Commenter CJ Colucci has inquired more than once about how, exactly, I came to specialize in nineteenth-century religious fiction of, ah, less than stellar aesthetic quality. Here is how it happened:
1. Phase one: I am an English major at UC Irvine. Let's just say that in the late 80s, the tiny handful of Jews at UC Irvine were, if not showered with open antisemitism, nevertheless made to feel very Other. After a while, I became interested in religious issues because, well, they were being brought to my attention on a more frequent basis than I would have otherwise preferred.
2. Phase two: I become a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where there are fellow Jews all over the place. My personal reason for being interested in literature and religion goes by the wayside.
3. Phase three: Dissertating. By this stage in my career, I have discovered two things: one, I'm primarily interested in literary and intellectual history (I can close-read until the proverbial bovines return to their domicile, but I enjoy seeing how genres and concepts emerge and change over time); two, hey, religion seems pretty central to the texts I'm working on (early histories of women, the eventual subject of the diss and Book One), so I should think about it more closely.
4. Phase four: Professional life. Thanks to being at a non-R1, I can pretty much publish on whatever I feel like (this is an advantage of not being at an R1). Now, I've realized that a) I rather get a kick out of reading all this long-lost fiction, albeit with necessary detours into snark, and some of it turns out to have been quite influential; b) not very many other people are willing to put up with this material, and yet there's a lot of scholarship going on in religion & literature for which it's actually relevant; so c) let's say I put a + b together, do something I find interesting, and produce scholarship that might be helpful to other people? And thus, I started reading these things so you don't have to. (Although I'm afraid that I'm leaning more and more towards the position that you should read them anyway.)
1. My implicitly snarky list of quotations from yesterday aside, I think Naomi S. Baron's essay conflates two very different issues: the potential decline-and-fall of "serious" reading habits; and actual student displeasure with using etexts in the classroom. I have no doubt at all that the latter is correct: my students who use etexts also find them irritating for a number of reasons, especially their clumsiness during actual classroom use. We've also had a number of problems that go beyond "nobody is on the same page," like the electronic edition of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho that eliminated all the poems. (You...you can't do that. Really. You can't.) The difficulty with the decline-and-fall narrative, though, is that there's no evidence that a majority of the population has ever had any enthusiasm for reading really long books, or done it easily. The classroom environment, in which one, say, reads Bleak House in three weeks, has nothing to do with any of the ways in which one of Dickens' original readers would have encountered the book. (Serial? One volume at a time? Read aloud in the family circle or in a workshop? Read alone for recreation?) As Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt pointed out, reading long books in a college environment is a learned skill. In addition, it's hard not to notice the proliferation of bestsellers that are, whatever else they are, of a non-short nature.
2. Although Rebecca Schuman's suggestion for fixing peer review--"what if in order to be eligible to submitan academic article to a journal, a scholar had first to volunteer to review someone else’s article for that same journal?"--sounds interesting, there may be a logistical problem. Namely, that there are many fewer people writing and submitting articles than we think there are. Much as we tend to over-exaggerate the number of people on the job market with two books and twelve articles, we also tend to over-estimate how many people are desperately attempting to beef up their CVs. It's hard to tell if the submissions numbers in the MLA Directory of Periodicals bear any resemblance to reality. Who audits these numbers? Academic scuttle-butt suggests that many journal editors are, if not starving for material, not overwhelmed by what they're receiving, either. Modern Philology receives "100-120"submissions annually, according to the Directory, but when I worked for Modern Philology in the late 90s, we had so few articles in the hopper that things were getting rather nerve-wracking by the end of my tenure. Moreover, as a generalist journal, despite its early-modern focus, it would have been impossible for us to insist that an eighteenth-century specialist wait around to submit until something on Alexander Pope appeared (five years from now...) for them to review. And many journals do peer review in-house, via the editorial/advisory board (this is how Neo-Victorian Studies works, for example). Moreover, there's the question of alternative publishing outlets. Some day, somebody will do a serious assessment of how the explosion of edited collections (especially those put out by commercial academic publishers like Routledge) has affected submission patterns to peer-reviewed journals, especially by authors in the UK. Dr. Schuman's suggestion might work for those journals genuinely under siege--PMLA, which claims "200-320" submissions annually, comes to mind here--but most journals would be unable to support this model, I suspect. Now, that being said, demanding that peer reviewers review on time is an entirely different matter, and I don't see why banning someone who abuses another author (by writing a frankly abusive review or by not writing the review in, say, six weeks) should be off the table.
"Readings in the humanities tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty, or both. The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens—particularly those on devices with Internet connections—undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming—not scrutinizing."--Naomi S. Baron (2014)
"No species of publication tends so much as the general class of novels to vitiate that proper taste for reading which we wish every young person to acquire and to retain. The reading of novels perverts the judgment, and alienates the mind from those occupations to which females would do well to attend, and renders every instructive book dull and heavy, when compared with the romantic love-tales which they are in the habit of gorging with such avidity."--Rev. of Dangers through Life, The Critical Review 19 n.s. 3 (1810): 377.
