Good heavens, it's been a while since I've been able to sit down and write about some Victorian religious fiction. But now that Book Two has been dispatched to Notre Dame yet again, this time with all the formatting changes in place, I can concentrate on other things. Momentarily. (Because, index.)
Sister Cora: A Tale of the Eighteenth Century (1876) is an interesting case study in how anti-Catholic tropes could be kiddified for youthful readers, although the novel also takes a slightly more accomodating approach to its Catholic characters. The preface informs us that the title character is the narrator's great-grandmother, regarded by the children as a "kind of holy heroine" because of her brave "escape" (10) from a convent; at the same time, this vaguely Foxeite Protestant narrative of anti-monastic revolt exists in conjunction with the family's "Catholic ancestry and consequent associations," which produced "the sacred niche which she still holds in our thoughts" (10). (The narrator, it turns out, is also named Cora.) Simultaneously a Protestant cliche and a domesticated Catholic icon, Cora suggests how Catholicism could be tamed and recuperated within a strictly Protestant sphere--as emotional "associations," rather than as spiritual or theological commitment. Still, we are left with the problem of those Protestant cliches.
Our heroine's progress is conventional enough: she enters the convent for all the wrong reasons; discovers that nuns are generally gloomy, spiteful, unhappy folk; and befriends two fellow sufferers. One of them, Louise, turns out to have an enterprising boyfriend who helps arrange for her escape; the other, Marguerite, had a lover, Louis, now a Jesuit (as the preface hints, he's based on Louis Bardaloue). The secretive, rather spiteful Louise decamps with little care for the dying Marguerite, but Cora feels obligated to remain with her friend. Marguerite dies an evangelical "good death," but not before giving Cora a letter to Louis. Cora runs, finds Louis, and--wonder of wonders--discovers that he's a fine, upstanding guy, despite the Jesuit business; moreover, she also meets the much older Hubert, Marguerite's brother, who has turned into a surprisingly waspish Protestant. (The narrative makes remarkably little of how much of a jerk Hubert is; one wonders if the author noticed.) Cora, already predisposed to idolize Hubert, is of course destined to live happily ever after with him, thanks to some timely matchmaking from Louis. They leave France, head to England, and soon reconcile with Cora's remaining family, who also eventually convert to Protestantism. The end.
Like many anti-convent narratives, this one warns of the dangers of girlish emotion. Cora becomes a nun "in a mad fit of religious enthusiasm" (12), weltering in feelings of "pride" and "obstinacy" (15) rather than true devotion; Louise because she "quarrelled with my lover" (17); and even the saintly Marguerite because "I was an enthusiastic, visionary girl" (24). This emphasis on runaway passions, whether erotic or purportedly spiritual, reminds us that convent plots are usually interrupted romances: the young girl enters a convent seeking a heavenly bridegroom, only to discover that she still yearns, explicitly or implicitly, for the embrace of an earthly one. Even an adult novice is figuratively "girlish," as it were, reduced to childish impulsiveness in her idealized fantasies of spiritual marriage. If the plot is to have a "comic" ending, the nun must discover the joys not of sterile enclosure, but of domestic fertility; she must, in other words, acquire a man. Cora's, Louise's, and Marguerite's fates each suggest a different mode of resolving the nun's romance plot. Louise successfully escapes with her lover, but her callous attitude to Marguerite--"'What is the short time you may be with her compared to being buried alive for the remainder of your life?'" (36)--hints that she is also a religious nonentity, incapable of authentic self-sacrifice or charity. Her completed romance represents no advance from the immaturity that landed her in the convent to begin with. By contrast, Marguerite must die because, unbeknownst to her, the lost object of her own romantic plot, Louis, no longer shares her devotion: he feels for her as "'only a picture of memory'" (89). The potential earthly end of her own plot done away with, Marguerite ascends to Heaven instead. That leaves Cora, taught by Marguerite to regard Hubert as a "'martyr'" and "hero" (48), who corrects and completes both Louise's plot (Cora escapes only after caring for Marguerite) and Marguerite's (Cora marries Marguerite's brother). Suitably, whereas we know nothing of Louise's afterlife and Marguerite dies without explicitly converting, Cora follows Hubert into Protestantism, the stereotypical Victorian "home" of domestic bliss.
Despite the perfect storm of cliches, though, the novel also strips the convent narrative of its usual Gothic associations--the kiddification I mentioned in my opening. Although both Hubert's sister Marie and Cora herself are described as "buried alive" (21, 23), there are no nuns literally buried alive, despite that being a common staple of convent narratives. There are no hints that the nuns are sexually or physically abused; even the punishments heaped on Louise are relatively innocuous, more irritating than agonizing. Similarly, the novel does not go into sensationalist detail about the dangers of the confessional. For that matter, both Louise and Cora escape from the convent with a minimum of fuss, and despite Louis' attempts at sternness, Cora faces only minimal danger. Even Cora's relatives, supposedly under the thumb of a nasty father confessor, shrug off both her escape and her conversion with remarkable aplomb. In other words, all the Gothic conventions are present in the plot, but rendered inoperative.