Back to the Victorian Catholic novels! Lady Amabel Kerr's A Mixed Marriage (1893), originally serialized in The Month, exemplifies the flip side of nineteenth-century discourses about religious toleration: anxieties about the pressure to assimilate. Readers of earlier nineteenth-century novels will certainly recollect examples of interfaith romance plots as signifying national reconciliation (The Wild Irish Girl) or, contrariwise, the apparent impossibility of same (Ivanhoe). It is no accident that Israel Zangwill's famous The Melting Pot (1908) concludes with a possible romantic union between Jew and Christian. The interfaith romance, in its most positive mode, assumes that the personal (love) can trump the political (ongoing sociopolitical disadvantages) and promises to remake public space (the nation) in the image of the private (the pluralist home). But many novelists were skeptical about the interfaith romance plot's religious implications, as well as its political ones. After all, as Mary Jean Corbett notes of The Wild Irish Girl, the "gendered paradigm of marriage" rests on an "inequality" that certainly makes it difficult to think of the novel's proposed Anglo-Irish "union" in egalitarian terms.1 Although Kerr writes long after Catholics had been relieved from most of their civil disabilities, she also reminds readers that they were still on the receiving end of serious religious and cultural prejudice, and her novel takes on that intersection of civic freedom and lingering bigotry. Under those circumstances, what seeds does the interfaith romance plot sow in the private sphere and, by extension, in the public? In that sense, A Mixed Marriage joins with better-known works like Mrs. Humphry Ward's Helbeck of Bannisdale and Mrs. Wilfrid Ward's One Poor Scruple in trying to think through the state of Catholic and Protestant (or free-thinking) relations at the end of the century.
As a novel, A Mixed Marriage derives from the tradition stretching back to Samuel Richardson's Clarissa about the dangers of a virtuous woman trying to "reclaim" a corrupt man. Its most obvious Victorian antecedent in this line is Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--except it's a Tenant of Wildfell Hall in which the attempted escape completely fails to work. However, Kerr also signals that her plot takes place in a sort of Trollopean realist universe: the setting is upper-crust life in a gossipy "Cathedral town," one of the novel's good Catholics is a banker named not Melmotte but Melnotte (not Melmotte?), and the heroine's jealous husband, Lord Alne, has some obsessions in common with the monomaniacal husband of He Knew He Was Right. Our protagonist, Margaret Bligh, begins the novel as a young woman in her late teens who, after enjoying a "hidden, uneventful life" (13) in rural Catholic society, is swept off to London with her mother by a wealthy Protestant cousin. (Yes, it's the attack of the country vs. city distinction again.) Much partying and wrangling later, Margaret falls in love with Lord Alne, the Protestant-ish (rather lapsed) son of a hardcore Evangelical. Despite her uncle's warnings, they marry, but only after Lord Alne promises that his children will be raised Catholic. Things cease to go swimmingly after the arrival not only of their first child, but also of Lord Alne's aforementioned mother, who drips old-school anti-Romanist prejudice into her beloved son's ears. As a result, Lord Alne concludes that he was a "confounded fool" (89) when he made his promise, and this position, which he maintains for the rest of Margaret's life, both shatters the foundations of their marriage and suggests the difficulties with a highly-individualized Protestant "conscience." Matters only worsen when they have a son, whom Margaret fails to save from Lord Alne's determination to raise a proper English gentleman. Although the marriage eventually rights itself somewhat, it is never entirely happy again, and Margaret becomes entirely alienated from her son (who winds up in unspecified but probably sexual difficulties). Not only does neither man convert, but both of them become less Christian as the novel continues; as Margaret, now in her early forties, lies dying at the end, the last thing she sees is that "the only two whose knees were not bowed in prayer were her husband and her son" (216). Female virtue turns out to have no effect whatsoever on men who are in no mood to be influenced.
As Maria LaMonaca has reminded us, Victorian Catholic fiction does not assume that marriage plots are inevitable, and it's telling that Kerr assigns this point not to any of the novel's women, but to the Catholic patriarch, Mr. Melnotte: "Well, I for one have never thought marriage absolutely necessary for any woman's good or happiness. I do not care two straws whether my Katie ever marries or not" (38). In effect, Margaret's life goes haywire because both she and her mother subscribe to an essentially Protestant worldview, which focuses on a woman's earthly needs (being "provided for"  through marriage) instead of her spiritual obligations. By investing themselves in their cousin's Protestant marriage plot, Margaret and her mother opt, however unintentionally, for social conformity over Catholic faith. This choice allies them with an otherwise minor character who is nevertheless the first Catholic we meet, Mrs. Munro, who "was one of those Catholics who take as their standard the Protestant world which surrounds them" (7)--an assimilationist position for which the novel has no brief. Instead, Kerr presumes throughout that the English Catholic ideally critiques normative "Englishness," especially English masculinity. As Mr. Melnotte complains, the position that "young men must be young men" (endorsed by Lord Alne and, to detrimental effect, his son) assumes that "God had created young men only for the purpose of sinning against Him" (41). But Margaret's decision to embrace her idyllic romance plot on the grounds of "instinct" (48) elevates individualist self-will above her obligations to God as laid out by her Church's teachings; by opting for desire instead of emotional self-discipline, Margaret negates Catholicism's critical and moral distance from the ungrounded Protestant "conscience." Although Margaret dislikes the assimilationist Mrs. Munro, who tells "real lies" (67) about Catholicism in order to conciliate Protestants, her own marriage leads to spiritual self-alienation: "I say my prayers, and I go to Mass, and I try to be good, but I am sometimes almost unable to realize that I am a Catholic" (68). Domestic religious pluralism, far from indicating any meaningful meeting of the faiths, instigates a series of fractures--between husband and wife, wife and child, wife and Church, and so on--that imply the absence of God's grace in the household. The wife cannot fully look to the husband's authority; moreover, given that the increasingly anti-Catholic Protestant husband quashes his wife's ability to instruct her children, she also cannot follow the example of Mrs. Melnotte, who "ruled where she was meant to rule" (95). As the interfaith marriage plot plays out, we see that love must falter under the weight of other commitments, both religious and social. Far from being free of religious, cultural, and historical entanglements, romantic love under an anti-Catholic regime turns out to bring with it a network of assumptions that undermine domestic stability. From A Mixed Marriage's point of view, interfaith marriage is neither "liberal" nor a guarantor of social belonging; it is, rather, a doomed assimilationist project in which the Catholic partner is fated to suffer the pains of never being like enough.
1 Mary Jean Corbett, Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 68.