Before I begin, I should point out that the subtitle is blatant false advertising. This novel offers any number of opportunities for snoring to commence.
That out of the way. By the By (1888) was committed written by the hamhandedly pseudonymous "Frank Briton," who very likely is the publisher, John Kensit. Kensit (1853-1902) had quite the career as an anti-Catholic and anti-Ritualist speaker, organizer, publisher, and all-around agitator before his life was ended by complications (presumably) related to being hit in the head by a file. (Frank Neal suggests that the file was actually hurled at someone else, but missed.) As a general rule, he kept clear of novels, but he intended By and By to be the first volume in a series, "The True Briton's Library"; alas, there was a shortage of True Britons, as this is the only volume to appear. It's possible that the novel's frequent resort to metrically dubious poetry may have been off-putting to even politically sympathetic readers, but that's merely speculation on my part.
Before we begin, please spend a few moments contemplating the novel's frontispiece.
In case you're wondering, this is Fred Williams, Our Hero, in the process of avenging Felix Fondham's assault on his sister's maidenly virtue (via inappropriate confessional-type questions). He has made his way into Fondham's presence by cross-dressing as his own sister. This may be unprecedented in the field of Victorian religious fiction.
This novel ("novel") has one of the longest laundry lists of targets I've ever encountered. It is particularly keen on attacking Gladstone, whose High Church inclinations here magically morph into a dangerous predilection for Roman Catholicism. (In one of By the By's moments of inadvertent humor, we get a list of all of Gladstone's purported crypto-Catholic moments--without an accompanying list of his anti-Catholic positions.) By the By doesn't like Gladstone as statesman, Christian, or economist. At one point, some minor characters debate "'[i]s Mr. Gladstone the best or worst statesman of the age?'" (184), leaving the bemused reader to wonder if the question was phrased altogether fairly. (There's a particularly wearying chapter in which the speaker does nothing but tot up budget deficits, trade shortfalls, and so on.) The novel also dislikes free trade, proposing fair trade (protectionism) as the necessary, pro-British alternative. It dislikes disestablishmentarians, especially Dissenters who don't understand why the CofE is so important to national stability. It dislikes the Maynooth grant. It dislikes the Boers in general and Gladstone's handling of the First Boer War in particular. It dislikes Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics, especially of the clerical variety. It dislikes justices who bring people up on obscenity charges for distributing The Confessional Unmasked (which actually happened, and gave us the Hicklin Test). It dislikes convents. It dislikes auricular confession. Meanwhile, in the much shorter "thumbs up" column, By and By approves of benevolent imperialism (of the "we're helping the natives" variety), protectionism, Protestantism, the Bible (endlessly prooftexted to justify the protectionist position), robbing people at gunpoint in order to make political points, and beating up priests who insult your sister. Everything in the thumbs down column is connected to everything else there, as is everything in the thumbs up column: one cannot approve of Gladstone without necessarily sliding into anarchic visions of property redistribution and Catholic priests running rampant. Or, as the narrator declares at one point, "[t]he Siamese twins of Romanism and of Free Trade are cursing Britain" (285).
That being said, there are a couple of interesting things about the novel. First, the "let's unload on Gladstone" angle is unusual for Victorian controversial fiction, which tends not to wallop actual "personalities" with quite this much intensity. (The "Gladstone is a scary Catholic" line, however, is run-of-the-mill anti-Gladstone polemic.) The novel's enthusiasm for Disraeli, however, might not have been entirely reciprocated by the gentleman in question. In any event, on the politico-theological front, the novel is a jeremiad, predicting apocalyptic results in no time flat if things don't change; in fact, and in a first (at least to my knowledge) for the Victorian religious novel, the book actually ends with a call for a new political party, "The Trues," devoted to "Bible-loving, Bible-honouring lines" (376). Rather like the "True Briton's Library," this proposal appears not to have captured the public imagination.
On the gender and sexuality front, the novel suggests how religious fiction (for adults, anyway) was moving with the relative candor of the times. It's worth remembering that The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk and other apostate nun narratives from earlier in the century are actually not all that erotically explicit, despite references to illicit pregnancies; instead, they tend to be sadistic, dwelling intensely on the brutal punishments meted out in the convents and the corresponding fracturing of the nuns' bodies. (Anyone picking up Maria Monk looking for classic pornography will be badly disappointed.) By the By is, strictly speaking, unoriginal in emphasizing the threat to female morality and sexuality from auricular confession, a practice that it insists grooms innocent virgins for illicit sexual activity; it is more unusual in dramatizing the psychology (or what passes as such) of its depraved villains. One of the priests, Father Shapfot, is confronted with the texts 1 Corinthians 3:17 and Hebrews 13:4, and for the rest of the novel suffers from visions of "these texts blazing out in flaming letters" (112); he eventually ameliorates these visions by either raping or seducing (the novel is not clear about which) the beguiled Mrs. Gracit, which grants him fantasies instead of her daughter, "'the lovely Miss Mabel Gracit'" (293). Erotic pleasure functions as both an addiction and a kind of spiritual quack medicine, temporarily suppressing the conscience that warns Shapfot of God's divine wrath. Shapfot himself makes the connection: once the temporary effects of his sexual encounter wear off, the dreams return "with tenfold torment," and he begs Fondham for "'some other confessing lady by means of whom I can remove this frightful ogre'" (328). Eventually, Shapfot and Mrs. Gracit converge on the same madness mantra, "'I must find her,'" indicating their mutual self-alienation: in Mrs. Gracit's case, "I must find her" (misread by everyone else as an odd obsession with some missing stranger) is a quest for her own lost self, which can be restored only through Christ; in Shapfot's, it means Mabel, whose virginity promises salvation from his mental torments (a nasty parody of the Virgin Mary's role as intercessor). Offered a preview of hell, Shapfot flees to sexual excess and violence in order to excise a monster that is actually his own soul--ultimately murdering and being murdered by Fondham, his competitor for the temporary balm represented by Mabel Gracit's pure, inviolate body. Shapfot's decline into raving madness stems precisely from his refusal to read the prooftexts that invade his mind (a psychological parallel to the mental and physical ravages he inflicts on his female penitents); by contrast, Mrs. Gracit's own madness after her rape/adultery is healed not through the body, but through an instance of sortes sanctorum that turns up the story of the woman taken in adultery.