectively local nature of their influence, which is confined to their respective estates; the Foxleys, in fact, are quietly dwindling away, and their weak-minded daughter does not promise much hope for the family's future. Moreover, neither the Foxleys nor the Wynfords properly equip their children with much in the way of serious education or moral purpose, despite their own rectitude: there's little in the way of serious religion, the children are allowed to have their own way, and the parents turn out to be easily manipulated. By contrast, Mrs. Godfrey does instill her brood with strict values, but the narrator condemns the brutality with which she disowns Frederick after his conversion (I.152-53).
Arguably, the first volume's main theme is the sheer self-centeredness of what passes for religion in mid-Victorian culture. Mrs. Godfrey is wrong to denounce her son, but Frederick, too, is in the wrong for abandoning his obligations to his siblings. Helen is remarkably determined and self-sufficient, but the narrator quietly notes her moments of proud revulsion at her newly-bourgeois employers (who, despite their vulgarity, are rather nice people), and playfully mocks the self-aggrandizing manner that turns her job into potential "martyrdom" (I.187). Leigh seems to have no religious convictions whatsoever, but believes that the world will generally arrange itself to his liking. Elfrida, visiting an Anglican sisterhood, gleefully resigns "personal responsibility" to the not-exactly-impressed Mother Superior (I.257), then jilts Leigh without thinking of his feelings (I.272). And Mr. Summerwood has "a dauntless confidence in the power of his own will—a matchless capacity for persuading himself of the rectitude of his own wishes" (I.141) that leads him to interfere in Elfrida's and Leigh's relationship (mostly out of jealousy). To the extent that the narrator manifests her own sympathies, it is in the relatively tolerant and Broad Church-y position that Christianity's essence is "a feeling of oneness with all human creatures" (I.289)--a sentiment conspicuously lacking in most of the first volume.