Since there have been novels, there have been other novels warning that novels are dangerous. Such is the case with Mary Agatha Pennell's Catholic novel Maud Hamilton; Or, Self-Will and Its Consequences (1884), which sets itself against insufficiently moralizing books for boys and girls. Or, rather: it sets itself against the ways in which those books might be read. Unlike Eva, the previous entry from the Thomas Richardson catalog, Maud Hamilton was probably written to attract a crossover market: the only hints of Catholic content (such as Maud's self-imposed penance near the end and the French-language boarding school) are all subject to multiple Christian interpretations; there are no references to any religious practices or devotions beyond private prayer; and, similarly, there are no mentions of Mary, the saints, rosaries, scapulars, &c. (This is not to say that a Victorian evangelical would approve of the lack of Bible-reading.) As novels go, it is primarily distinguished by its episodic quality. Something inspires Maud to be Naughty; she does or doesn't get away with it (usually doesn't); she does or doesn't learn something from her punishment; she is Naughty once again. By contrast, there is Maud's sister Edith, who is always Good, and is therefore a Bore (but admirable). The reader is not asked to think of Maud as "developing" until the very end, when we are told that she "improved in many respects" during her schooling (143). This end, though, is not really an end at all, as the narrator invites the reader to look forward to the "future time" (143) when the girls will reappear in another story, perhaps set in India, where their absent parents live. And indeed, they are still at the school when the book grinds to a halt, leaving them suspended between childhood and incipient adolescence. Having offered us a moralizing plot, that is, the narrator keeps the reader hanging about its ultimate outcome: it's not clear that anything can or need be done for Edith, but what about Maud? Is she fated to only be mildly improved?
This non-ending is actually rather interesting, because Maud's fault as a reader is that she never thinks about endings. When we first read Maud, she is too absorbed in Fanny Wheeler Hart's The Runaway to help her sister with the packing, and declares that she will emulate one of that novel's protagonists, Olga, by absconding. "I am so glad I have read the book, for now I know exactly how to manage everything," Maud exults, "and shall begin this very day to practice how to let myself down from the bedroom window" (2-3). Of course, this doesn't work, so poor Maud only winds up dirtying her dress. While The Runaway is almost certainly too amused by its protagonists' adventures for Pennell's tastes--the two girls do receive some comeuppance at the end, but wind up rewarded for their behavior in some ways--Maud doesn't so much misread the story as treat its episodes as though they were severed from an overarching plot. The girls don't "manage" everything in the sense that Maud means (how far has she read?), and The Runaway doesn't quite offer a step-by-step guide to the proper construction of bedsheet ladders. Later, Maud receives Mayne Reid's The Castaways as a gift, and promptly dreams of all the fun one might have being stuck on an island: "It would be a delightful life; no bother with lessons; all the day would be taken up with hunting and fishing. And then there would be the house to build; in fact, we should hardly find time enough to get through all our work" (66-67). From the novel's point of view, it's not just that Maud mixes up labor and play--a "delightful" form of work that is apparently much easier than the "lessons" she loathes--but that in her mini Robinsonnade, she imagines playful work that somehow never ends (in, for example, likely death by starvation). Her story is, to borrow a turn of phrase from Stefanie Markovits, "all middle."1 Moreover, given what The Castaways actually describes, Maud confuses the reader's pleasure with the participant's pleasure--the novel starts, after all, with the shipwreck survivors nearly dead, and they spend much of the book having one near-fatal experience after another. Her fantasies about shipwrecks get a brutal rejoinder when she and one of her friends, Harold, manage to cajole a rather sleazy man to take them out in a fishing boat (boats being peculiarly perilous objects in Victorian children's literature), and they are all nearly killed in a storm. Fictional endings, safely encased between the book's covers, run aground on human endings.
Maud Hamilton's second half, though, also raises questions about how Maud interprets the novel's own generic affiliations. When she and her sister head off to boarding school, she finds herself in a school story--but what kind? Harold's entertaining stories about his own boarding school, complete with "wars" (84), initially shape how Maud understands her own school experiences to come. But, as she quickly realizes, "I was stupid to believe him" (129). This moment suggests that Maud has advanced somewhat since the beginning, inasmuch as she quickly identifies the discrepancies between Harold's tales of school-life among boys and her own initial experiences; the problem now is not fiction, but a false application of fact. Nevertheless, even though she can now discern that some narratives are not universally applicable, she is still shaky when it comes to thinking about story ends. Maud's rebellion at the school links her to another famously rebellious young girl: Jane Eyre. Denied access to her mother's letter from India as punishment, Maud self-destructs: she gives way to a "burst of passion" (133), destroys her workbook, and insists that unless she gets her letter, "I won't learn one single lesson" (135). Jane Eyre's righteous resistance to Aunt Reed (which even Jane Eyre condemns as morally dangerous) returns as mere immature pique, with which the reader is never invited to sympathize. Instead, Maud's punishment includes what, for Jane, was one of her greatest youthful torments--doing penance for her faults in front of the school (wrongly, of course, in Jane's case). But Maud actively collaborates in her own punishment, immediately asserting that she will be "glad" (139) to apologize before the school, and further asking that she wishes to undergo a penance that will be a "real pain"--namely, not getting her letter at all (139). This moment of self-imposed suffering (one of the most identifiably Catholic points in the text) contrasts sharply with Jane's suffering through wrongful humiliation, and marks the true beginning of Maud's development: not merely accepting consequences, but actively seeking them out. In that sense, the novel promises to stop being purely episodic--and yet, it promptly stops entirely. While Maud is the character who drives the story--what can one say about a character who never does anything wrong?--her need for "improvement" also leaves her permanently inferior to her sister. Her future appears to stretch out as one long sea of additional reproofs...
1 Stefanie Markovits, The Victorian Verse-Novel: Aspiring to Life (Oxford, 2017), 79.