In the past few days, this blog has featured Jews! Or Catholics! Today, for a change of pace, we have...Jews and Catholics! Sophie Amelia Prosser's novellas Oakby, Showing How New Troubles Came into an English Parish and Number Twenty-Nine (1881), published as a single volume, would at first glance appear to have little in common: the former is a nearly-plotless tale in a pastoral setting, in which Ritualists briefly invade and destroy a previously idyllic Christian community; the latter is a semi-sensationalist narrative in an urban setting, in which evangelicals try to figure out the mystery of a Jewish prisoner (and of the other Jews who have suddenly appeared on the scene). However, as my few longtime readers know by now, Jews and Catholics have a habit of overlapping in the Protestant imagination, and the overlap in question is on display here--both stories emphasize the danger of ritual and "tradition" to religious faith, as opposed to beliefs and practices derived solely from the Bible. Moreover, although both stories celebrate Christian men and women, they strongly advocate for Christian men taking responsibility for religious renewal.
In terms of chronology, Oakby is a little odd, as its anti-RItualist hysteria does not really mesh with the pre-railway setting. However, by eliminating railways, Prosser emphasizes Oakby's self-enclosure and virtual self-sufficiency, isolated as it is from urban modernity and rapid historical transformations. The Anglican vicar, who is never named, is a model of Christian devotion and clerical activity; his niece, Mary, ceaselessly nurtures the parish. Their figurative "paternal" and "maternal" roles ensure that the parish functions as an organic whole, held together by faith and love. Meanwhile, the local doctor, a Scottish Presbyterian punningly named Kirke, dispenses practical as well as medical advice. Here, though, is also where Christian masculinity comes into play. The vicar has "'aesthetic'" (14) leanings, although his self-discipline keeps him from collapsing into full-blown Ritualism (and, thanks to the usual slippery slope, Roman Catholicism). But when faced with evidence that his parishioners are being suborned, as it were, by a neighboring Ritualist, the vicar is "stupefied" (33) and incapable of really asserting himself; it is Kirke, the vehement Presbyterian, who carries the burdern of the novel's anti-Ritualist dialogue, expressing himself (hotly) about Romeward tendencies and eagerly confronting (hotly) the young woman who has succumbed to the attractions of confession &c. For all that the vicar appears to be an ideal clergyman, his weakness for the aesthetic indexes a deeper moral and physical weakness: far from leading the crusade against Ritualist incursions, the vicar suddenly topples over from a stroke, and is soon replaced by a Ritualist clergyman from outside the village, "who looked as if much of asthma, or fever, or anything, would end his course" (79). The dainty male physiques of the aesthetically-inclined cannot stand up to the rigors of Protestant self-defense. It is up to Kirke to save the day against this explicitly foreign infection (the locals even call Catholic women "Romans"), ending the tale as Mary's new father figure. WIth all interest in "aesthetics" ejected from the plot, a new, more muscular Protestant regime takes its place.
Kirke has little affection for Judaism, snapping that "'We are not Jews, and we don't want to be brought within a single fetter of the bondage either of Judaism or of Popery" (12). The secret, corrupting book that KIrke and the vicar find in the church, which offers a dangerous alternative to pure Biblical knowledge, foreshadows the heavier weight of texts in Number Twenty-Nine: the "philosopher," Mr. Whiteheart (yet another significant name), is a serious Christian, but overly devoted to the books he collects, and "easily taken in with theories" (86); worse still is Rabbi Nathan's study, loaded with "[b]ooks and parchments," but symbolically smelling of "mould and damp" and lit only by a window "encrusted" with what appears to be years of dirt (263-64). Whiteheart's theories lead him astray from Christian truths, while the Rabbi's study is a figurative tomb, shrouded from spiritual light and associated with rot and corruption. The Bible, which at one point even gets lit by a providential ray of light, is the only proper corrective to such accumulations of obscurantist texts. Like Oakby, Number Twenty-Nine has only contempt for Jewish learning, but it also features a philosemitic appreciation for Jews themselves. As is frequently the case in evangelical philosemitic texts, Number Twenty-Nine roundly condemns all acts of antisemitic discrimination and name-calling, while insisting that the best way of showing respect for Jews is to convert them. In this instance, two of the Jewish characters, Rachel and Simeon, enter the novel already converted; Reuben, their father's favorite child, is the eponymous Number Twenty-Nine, who has had himself imprisoned in order to atone for what he believes is "parricide" (184). Reuben's belief that he can save himself though intense physical discipline, along with the obvious parallel between the prison cell and the monastic cell, again suggests how critiques of Catholicism easily translated into critiques of Judaism--the Jew, like the Catholic, seeks out suffering instead of acknowledging the saving act of Christ's Passion.
Like many Jewish conversion narratives, Number Twenty-Nine also features a Shylock/Jessica dyad, in which the cruel father (masculinized Law) abuses the converted daughter (feminized Love). Jacob, the father, is another moneylender, whose face becomes "anything but agreeable" when he discusses his career, but who also believes passionately in Judaism and Jewish destiny; significantly, he is part of an expanding Jewish community in Jerusalem, which the novel regards as one of the signs of Christ's imminent return. Although Rachel plays a significant role in the novel, it is Jacob's potential conversion that involves the most drama, in line with the other novel's emphasis on masculine religious duty. "Authority John," the nickname for lay evangelist John Knox Craig, is the man responsible for energizing an international Christian community around reading prophecy, especially prophecies related to the Jews, and thereby awakening Christians to their domestic and spiritual responsibilities. The community in question is an ecumenical one, in which both Established and Dissenting members participate equally; all ecclesiastical differences collapse under the weight of Biblical truth. Several of the novel's male supporting characters awaken to their failures in enlightening their wives. But it is a tiny Swiss pastor who, after a devastating railway accident, manages to convince Jacob to rethink his oppostion to Christianity, by addressing Jacob as "father" and representing himself as Jacob's "son" (233). The pastor's selfless love, which reimagines all of humanity as a single family, contrasts starkly with Jacob's rejection of his own children, his refusal to hear them name him as father; at the same time, the pastor also offers an interesting counterpoint to the brash Dr. Kirke and his take-no-comers approach to Protestantism. Male action may be called for, but action may mean feeling as well as rough speech. The pastor's love, which revitalizes Jacob's, reclaims the fractured Jewish family for Christianity--and, insofar as Jacob's entire family returns to Jerusalem, it implicitly continues the process of transforming the Jewish people within their homeland, in anticipation of the Messiah.