(Woo-hoo! Finally, some time to read a religious novel between bouts of proofing two different books.)
Not mine, but the double recantation of Mary, the benighted protagonist of Recantation; Or, the Confessions of a Convert to Romanism: A Tale, Written during a Residence in Tuscany and the Papal States (1845). This fictional conversion and deconversion novel, set against a rather cynical assessment of early Italian nationalism, mixes and matches a number of genres: the romance; the travel narrative; spiritual autobiography; the religious manual; and, as we discover at the end, the deathbed testament. Above all, it takes its journey through Italy as a pretext for warning against journeying to Rome.
As one reviewer pointed out, our protagonist and her mother both qualify as "nominal Protestants," and Mary's fall to the dark side Roman Catholicism derives, in very large part, from their mutual failures in the religious reading department. Failed mothering (and fathering) lies behind everyone who neglects religious truths, from Mary's mother (well-meaning and virtuous, but ultimately inadequate) to Mary's obnoxious mother-in-law, to Mary herself (who never becomes a mother). In particular, the novel chastizes English mothers who, like one especially unpleasant example, insist that their daughters market themselves to the most stupid of Italian romantic prospects: "You should always look pleased at whatever they say; when they laugh at any observation they have just made, mind and laugh too, even if you should not discover the wit of what they have been saying, and so by degrees you will get the character of a lively, intelligent girl" (31). By insisting that her daughter sacrifice her powers of reason on the altar of matrimony, this mother chips away at what the novel represents as the very foundation of religious faith. Without exercising judgment, young girls are as likely to choose terrible husbands as they are to choose the wrong religion. Although Mary's father is also to blame for coronet-hunting, Recantation argues that the duty of educating and protecting young women falls squarely on the mother's shoulders--and that bad mothering leaves girls open to the blandishments associated with Italians and Roman Catholicism, in no particular order.
Italians, it turns out, are sexy; the problem is that Englishmen are, well, not. Sex is very much to the forefront in Mary's experience of the Cotillion, in which innocent young ladies find themselves partnered by men of possibly "a thousand vices" who take the opportunity to "clasp the youthful form" of their female prey (23). Mary's melodramatic recollections cast Italian high society as an erotic meat market, in which far more domestic Englishwomen are stripped of their morals and served up to male gourmands. By comparison, Englishmen, embodied by Mary's would-be suitor Harcourt, are characterized by "coldness" and "haughty spirit" (8); even Harcourt concedes that he is "cold and despised," unlike the "bright and sparkling" Italians (46). The chill of English weather translates into a different kind of bodily chill, apparently calculated to repel rather than attract, while the warmth of Italy produces sexual heat to go along with it. In other words, it takes proper religious discipline for a young woman exposed to Italian heat to understand the lasting value of English cold. Mary, as it turns out, fails to grasp that her new husband's romantic ardor--which, tellingly, produces no children--will be transient, eventually ending in open adultery; Harcourt, by contrast, will acquire a second and more angelic Mary, who visits Italy only after she has been safely married, and, of course, has a child to reward her for her Protestant virtues. Apparently, Anglo-Italian relationships literally lack a future.
But national differences are not the only problem. Like most nineteenth-century religious fictions of all denominational stripes, Recantation denounces interfaith courtships and/or marriages. Mary exchanges Protestantism for Catholicism using terms familiar to readers of anti-Catholic texts: "'Nay, dear Mamma, it is but a difference in outward forms; the leading principles of both religions are alike'" (51). This tolerationist position, which insists on a Christian "essence" that transcends "formal" peculiarities, is a stereotypically liberal distinction with which anti-Catholic writers have little truck: as Mary later discovers, with considerable horror, Catholic belief cannot be detached from its enactment in Catholic ritual, and, indeed, Catholics who manage to perform their rituals without belief (like her husband and his more radical relatives) are not liberal Catholics or Protestants, but simply unbelievers, full stop.* Recantation's attempt to warn innocent English maidens off overheated Italian men thus recurs in its critique of such beliefs in a universal Christianity: not only does national character mandate against Anglo-Italian romance, but so too does religious character. As far as the novel is concerned, this belief in Christian universals can only derive from a fatal lack of attention to Scriptural truths; significantly, Mary does not expose herself firsthand to Catholic texts, but converts purely on the basis of oral instruction, something that startles even a priest she meets later. That is, she relinquishes her right of private judgment twice. It is only near the end of the novel, when the narrative sudden pops into fullblown prooftexting (justifying its existence, that is, by turning into an anti-conversion manual),that Mary, in an accidental variant on the sortes Sanctorum, finds the key to Protestant belief in the Scriptures. Too late, though, to do much of anything except die well.
*--Kirstie Blair has explored the problem of how form was thought to structure religious expression and, therefore, belief in Form & Faith in Victorian Poetry & Religion (OUP, 2012).