Victorian religious fiction is full of teensy-tiny subgenres, one of which is the Anglican sisterhood novel (with or without explicit reference to Priscilla Lydia Sellon), which, for obvious reasons, tends to overlap with the convent tale. The Sister of Mercy: A Tale for the Times We Live In (1854), which is not actually about a Sister of Mercy (but is mercifully short), picks up on most of the conventions: there are devious Anglo-Catholics who lie; the sisters experience and deploy low-level psychological abuse; and the local Anglo-Catholic clergy have a habit of sitting around discussing their evil deeds in great detail. Plus confession and angst about Bible-reading. That being said, this novel's narrative form deviates from expectations.
The plot is simple. Lady Agatha Tempest (oh look, a symbolic last name) is a Beautiful and Silly Woman of the World, unlike her cousin Millicent, who is an Angel married to a stern Dissenter (it's not clear what kind). Ernest, Lady Agatha's brother, is an Anglo-Catholic priest, and he exemplifies an attitude to female spirituality that the novel is out to denounce: when Agatha asks him why it is important for her to come to confession, but not her husband, Ernest weakly insists that "[t]his is a matter [...] you can hardly understand at present" (7), a demand for absolute, unquestioning submission that the narrative insists is neither Protestant nor English. Once Lady Agatha's husband dies, however, she begins to hang out with a sisterhood, intending to join them, even though she has insuperable difficulties with the horrors she encounters when doing philanthropic or nursing work. Eventually, though, she finds herself feeling strained between her love for the now-dying Millicent (of course) and her loyalty to her brother, despite discovering that her brother has ignored her husband's express last wishes (oh, dear).
What, then, is unexpected? Simply that the narrative does not resolve. Under normal narrative conditions, we would expect one of the following to occur after Millicent's death:
1) Agatha converts whole-heartedly to Protestantism, takes back her property from the eeeevil Anglo-Catholics, and saves her tenants from their depradations. The Anglo-Catholic Archdeacon and her converted Roman Catholic brother are disgraced (death optional).
2) Agatha does not convert, and therefore dies in misery, with all her property in the hands of one Catholic church or another.
3) Agatha does convert, but on her deathbed, thereby converting her remorseful brother as well.
...or something of the sort.
But we don't see any of these options. Instead, here's the final paragraph in its entirety: "And the world woke up, and went its way, for another day had begun: and hour after hour, overhead, Agatha heard the heavy, unceasing tread, which spoke of the strong man's struggle" (175-176). The ending emphasizes, first, the disjunction between Cameron's anguish and the apparent irrelevance of Millicent's death to the larger world; second, and immediately connected to that, sheer repetition. Cameron works out his pain by pacing endlessly, while hours and days tick on, one after another. The ending suspends us in a form of movement that feels like stasis. Significantly, there is no sign that Agatha has undergone any transformational conversion experience at Millicent's deathbed. Indeed, there is no resolution to her plot at all, leaving the reader as suspended as the characters: will she continue her resistance to the Archdeacon, now that she understands his deceit, or will she give in? Will she stop reading her husband's marginalia in his copy of the Bible, or move on to reading the Biblical verses themselves? Will she become a good mistress of the estate, or leave the tenants to continue suffering? The novel's open-ended conclusion is, I think, political. One of the traditional justifications for the religious novel was that it clarified the workings of providence; here, though, the author deliberately leaves the reader in the same sort of mental muddle as Lady Agatha, struggling to make the right choice despite insufficient education, competing ties of affection, and anxieties about the nature of truth. Just how much clarity does a deathbed scene bring, under these circumstances? "The times we live in," the novel suggests, have muddied the spiritual waters too much to make God's truths evident to women like Lady Agatha.