"Is this a novel about astronomy?" asks my reader, puzzled. Well, no: it's about the evil of not confessing a sin--the realm of sin being "the clouds." That's settled, then. The novelist is S. J. Hancock, also known as Selina J. Hancock, who appears to have spent much of her life in New Zealand before returning (it seems) to London, where she died around 1906. (Note the qualifiers--I'm not exactly swimming in biographical data here.) Confession is built according to the kitchen sink blueprint for plots, and features, in no particular order, fallen women, hypnotism, Jesuits, Dominicans, Priscilla Sellon, sex, illegitimate children, forgery, blackmail, murder by poisoning, attempted murder by drowning, Congregationalists, Roman Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, Methodists, aggravating religious children, insanity, nefarious plots, not-always-correct references to the United States, people with multiple names, seamstresses, prisons, slums, eye-popping "providential" coincidences, a summation scene that wouldn't be out of place in Agatha Christie, and vengeance. Oh, and confessions. As this somewhat excessive hodgepodge suggests, it is not always possible to figure out who is doing what to whom, let alone why. Nevertheless, one soldiers on.
Although the novel's plot and style are equally cringe-inducing--Hancock has a thing for High Melodrama--there are actually reasons for people other than me to read this novel. (Shocking, I know.) First, the novel takes a strikingly radical approach to the fallen woman narrative, far more radical than that on offer in Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (where the heroine dies) or even Wilkie Collins' The New Magdalen (where the heroine and her new husband sail off in search of acceptance). Clarice, although a "child of the Cross" (16), is seduced by our mesmeric and moustache-twirling villain, Morris Vernon (among other names), and they have sex amidst a sea of asterisks: "She was powerless now to withdraw from it, and it became fixed, until his eyes seemed to sink down into her soul, and a strange shivery torpor began to creep over her frame. * * * * * * She woke from her mesmeric trance" (23). For the modern reader, this "fall" reads as rape--Clarice is hypnotized at the time--which makes the rest of the plot morally incoherent to us, but not to Hancock, who (through Clarice) argues that she had "cowered to that fearful influence, as if there had been no God to save her from it, and that God, too, her God" (24). (TL; DR: Clarice should have prayed.) In any event, Clarice finds herself pregnant, runs to England, bears twins, and undergoes many Trials and Tribulations because she refuses to confess to her sin. Each time she manages to establish herself, things go awry. Hancock takes us on a grand tour of the employment options available to single women in mid-Victorian Britain, including sewing (fine sewing and slopwork), teaching, and writing (despite Clarice's supposed brilliance as an author, we are not treated to any samples of her work). Each time Clarice is discovered, whether by Morris or by an emissary of her relatives, she runs, thereby enmeshing herself in further sins (in particular, the sin of lying) and endangering her children, whom she eventually cannot afford to feed. This behavior is in stark contrast to that of a lower-class woman whom Clarice meets, Ellen Moss, who also "falls" and has an illegitimate child, but eventually elects to make a full confession to her community instead of continuing to hide; by the novel's end, she has married, had two more children, and fully forgiven her betrayer (who, of course, goes insane as his providential punishment).
Ellen Moss' plot, in which the fallen woman converts and is both spiritually and socially redeemed to the fullest, is Hancock's rejoinder to novels like David Copperfield or Ruth, in which the fallen woman must die, emigrate, and/or remain unmarried before she can be figuratively cleansed of her sin. Confession insists on the radical power of Christian forgiveness, on the part of both society and the victim, to achieve a comic ending. Clarice's sin lies, in part, in her unwillingness to forgive Morris, preferring to wallow instead in her "exceeding hatred" and "wild loathing" (274). Despite her heartfelt Christian faith throughout, which even converts a couple of other characters, Clarice is incapable of either surmounting her own passion or braving social stigma; only when she elects to confess and forgive can she be united with the worthy Brian Anderson, a physically disabled man reclaimed from his misanthropy through faith, and providentially reunited with her kidnapped daughter (a long story we won't go into here). Similarly, Clarice's opposite number, the mysterious Zaphie St. Colmar, who was secretly married to Morris when he was Pierre (another long story...), must herself undergo a long (and anti-Catholic) series of trials before she can bring Pierre/Morris/Col. Smith/etc. to justice...and then to faith, eventually forgiving him herself and ensuring his release. (Modern readers will no doubt balk at her decision to move back in with him as his legal for the last months of his life...) The novel's argument, then, is that forgiveness transforms not merely the victimized self, but also the wrong-doer--to be forgiven and to accept that forgiveness constitutes the beginning of the road to redemption. And, on the flip side, that a truly Christian society believes that all sins can be wholly forgiven--meaning that no truly repentant sinner should be ostracized by society, polite or otherwise. Fallen women need not spend their lives in masochistic abjection, in other words, but can get on with it ("it" including marriage and children).
Of course, Confession is also about confessing, and here I think the novel rewrites a much better-known Victorian novel on the same subject: Georgiana Fullerton's controversial Ellen Middleton (1844), the only novel Fullerton published while still an Anglican. In Ellen Middleton, the title character accidentally kills her cousin, refuses to confess it, and is then haunted the rest of her life by a mysterious blackmailer. When the novel begins, Ellen is on her deathbed, and we read her life story along with the Anglican priest who has come to visit her; like Clarice, Ellen refuses or avoids every opportunity to confess, destroying her marriage in the process. By the end, she has confessed to the priest, her blackmailer has confessed to the priest, and while neither Ellen nor her blackmailer gets to live happily ever after, all misconceptions have been cleared up. Significantly, the priest, Mr. Lacy, tells Ellen's husband Edward that "God has, through my mouth, absolved her" (350)--making it clear, in other words, that the novel understands confession as part of a sacramental act. In Confession, however, the saintly Protestant clergyman Mr. Moore insists that "[i]t does not matter to whom--to how many, or how few--confession itself is made," and is overtly contemptuous of "auricular confession" in the Catholic mode (146, 147). For Moore, a clergyman is a "teacher and guide" (147), not someone capable of conveying divine absolution. Thus, the novel's big, Poriot-ish summation scene, in which Morris brings charges and then first Clarice, then Zaphie utter their confessions, makes a point of staging the confession in front of a cross-section of the local Christian community, which in turn reintegrates the two women. Both Clarice and Zaphie reap providential rewards that signify their absolution by God, but no man serves as mediator in that respect. Unlike Ellen Middleton, who exits her sensation novel only by death, Clarice and Zaphie get to enjoy a full-fledged transition to a life in sentimental domestic fiction, dying (in Zaphie's case) only when their mission has been fulfilled.