We interrupt this run of novels by and about Jews for some poems by M. A. Chaplin's collection Chimes for the Times (1891; 2nd ed., 1907). Chaplin was a (very) minor late-Victorian Protestant poet whose work continued to appear through WWI; I stumbled across her via the ever-useful James Britten (1846-1924), leading member of the Catholic Truth Society, whose critiques of nineteenth-century anti-Catholic propaganda (e.g., Protestant Fiction) remain useful bibliographical resources for folks like yours truly. I'm currently working on a conference paper involving vampires, which is not altogether a non sequitur, given that Mrs. Chaplin's anti-Catholic poems demonstrate that even at the end of the nineteenth century, some tropes remained, shall we say, unstaked and un-garlicked.
The four poems collected under "Convent Chimes" are all, as you might expect, about the perils of Pauline nuns. The first poem is in rhyming couplets, the next three all in ballad meter; unusually for controversial verse like this, Chaplin doesn't hold tight to iambic tetrameter or pentameter, loosening it up instead with a number of trochaic and anapestic substitutions. Her (relative) metrical derring-do does not repeat itself, however, in the poems' contents. The subjects are arranged in an outside-to inside-to outside order: the unheeded cries of a nun heard outside the convent ("Only a Nun"); warning a young girl who fantasizes about the convent ("What It Is to Be A Nun"); nuns speaking from within a convent ("Convent Bells"); and a mother attempting to find her daughter ("The Nun's Mother"). All four poems emphasize enclosure and alienation, not only from the family, but also from a government that ought to be protecting nuns against an implicitly foreign invader...but isn't. In Chaplin's imagination, that is, to be a nun means occupying a kind of strange territory within England that is resolutely un-English in its governance and, to make matters worse, is systematically repressed within English discourse. (This will probably come as news to anyone who has studied Victorian anti-Catholicism!) In "Only a Nun," the nuns wait in vain for "blunt John Bull" (l. 10) to acknowledge their cries, while the "giddy world" (l. 15) ignores them, the "public" (l. 26) expends its sympathies on anti-vivisectionism, and, the poem sternly concludes, "England says proudly, 'It's only a nun'" (l. 42). Anguished nuns find that they can enter no I-It relation, as it were, let alone an I-Thou; their imprisonment extends to their exclusion from dialogue. Only the evangelical campaigner, ready to "force the lock" (l. 18), acknowledges the nuns' full humanity. This call to violate convent space recurs in "Convent Bells," which repeatedly invites male outsiders to "come in" and rescue nuns from their oppression by the false mothers and fathers who populate the religious hierarchy, and "The Nun's Mother," which climaxes with a call to Queen Victoria to "[t]urn every convent upside down/And show us what God knows" (ll. 47-48). Building on decades of anti-convent campaign rhetoric, Chaplin insists that convent spaces are shot through with secret chambers and burial pits, prisons within prisons, that must be opened up to the inquiring Protestant gaze; just as Catholic "Mothers" and "Fathers" parody the nomenclature and structure of the family, so too do convents lay false claim to the privacy accorded to the home.
"The Nun's Mother," the final poem in this sequence, inverts "Only a Nun"'s representation of unheard nuns: here, the lamenting mother is trapped outside the convent, forced to imagine the sufferings of a child whom she cannot see, let alone speak to. Chaplin's first line is "Oh! Where is my beautiful girl to-night!" which hints at the poem's primary intertext: Robert Lowry's hymn "Where is My Boy Tonight?" (1877), in which the maternal speaker counterpoints her sweet memories of an angelic child with her present yearning for the lost prodigal son. Unlike Lowry's wistful mother, though, Chaplin's speaker is all the more agonized because she knows exactly where her daughter is. And unlike the sinning boy, the daughter figures as an angel victimized by mysterious and ominous forces. Buffeted by the wintry elements, the nun's mother is tortured by Gothic fantasies, the "strange tales" (l. 25) that sound suspiciously like they've been taken from the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. In a moment oddly anticipatory of Dracula, the mother can only "stand and wail at the convent gate,/'Oh, give me back my child!'" (ll. 31-32). Lowry's speaker urges her sympathetic audience to "search" for the long-lost son she still loves, despite all his "blight"; this mother, who refuses to imagine that those "strange tales" may mar her own daughter's body, shrieks into the wind. Only another woman, Victoria, can actually "utter the final word" (l. 45) that will finally shatter the convent's walls. Here, then, is the sequence's final counterpoint to the ineffective cries and shrieks that have populated these four poems: Victoria, the nation's true Protestant mother, has both the power and the responsibility to speak the words that will finally silence the nuns' oppressors. But as yet, Chaplin notes, she remains silent.