I've been looking for a vocabulary to better describe how English Victorian Catholic fiction works. It's true, as Brian Sudlow has noted, that there is a "divine entente cordiale" between late 19th-c. French and English Catholic writers when it comes to the topic of secularism, but it's nevertheless still the case that in terms of its form, English Catholic fiction doesn't go down the same routes as its contemporary French counterparts.1 This is in large part because French Catholic Revival writing emerges in a majority-Catholic context (although, from the 1880s onward, one where Catholicism's establishment character is under increasingly harsh pressure), and is thus positioned simultaneously against not-good Catholic writing (however "not good" is to be defined), anti-clerical writing, and secular realism. Hence Malcolm Scott's point that the French Catholic Revival was at first self-consciously anti-realist, because realism (and, later, naturalism) were coded secular; when God appears in 19th-c. French realist fiction, Scott suggests, "we know that the novelist is displaying his conjuring tricks, enjoying his own ironic devices," not making a case for the operations of the divine in the everyday world.2 But English Catholic fiction appears in a literary field in which there is, as it were, no "outside": everything has already been staked out as Protestant territory. Protestants have their own providential narrative forms, their own appropriations of Biblical tropes and language, their own protocols for describing how God works in the world; even when Protestants rule things out of realist bounds, as in the case of mystic visions and miracles, they let them in through the back door via psychologization (see, for example, the dream visions in Alton Locke and Tom Brown's Schooldays), or allow them to run free in the Gothic. (One of the objections to both Scott's The Monastery and The Bride of Lammermoor was that they confused Gothic and realist modes.)
What Victorian Catholic novelists tend to do, then, is unwrite genres: the novel appears to be one thing, then turns inside out and becomes an entirely different kind of text. E. H. Dering, whom I have derided at some length, is nevertheless doing precisely that. He takes the sensation novel and transforms its shocking events (child swapping! murder! bigamy! wills! etc.) into moments at which divine grace becomes momentarily visible when human beings attempt to thwart it. Similarly, to use my favorite example, Laetitia Selwyn Oliver's Father Placid appears to be a Gothic, but when Catholics "read" it, it becomes a miracle tale. After thinking about this for a while, it seemed to me that I needed to look again at Gilles Deleuze's and Felix Guattari's Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, which defines the concept of "minor literature" thusly: "the deterritorialization of language, the connection of an individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation."3 That is, minor literature is a "minor practice of a major literature from within" (18), by authors who must write in the dominant language that is at the same time not theirs; is always political, not "individual" (17) in its concerns (or "universal," perhaps?); and not defined by a "literature of masters" (17), singular great authors, but by that "collective" of voices. Now, Deleuze and Guattari phrase this definition in terms of language and style, whereas I'm talking specifically about genre. The Catholic novelist is at ease in the language, but not in the form. But I think that appropriating minor literature in this fashion (which is the sort of thing Deleuze and Guattari approved of, rather than otherwise) is one way into thinking about what makes Victorian Catholic fiction not-Protestant, but also not-French Catholic Revival.
1 Brian Sudlow, "Catholic Realism: Common Ground between French and English Catholic Writings," Chesterton Review 35 3/4 (2009): 575. Sudlow pursues this point at more length in Catholic Literature and Secularisation in France and England, 1880-1914 (Manchester, 2011).
2 Malcolm Scott, The Struggle for the Soul of the French Novel: French Catholic and Realist Novelists, 1850-1970 (Macmillan, 1989), 29.
3 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minnesota, 1986), 18.