We take a break from our regularly scheduled Protestants to check in on some nineteenth-century Catholic fiction. P. J. Coen's Evaline; Or, Weighed and Not Wanting. A Catholic Tale (1872) spends an awfully long time talking about awfully little: most of the novel is about the title character's uncle trying (and failing) to trick her beloved, a French Catholic named Jean Baptiste, into leaving her alone. This is padded out at length with a stereotypical Irish servant boy who believes in fairies. Eventually, Evaline and Jean Baptiste marry, have two kids, and visit France before it occurs to Evaline that Protestant worship just isn't all that it's cracked up to be, and she converts. The conclusion does refer to contemporary events, in the form of Pius IX's loss of his temporal powers when Rome was taken over in 1870; the narrator is, needless to say, grumpy about this event.
The novel interested me primarily because of the interfaith marriage plot, something I've been thinking about for some time. Early on, Evaline's uncle argues that "Jean Baptiste, too, will rue the day he ever marries outside his own profession" (35), whereas her more sympathetic aunt insists that "as for Romanist--Papist--Catholic--Protestant, and the like, I don't care a fig for them all--if the parties about to marry only--love" (38). Although the novel avoids the more dramatic outcomes of the interfaith marriage plot (insanity! poverty! exile!), it is not precisely sympathetic to either the uncle's or the aunt's position. Jean Baptiste's marriage to Evaline proves happy, but only when she has converted to Catholicism do they truly become "now one indeed--one in faith, one in hope, and one in charity" (219); she must be sanctified by "the element of that divine love" (215), that is, before she and her husband can fully enjoy the fruits of the marriage sacrament. Interfaith marriage may not be tragic, but the novel nevertheless defines it in terms of lack. In effect, the narrative justifies it only as the providential impetus for Evaline's conversion. At the same time, Coen condescends to the aunt's "liberal Protestant" (171) perspective, which, while certainly less bigoted than that of her husband, nevertheless sacrifices singular Truth on the altar of a good-natured religious relativism. Although there is little in the way of critique of Protestantism until the end, much is implied by the family's cruel stunt, which certainly suggests a lack of charity (and certainly involves a deliberate lie, as they forge a letter from Evaline to Jean Baptiste).
Notably, the novel avoids the catechetical/mock-dialogue form of much controversial fiction: when Evaline finally starts to think about Roman Catholicism more seriously, Jean Baptiste explains infallibility to her without engaging in any back-and-forth (the first time in the text that we actually get serious theological content), and Evaline finds it "logically convincing" (204). This emphasis on Catholicism's rationality recurs in a supposed sermon by then-Archbishop Manning, which also argues for the "reason" of the Catholic Church (211), and receives further underpinning from the time Evaline spends in "devout prayer and diligent study" (205). Coen's refusal to debate Catholicism characterizes much mid-century and later Catholic fiction, which abandons the mock-dialogue form in order to emphasize the importance of assenting to the Church's authority. Similarly, although Evaline's conversion relies on "visitations of grace" (205) and is, indeed, a miracle (214), it rests on serious wrestling with Catholic texts, as opposed to the near-instantaneous "magic Bible reading" trope familiar from Protestant controversial fiction and conversion narratives. And, as is commonly the case in Catholic narratives, conversion occurs during the communal act of worship, not while alone with the Bible.