1. Mrs. Humphry Ward's The Case of Richard Meynell (1911) is a direct sequel (as opposed to the Spiritual Successor of The History of David Grieve) to Robert Elsmere, and most readers consider it a comparative (drastic) failure. Richard himself is part of the problem: the novel is effectively Modernist hagiography, with Richard's flaws amounting to a dark night of the soul instead of three-dimensional characterization. Moreover, at a technical level, the plotting is pretty terrible--William S. Peterson accurately describes its melodramatic aspects, including illegitimacy and bigamy, as a "stagey, lurid backdrop" to the novel's more serious theological concerns--and runs the risk of leaving readers with intellectual whiplash.1 However, given my interests, what strikes me about the novel is that it's a far more conventional controversial novel than is Robert Elsmere. There's more speechifying masquerading as dialogue (Victorian controversial fiction usually aims for monologism), more characters embodying specific theological positions, more heavily-weighted symbolic historical change. That being said, its attempt to articulate a post-Protestant Reformation, waged purely in language instead of physical violence, suggests the extent to which the novel engages with its ardent predecessors.2 (To that end, the novel features some symbolically decayed architecture, in which busts of William and Mary guard a defunct Abbey--hinting, that is, that both Catholic and Protestant establishments have now collapsed.)
2. To a contemporary reader, the most striking thing about the novel is its case against bringing "personalities" into the discussion of theological or political issues. For a good chunk of the plot, one of Richard's opponents, Henry Barron, is trying to undo Richard's influence by forwarding a semi-accurate story about the illegitimacy of Richard's ward, Hester Fox-Wilton. HB accuses RM of being Hester's father (it's actually one of RM's relatives), and circulates his charges in order to invalidate the Modernist position--clearly, HB argues, "'your infidel teaching has led to its natural results'" (451)--on the grounds of hypocrisy. Progressive theology implies fatally flawed moral character; individual hypocrisy invalidates an entire social movement. HB is Not a Good Guy. Instead, the novel argues, theological debate needs to remain in the realm of ideas, divorced from the personal character of such-and-such a position's adherents. Its authentically righteous conservative figures (of whom there are quite a few) are all disgusted by such scandal-mongering. And yet, The Case of Richard Meynell wants to have its cake and eat it: the only way to secure this split between private character and public discourse is by making RB's criminal son responsible for circulating the bulk of the accusations. Bad speech turns out to be produced by a bad speaker. (This goes back to the melodrama I mentioned earlier.)
3. However, the episode with HB highlights one connection with Robert Elsmere, which is Mrs. Ward's interest in storytelling's relationship to belief. HB temporarily gains traction because his story is, for the moment, so very powerful. Robert spends a good chunk of his novel retelling classic (and relatively contemporary) novels or historical narratives, inviting his listeners to develop morally and spiritually through emotional identification with an unfolding story's characters. His practice sanctifies fiction without demanding that fiction be dogmatic. Both the act of storytelling and the narrative process turn out to be integral to Robert's understanding of a fully humane religion: his new religious faith is important inasmuch as it offers a new plot, a new way of thinking about Christ in story. RM thinks about Modernism in a similar way: the new Biblical criticism releases a Christ "'stripped of Jewish legend, and Greek speculation, and medieval scholasticism; moving simply and divinely among the ways of His Jewish world, a man among men'" (621-22). (Unlike Robert, however, RM wants to stay within the CofE.) Modernism produces the Christ of realist fiction, as it were.
1 William S. Peterson, Victorian Heretic: Mrs Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1976), 198.
2 Although, as Judith Wilt points out, it's still "violence" of a sort; see Behind Her Times: Transition England in the Novels of Mary Arnold Ward (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 78.