Clearly, the holiday break means it's time to...read a Victorian religious novel! F. Talbot O'Donoghue's1 Donnington Hall (1865) is not so much egregiously bad as it is charmingly confused: O'Donoghue can't quite figure out if he's satirizing the religious politics of the 1830s and 1840s or writing a Cinderella story. (One reviewer correctly summed up the book's concerns as "clerical squabbling.") More seriously, however, the novel is a fluffier take on Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil, with the male protagonist, Sir John de Marbury, a less exemplary version of Disraeli's Charles Egremont (Marbury = Marney). Like the Marneys, Sir John's aristocratic background is largely fictional: despite Sir John's pride in "those cross-legged knights who were to be seen at Donnington Church" (9), he is actually the great-grandson of a poor "surgeon-apothecary" (11) who owes his baronetcy to ancestral marriage maneuvers. His more significant connection, via his mother, is to a fictional scion of the Clapham Saints, who, like the Roman Catholics, come in for some mild irony. Again, like Disraeli's Egremont, Sir John is a moderately wayward young man (fond of good food, good horses, and good company) in search of a Cause, which, thanks to his bizarre marriage (of which more anon) to a woman who was "one of the people" (299), he ultimately finds in a political career associated with "young England" (300)--what the narrator dryly calls "a sort of High Church Chartism" (300). A replay, in other words, of Egremont's marriage to the eponymous Sybil, albeit without the narrator taking the matter quite so seriously.
Although the narrator clearly comes down on the side of the Anglican via media, of which more in a moment, his somewhat sardonic reading of Sybil derives from a slight cynicism about Disraeli's investment in restoring the national past, as figured by Sybil's ultimate reclamation of her family fortunes. Instead of Egremont's concluding symbolic marriage to Sybil, now Lady de Mowbray, which is supposed to herald a revived aristocracy, we have Sir John's midpoint marriage to Annie, the granddaughter of the moneylender Jacob Delves. The miserly, working-class Delves (whose relationship with Annie may owe something to Silas Marner) yearns to make Annie "a lady" (152), on the grounds of not of her descent, but his money. Jacob gets his wish thanks to a distinctly creepy deathbed arrangement, in which Sir John marries the fourteen-year-old (!!!) Annie in exchange for a Jane Eyre-ish inheritance of twenty thousand pounds. (This is one of those moments that makes you say "Ah, the glories of Victorian values.") In other words, O'Donoghue subverts Disraeli's comic narrative of a working-class woman restored to her rightful aristocratic place: Annie's ascent to the position of Lady de Marbury rests on three additional years of Wife Husbandry, not some newly-discovered ancient lineage, and the marriage's success further underlines just how irrelevant Sir John's claims to antiquity are. After all, Sir John rides to success on the coattails of Jacob Delves' profits from money-lending, not on the romantic power of his non-existent aristocratic upbringing.
O'Donoghue is similarly unromantic about his brief for middle-of-the-road Anglicanism. The de Marburys abandoned their Catholicism because one of them found it "a barrier to his promotion in the army" (43), but still have a Roman Catholic chapel on the property, along with a second chapel built by the dowager Lady de Marbury as a corrective to the local Tractarian rector's wayward rituals. A good chunk of the novel's first half caricatures the controversial novel and its catechetical form: the evangelical Mr. Marshall, who has "the Romish controversy quite at his finger-ends" (41), squares off against the Tractarian Mr. Hulton and the Roman Catholic priest Father Delawney. In fact, Marshall reads like a caricature of an evangelical, full of "violence" (51) in his denunciations of the Scarlet Woman--and so, in fact, he is, because he's actually a stealth Jesuit (!), working in concert with Delawney to make Roman Catholic converts (thanks to any publicity being good publicity). Although the narrative has no brief for Marshall's and Delawney's skulduggery, it does offer up some grudging admiration for Marshall's missionary work, which ultimately leads to him being "sawn asunder" (123). The novel is similarly critical of popular preaching, which it dismisses as showy rhetoric rather than sound theological or pastoral work; all religous controversy promptly devolves into empty performance. In any event, this fiasco leads to the eventual implosion of both the Catholic and the Dissenting causes at Donnington--including the demolition of the Catholic chapel, which Sir John turns into a "very picturesque ruin" (266). (In other words, an update on the plundered abbey motif.) Again, the narrative undermines Disraeli's fixation on national continuity, while making the new Anglican church that replaces the "schismatical" (269) Dissenting house of worship into a symbol of spiritual and political healing. (Even then, the reader may well wonder about the new church's exalted memorial to Jacob Delves.) To the extent that the novel looks to the Church of England, that is, it does so from the point of view of modernity rather than antiquity. Pointedly, the most spiritually authentic moment in the novel occurs in the new church, not during the elaborate rituals hosted by Mr. Hulton, but in the silent devotions of Annie, Sir John, and Annie's two young brothers. True religion, the novel hints, is a thing apart from the noise of denominational strife.
1 The link says that Donnington Hall has "no Irish content," which, strictly speaking, is untrue: although nothing happens in Ireland, one of the subplots involves an Irish Protestant clergyman, Tom MacMahon (later Mahon), whose hapless career includes courting Lady de Marbury (which ends unfortunately) and becoming a celebrity preacher (which also ends unfortunately).