Of the many, many controversial novels I've discussed at this blog, the vast majority have involved Protestants and Catholics squaring off against each other, with occasional voyages into Jews and [insert Christian here] doing likewise. William Henry Pinnock's Sister Agatha: Or, "The New Catholic Teaching" (1876) is an interesting variant on the usual theme. Not because the novel itself is remarkably well-executed, or because it has something to say that might come as a shock to the average reader (of this blog, at least), but because the controversy involved is really two modes of High Churchmanship squaring off against each other. Instead of the relatively wide gap between, say, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, we have here two different claims to Catholicity and apostolicity, launched by someone who clearly fears that it is impossible to tell the difference between High Churchmanship (old style), Anglo-Catholicism (new style), and, of course, Roman Catholicism.
Even though the novel's conflicts are set within the Church of England, the story itself takes place in France after the Commune. At first glance, it's an odd choice of setting, underlined by the total lack of "fit" between the English characters and their environment: even though Mr. Stanhope, who carries part of the brief for traditional High Church positions, is a longtime resident, much of the novel's actual dialogue about France consists of complaints about the bureaucracy, the manners, and, of course, the Catholicism. But this unease actually underlines the novel's point about the Church of England, which is that is a national institution in need of protection against incursions by the Catholic Other. Even the title character is convinced that post-Communard France is intellectually, morally, and culturally degenerate, reduced to "'selfish brusquerie'" in the wake of calls for egalitarianism (107). The novel's English are an enclave of Anglican good sense in a sea of French Catholic bad culture, bad ritual, bad theology, and bad art. Railways treat passengers like "'beeves in a cattle truck'" (106), while the churches sport--or used to sport--statues of the Virgin Mary "with hideous features in jaundiced wax" and "eyes affected by strabismus" (53). Pinnock paints France as somehow irredeemably ugly, despite all its associations (good food, good wine, good clothes...); it is what England could turn into, were the Catholic Church to take over.
In order to ward off this unfortunate event, the novel quickly devolves into its real purpose, which is to act as a manual for countering both Anglo- and Roman Catholic claims. On the one hand, the novel supports Anglican sisterhoods; Mr. Perilyan, the Anglican clergyman who spouts most of the theological monologues, even has "'two daughters in two distinct Sisterhoods'" (164). On the other hand, the book turns somersaults to distinguish the good Sisterhoods from the dangerous ones, those under the sway of the "'wide eirenic principle of Catholic union, charity, and large-heartedness'" (198). Pinnock diagnoses a kind of slippery-slope problem in post-Puseyite theology, in which the Eirenicon's anti-Marian arguments have apparently vanished under the rolling rock of "Romanizing" sympathies. Mr. Perilyan and the Stanhopes repeatedly accuse the sisterhood that Agatha is joining of being "'nothing less than a nursery of Roman Catholicism, under the guise of a Church of England sisterhood'" (137), warning readers in no uncertain terms that the "Anglo-Catholic" position actually constitutes a deceptive performance within the borders of Anglicanism. All of the novel's tub-thumping is thus devoted to charting the precise boundaries separating Catholicity from Roman Catholicism, with a strong emphasis on eucharistic and sacramental doctrine. (Sister Agatha's own High Churchmanship comes out most strongly in its attack on the right of private judgment.)
The reason that nobody picks up on the distinctions, the novel argues, is lousy theological education. In fact, our title character may qualify as one of the most inept fictional controversialists I've seen in some time. No doubt the character's gender has something to do with it: she's unequipped with any of the languages she might need to study the relevant works. But it gets worse, as they say. Early on, she informs Mr. Stanhope that "'I must not venture upon argument: it is forbidden ground: and I dare not doubt the necessity of obedience to the injunctions of my spiritual superior'" (27), thereby wearisomely invoking every stereotype of intellectual self-abasement known to the reader of anti-Catholic polemic. By no argument, of course, Agatha simply means no argument with her Mother Superior and confessor; she's perfectly happy to argue with Mr. Stanhope and Mr. Perilyan. However, her contributions to the faux dialogues almost always fall into the forms of "But surely X did Y?" or "I heard somewhere that X." Thus, on the question of whether or not Paul fasted before taking the Eucharist, she queries, "'But did not St. Paul in one of his journeys [...] adopt this very rule of fasting?'" (77) One paragraph down, on the same topic, she does the same thing: "'But some ancient authority, I think, refers to this usage as prevailing immediately after the times of the Apostles'" (77). And later, she tells Mr. Perilyan that she is "'almost certain'" that such fasting was practiced in the early Church (83). Often relegated to one-sentence objections that are either heavily qualified or phrased as questions, Agatha consistently undermines both her voice and her authority to speak; she quite clearly has not mastered the "new Catholicity" (let alone the old one) that she wishes to preach to Stanhope and Co. By the end of the novel, the new Catholicity has manifested itself as primarily an echoing theological void.
But the ending also does something unusual for a controversial novel: it declines to divert our heroine from her path. When last we see her, she is off to "dissolve dear and loving family ties," preparatory to joining the convent she has been describing all along. I've discussed paradoxically anti-controversialist controversial novels here before; this one too suggests the sheer uselessness of arguing theology with someone whose mind has already fixed on another position. Despite the almost comically one-sided nature of the faux dialogues, Agatha's religious emptiness has not been filled by any solid Anglican knowledge. It seems that force-feeding wandering Ritualists with a nourishing diet of old-fashioned High Churchmanship is not, after all, the way to go; those who have already proceeded well down the path to Roman Catholicism, the novel implies, probably cannot be reclaimed. Only young women and men who have not yet fallen prey to stereotypically predatory priests in Anglican clothing can be saved from their fate...