William Francis Barry's triple-decker The New Antigone: A Romance (1887) is a good example of a Catholic novel that doesn't particularly read like one: while one of the protagonists has an important conversion experience in a Catholic church and becomes a nun, the novel is virtually free of dogma (aside from expiation for sin) and the Catholicism tends to be more allusive or subterranean than anything else. In any event. The New Antigone combines a somewhat over-complicated romance plot with a critique of contemporary Socialist, anarchist, and sexual liberation movements (both feminist and "Free Love"). The aforementioned overcomplicated romance plot turns out to be integral to the novel's theological politics. It's difficult to find the opening thread, as it were, but the love affairs go something like this:
- The Countess Karina, probably the novel's least likable character, is in love with Tom Davenant, the heir to the Trelingham estate;
- Tom is in love with Lady May, the daughter of the Earl of Trelingham;
- Lady May is in love with Rupert Glanville, an artist;
- Rupert Glanville is in love with Hippolyta Valence, the New Woman-ish daughter of a dangerous radical, Colonel Valence;
- Hippolyta is in love with Rupert (finally, somebody reciprocates);
- and Ivor Mardol, an ebbing radical (and, unbeknownst to himself or her, Hippolyta's brother), is in love with Lady May.
I hope this is entirely clear.
At the novel's core is a terror of the effects, both moral and social, of sexuality unbridled by any religious or cultural norms. The initial figure for this drift is a painting of the Madonna at the Assumption which used to hang in a convent at San Lucar; the model was a Catholic ancestor of the Earl, Lady Elizabeth, who was never painted again because a combination of "reverence" and "remorse" made her vow "never to allow, for ends of pride or vanity, that countenance to be depicted by a worldly artist, which had been dedicated to religion and enshrined above an altar" (I.66). But during an assault on the convent, Colonel Valence is struck by the painting's resemblance to his beloved Lady Alice, the Earl's sister, and he saves it from destruction. In the process, however, the Colonel translates the Madonna into worldly terms by reading the painting as primarily Alice, not the Virgin (I.57), a slippage that renders the painting's actual religious content null while elevating the Colonel's own thwarted desires. After the Colonel brings the painting to Trelingham, the High Church Earl is more attuned to the painting's spirituality, but nevertheless agrees with the Colonel in finding Alice in the painting, not the model or the Madonna (I.71). But once installed in the Trelingham gallery, the recontextualized painting turns into the Lady Elizabeth--that is, just another ancestral portrait. Stripped of its original meaning, the displaced Madonna eventually falls to earth in a freak accident that leaves it literally de-faced--but Rupert and Ivor are on the scene to restore the painting, and Lady May, who looks just like Lady Alice and Lady Elizabeth, sits for the new face. And yet Rupert is a thoroughly "worldly artist" with no interest in the painting's religious function, and Ivor is, if possible, even less interested in Christianity; for them, the exercise is entirely aesthetic. Lady May, meanwhile, who has already fallen for Rupert via his paintings (before she even sees him!), understands the sittings primarily in terms of their potential for romantic fascination. In other words, there has been a thorough-going alteration here from the painting's original function, as it moves from church to private, secular portrait gallery and from devotional painting to a simulacrum of the same. Rupert succeeds in his task because he manages to "enter into the heart of that dead Friar" (I.224-25) who created the painting in the first place, an act of sympathetic identification that nevertheless sloughs off once he is finished with the work; this is the artist as Keats' chameleon, capable of putting on a religious mood and then promptly removing it again without permanent effect.
What's important here is that in the late-nineteenth-century context, nobody is much interested in the figure of the Virgin as the ultimate in female purity, but rather in the Virgin as she stands in for an object of desire (Lady Alice) or as the pretext for desire (Lady May). Victorian England is, as they say, disenchanted; there's no Virgin there. This turns out to be crucial for what occurs in volume two: Hippolyta explains to Lady May and the Countess that she believes in "Free Marriage," an egalitarian arrangement that can be dissolved once "love ended" (II.59). Moreover, Hippolyta puts her beliefs into practice when she refuses to marry Rupert in a religious or civil ceremony, insisting that such things are part of the "world of lying conventions and foolish worn-out antiquities" (II.145). Despite Rupert's initial agonies, he agrees to her position and they leave London to start a new life as Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm. Here, then, is a world of erotic possibilities with no grounding in the example of the Virgin (literally displaced and defaced). Although they are initially happy, Hippolyta's confidence becomes strained when she encounters her refracted double, Annie Dauris, a working-class Catholic girl seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by a nasty radical. Such abusive sexuality, Ivor tells her, is what happens in a world where "Free Love reigns supreme and unchecked" (277): the private, personal pledges of eternal love in which Hippolyta believes are ultimately inadequate in the face of actual inequalities. What is missing, in other words, is a sense of sin--the same thing missing from the novel's version of anarchist politics more generally. Rejecting the violent tactics of the anarchist "Spartans," an outraged Ivor declares that "[t]he Revolution means liberty and light. It means equality in the best things, the only things worth having--love and justice and truth" (III.173-74). Ivor's proto-Christian position is not a conversion--he has held it all along--but rather serves the novel's purpose as a demonstration of how non-Christian social schemes are destined to degenerate into evil. Indeed, the novel casts Colonel Valence as one of the assassins of Czar Alexander II (thereby dating the novel quite precisely). Of all the characters, only Hippolyta has a full-blown conversion experience while attending a Catholic service on "the wages of sin" (III.38), abruptly realizing that "[t]he illusions of life were over" (III.44). After confessing to the priest, she spends several hours before a crucifix, then abandons Rupert forever. Notably, within the horizons of the other characters' understanding, her decision is not only inexplicable, but unimaginable: Rupert decides that she must have gone off with Ivor (who has known his father Colonel Valence only as his guardian Mr. Felton), while a Jewish private detective (really) figures that she has either taken off with the revolutionaries or with another man. Both men, that is, interpret her disappearance in purely secular terms, when in fact she has reversed the journey of the Madonna painting and, after a period of some illness, returned to the plundered convent at San Lucar as a nun.
The conclusion, alas, is rather...odd. Rupert comes down with that convenient catch-all, "brain fever," and suffers temporary amnesia concerning all things Hippolyta. During that time, he marries Lady May, only to finally recover his memory and, worse still, come across Hippolyta again (now a nun). Lady May eavesdrops on their conversation and tries to commit suicide; Ivor saves her, but eventually dies from his wounds. However, thanks to Hippolyta's willingness to take the blame for her sins, Lady May too realizes that Hippolyta is the "noblest woman on earth," Rupert agrees that "She is in heaven" (III.289), and...they live happily ever after. ("I...I don't think that's how it works," I said at this point.) Nevertheless, Hippolyta's transformation into a nun and missionary (she goes to India) undoes the effect of the defaced Madonna, finally realigning all of the novel's human relationships in accordance with a godly order. Even Colonel Valence gets to live in some contentment, despite, you know, having assassinated the Czar, which one would have thought problematic.