I've been buried beneath various papers (as well as buried under our blizzard, which was blizzard-y enough to actually prompt my campus to cancel classes). But here I am, back with...a novel even more terrible than usual.
A contemporary review of John Douglas DeLille's Canon Lucifer:A Novel on an English Social Aspect (1887) opines that "[s]ave for a certain vigorous, though rough descriptive power, it is impossible to commend this story," which sums up this novel's quality well enough. The short-lived Mr. DeLille, who died three years later, was actually an American--he was the American consul at Bristol--and did not have time to perpetrate another novel upon the unsuspecting public. In any event, Canon Lucifer takes on one of the most serious crises in Victorian England: the tendency of clergymen without true vocations to murder their fathers-in-law, have rampant out-of-wedlock sex, attempt to murder virtuous young men, try to rape wealthy women, and strangle landladies. That's before they die from gargantuan South American spiders chowing down on their brain (yes, really) and wind up on a dissecting table. (I trust you were all taking notes.) As all students of Victorian literature know, there was practically an epidemic of men like these, committing all sorts of mayhem, sending shivers down the spine of every wealthy aristocrat--
OK, maybe DeLille was being a trifle hyperbolic in imagining his clergyman's career.
In theory, Canon Lucifer has, buried deep (very deep) within its eye-poppingly inane plot, a serious point about how turning the position of clergyman into a genteel career has effectively subverted the Church of England's moral fiber. DeLille's argument (to the extent that we can find one) suggests that professionalization means secularization: the man who enters the Church for "money and social eminence" instead of "vocation" (353) imports the profane into the sacred, turning a position that should be beyond the market into something answering primarily to market forces. In practice, however, reading Canon Lucifer is like riding a particularly rickety genre and mode rollercoaster. Most of the time, it's a sub-Collinsesque or -Braddonesque sensation novel. Except when it's a Western dime novel (complete with every racist stereotype known to humanity). Or a knockoff of one of Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels. Or a discourse on the decay of late-Victorian journalism and authorship more generally, which anticipates New Grub Street but is more probably harking back to Pendennis. There's a gambling scene that seems equal parts Vanity Fair and Daniel Deronda, and a bunch of randomly wandering allusions to Dickens, looking dazed and forlorn. And all of it is couched in dialogue straight out of melodrama; if our eponymous canon, James Morson, had a mustache to twirl, he'd twirl it so tight that the ends would look like corkscrews. ("Beware of driving me to do the worst in my power, Emanuel Mildon!" ) Our villain has no redeeming virtues; our hero is resolutely innocent, even when faced with large quantities of nubile young ladies flaunting their, er, attributes (this is a late Victorian novel, so the sex is less coded and more...right there); our hero's love interest is exquisitely pure. But hey, spiders in brains.