OK, everyone, brace yourselves. Here we have what is quite possibly the worst religous novel I am going to read this year. Now, I grant that it's still only early July, and there are plenty of opportunities yet remaining to find something even more incompetently written than this monstrosity, but...really, I doubt it. Who Will Win? is that bad.
Isn't it awesome?
Anyway, before I completely fall down the well of snark, a few Serious and Scholarly observations. "Zuinglius" appears to be someone from the anti-Ritualist John Kensit circle--in fact, given the novel's stylistic ("stylistic") and propagandistic resemblance to "Frank Briton's" By and By, likely Kensit's own work, it may well be by Kensit himself. (Kensit actually makes a cameo appearance in Who Will Win? as "John Kentis.") Moreover, there's some interesting overlap between Kensit's own (failed) attempt at obtaining a Parliamentary seat in early 1899 and the novel's narrative of a Stalwart Protestant successfully winning a seat on an anti-Ritualist ticket. Who Will Win? appeared in Hodder and Stoughton's December 1899 list, which suggests (unless the author a) wrote very quickly or b) had his work sent through the press very quickly) that it probably isn't a direct fictionalization of Kensit's run, but may well be connected to it. In any event, the choice of pseudonym suggests both the book's intention as the harbinger of a new Protestant Reformation to overturn the Anglo-Catholic tendencies in the Church of England (again, Kensit's big bugbear), and its frequent assaults on transubstantiation. The novel further examines Protestantism's relationship to a number of ongoing transformations in fin-de-siecle British and European culture, including feminism (there's a suffrage campaigner and it's taken for granted that women can attend university), Socialism (there are hints of working-class unrest), and, interestingly enough, antisemitism (the novel is pro-Dreyfus). The book is, however, single-target in its argumentation: it holds that to solve any and all ills, evangelical Protestantism must be reestablished as the core of British identity, and both Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism expelled, repressed, and otherwise erased. When the Protestant campaigner, Frederic Wykeham, wins his election, he promises the people that "the Protestant cause should have his first attention in Parliament, and that he would leave no stone unturned to banish the evil from our midst" (244). The conclusion, in which Parliament bonds together over the question of Protestantism in the CofE, is set in 1900, so that the novel casts the new century as the positive turning point of Britain's once-inexorable slide towards Romanism.
I'm going to discuss the novel's plot, which I fear may bring on another attack of the snarks. I will try to remain strong in the face of temptation.
We have three main couples: Philip Vavasour and Millicent Greville; Bertrand D'Auvergne and Philip's sister, Helen; and Frederic Wykeham and Nervula Lauriston. Of this crop, Philip and Fred are staunch Protestants throughout; Millicent is an Evangelical, but "prone to look at men apart from what they teach" (363); Bertrand and Helen are deeply attracted to Anglo- and Roman Catholicism, with frightening results in Helen's case; and Nervula is a feminist disinclined to marriage. (Let me eliminate any suspense you may be feeling: they all wind up strong evangelicals at the end.) All of them must deal with the unholy trio of the Anglo- (later Roman) Catholic Orbillieres, brother and sister, and the suave Roman Catholic Father Montmorency. Most of the plot twists depend on the unholy trio being Mighty Morphin Power Rangers of sorts: all of them adopt multiple names and disguises, passing themselves off as members of different denominations in order to effect stealth conversions among the Protestant populace. Montmorency, for example, shows up as himself, as a stone worker, as a mysterious dude with a moustache... This plasticity clearly suggests something demonic at work. Characters who have no truck with this shape-shifting, like Philip, are in the spiritual clear, while characters willing to tolerate it, like Bertrand, are hovering outside the bounds of faith. And then there's Millicent:
"Oh, Mr. Montmorency," she exclaimed, "I never expected to see you here, much less employed in this way."
"What be you a-talkin' of, miss?" he replied. "I don't understand them big words. My name is Ben Jones."
"Well, you certainly remind me very much of a gentleman I have seen elsewhere."
"I have ne'er a-been in these parts afore, but I heard there was a job to be had here, so I came to get a bite and a sup." (54)
That sound you hear reverberating around the planet is that of a thousand facepalms. But yes, there's a symbolic reason for Millicent's inability to grasp that, gasp shock horror, she's looking at the Catholic priest: her willingness to take his speech at face value, so to speak, reflects her deeper incapacity to distinguish spiritual truth from moral error. Indeed, this encounter merely reinforces another Deep Symbolic Moment when she is trapped in the Roman catacombs, "left absolutely in the dark" (41); she wanders within a space consecrated to Christian suffering, yet cannot negotiate it herself or properly view her surroundings. The moral, as Philip explains to her, is that "Rome is a very dangerous place; you may be lost in it in more ways than one" (42). The novel enjoys racking up these Deep Symbolic Moments, as when Bertrand becomes so wrapped up in theological speculation that he promptly falls and breaks a bone (hey, it's a fall! The fall! Get it?) or when, after taking a walking tour that involves climbing a lot of mountains, the characters wind up in Deinseidel, which Helen dubs "a regular Vanity Fair" (118) (hey, mountains and Vanity Fair! It's just like The Pilgrim's Progress! Get it?) However, the characters like Millicent, Helen, and Bertrand frequently show themselves to be bad readers, and their inability to decode the religious symbolism of their own lives manifests itself in their susceptibility to Catholicism's myriad attractions.
This question of reading is frequently at the heart of the novel--what characters read and how they do it. Bertrand complains at one point that Philip is too "painfully literal and logical" (104), as part of their debate over transubstantiation--a debate that unfolds, as it normally does, around the question of figures of speech. What is "literal"? What is the status of metaphor? Is the metaphor the literal meaning? Philip and Fred, both literalists, are the plot's best readers, capable of leaping tall prooftexts at a single bound--I mean, capable of bruising other characters by whacking them over the head really hard with prooftexts--I mean, capable of identifying, deploying, and properly assessing the value of prooftexts in any given situation. (Whew. The urge to snark was getting a little overwhelming there.) At a rought estimate, 99% of the novel consists of nothing but characters playing prooftext tennis--a game that the Protestants always win, of course. The Catholics get ahead by recommending that people keep calm and smell the incense, or something, but since the novel consistently outs them as lying liars who lie (wait...I feel snark returning), they don't succeed for very long. (This is the kind of novel in which Jesuits actually boast about secretly running the world's governments, because when you're in charge of a massive evil conspiracy, boasting about it is exactly the sort of thing you do.) By the end of the novel, the characters have prooftexted their way through transubstantiation, the eastward position, vestments, apostolic descent, clerical authority, confession, obedience to parents, celibacy, Bible reading, lying, and just about anything else that can have a relevant (or not so relevant) prooftext attached to it. In fact, the characters are prooftexting even before the excuse for a plot hoves into view. However, and returning to reading, one of the things about the book that is legitimately interesting is tracking its references to contemporary controversial texts--that is, its attempt to construct a library of good Protestant reading, and to warn readers away from dangerous materials. Thus, we have references to the Methodist pop novelist Joseph Hocking's The Scarlet Woman (being serialized almost contemporaneously with this book), Nunnery Life in the Church of England, and so forth. Most of the novel's references are relatively recent, suggesting less a "canon" of controversial texts and more a play-by-play of what the up-to-date evangelical will have on his or her library shelves.