"But, there is one respect, in which the exclusive reading of religious newspapers, and other kindred publications, has nearly the same effect upon the mind, as a passionate fondness for plays and romances:—I mean an increasing disrelish for every thing, requiring deep thought and patient investigation. As those who inquire daily after the mere trash of the bookseller's shelves, grow more and more disinclined to look into standard works of literature and science, so the natural and necessary tendency of too much missionary reading is, to beget a distaste for many of the most valuable theological works in our language, (or indeed any other,) and to throw them aside, as altogether too dry and abstruse for ordinary readers. This certainly is not visionary speculation. It is not raising a warning voice where there is no danger, for even the great majority of good people find it so much pleasanter to feel strongly than to think closely; to skim the surface than to dive in deep water; that where the means of gratification are always at hand, a pleasing self-indulgence will too often triumph over the higher considerations of duty and advantage."--"On the Prevailing Taste, and Increasing Demand of the Christian Public for Religious Intelligence," The Christian Spectator 2 (Nov. 1820): 583.
"Nothing can he more obvious than that this thirst for mental excitement presents to sober reflection the closest analogy to the habit of dram-drinking; the former produces on the mind effects precisely similar to those produced by the latter on the hody; an hankering after renewed stimulus is excited and kept burning, which can be allayed by no sober means; and literary works founded on truth, hecome insipid and wearisome, to such as have been long accustomed to the spiritstirring pages of the novelist. Now this evil is one of lamentanle activity; for not only does it indispose the mind for the acquisition of the knowledge that might be obtained ny study,but it produces a decided distaste for the simple beauties and awful truths of the Bible. The very amusements of a Christian should have a Christian tendency: but I would boldly appeal to the mind of every novel reader, and ask whether he finds himself disposed, on laying down a deeply moving tale of fiction, to take up his new testament, and fix his attention on its solemn and eternal truths?"--"On Novel Reading," Friends' Monthly Magazine 2 (1831): 59.
"My second objection is, that they are the most difficult books to read profitably. I have pointed out what I conceive to be the most profitable way of reading, that is, to read slowly and pause often, and reflect long upon what you read. And now, I appeal to those of you who are familiar with novel reading, and ask if your own experience does not testify that novels are the most difficult of all books to be read in this way? Does not your highly excited interest in the plot, your anxiety to know the issue—do not these, I ask, carry you forward with great rapidity? Is it not often the case, that your reading is only skipping along from place to place, reading just enough to catch the story? And, when you have closed the book, what is fixed in your memory, the simple outlines of the story merely, or the peculiarities and principles of character? Do these books excite and aid you to form habits of reflection? I am well satisfied that any young lady who really wishes to read, in the way which I have pointed out, with much thought and reflection will find it more difficult to effect this, in reading novels than in reading any other books."--Jason Whitman, The Young Lady's Aid, to Usefulness and Happiness (1839), 153-54.
But there is great reason to fear that, what with the newspapers, and the magazines, and the art galleries, and the museums, and the theatres, and facility with which we can get other people to gossip with us when we are both idle and lazy, the number of those who can or ever do read a book—even a novel, even a poor novel—is rapidly declining. In fact, we fear that any one who inquired among his friends, outside the professors and professional literary men, would find that the number of those who now ever read a serious book of any kind is exceedingly small, and that those who read even novels is growing smaller. Most men who have not kept up the habit of reading, in fact, go to sleep over a serious book almost immediately, and throw down a novel after a few pages if the plot does not thicken rapidly, or the incidents are few. The thoughtful novel, such as George Eliot’s, filled with reflection and speculation, would fare much worse now, even coming from an author of her powers, than it did thirty years ago. The newspaper is fast forming the mental habits of this generation, and, in truth, even this is getting to be too heavy, unless the articles or extracts are very short. The reader begins more and more to resent being asked to keep his attention fixed on any one subject for more than five minutes. In short, any one who fiatters himself during the busy years of an active career, when he does no reading but newspaper reading, that he is going to become a reader of books at a later period when he gets more leisure, may rest assured that he is greatly mistaken. When leisure comes he will find that a serious book will tire him or send him asleep in ten minutes, just as a dumbbell would tire a long unused arm.--"The Reading Habit," The Nation 43.1100 (July 29, 1886): 92.
OK, everyone, brace yourselves. Here we have what is quite possibly the worst religous novel I am going to read this year. Now, I grant that it's still only early July, and there are plenty of opportunities yet remaining to find something even more incompetently written than this monstrosity, but...really, I doubt it. Who Will Win? is that bad.
Isn't it awesome?
Anyway, before I completely fall down the well of snark, a few Serious and Scholarly observations. "Zuinglius" appears to be someone from the anti-Ritualist John Kensit circle--in fact, given the novel's stylistic ("stylistic") and propagandistic resemblance to "Frank Briton's" By and By, likely Kensit's own work, it may well be by Kensit himself. (Kensit actually makes a cameo appearance in Who Will Win? as "John Kentis.") Moreover, there's some interesting overlap between Kensit's own (failed) attempt at obtaining a Parliamentary seat in early 1899 and the novel's narrative of a Stalwart Protestant successfully winning a seat on an anti-Ritualist ticket. Who Will Win? appeared in Hodder and Stoughton's December 1899 list, which suggests (unless the author a) wrote very quickly or b) had his work sent through the press very quickly) that it probably isn't a direct fictionalization of Kensit's run, but may well be connected to it. In any event, the choice of pseudonym suggests both the book's intention as the harbinger of a new Protestant Reformation to overturn the Anglo-Catholic tendencies in the Church of England (again, Kensit's big bugbear), and its frequent assaults on transubstantiation. The novel further examines Protestantism's relationship to a number of ongoing transformations in fin-de-siecle British and European culture, including feminism (there's a suffrage campaigner and it's taken for granted that women can attend university), Socialism (there are hints of working-class unrest), and, interestingly enough, antisemitism (the novel is pro-Dreyfus). The book is, however, single-target in its argumentation: it holds that to solve any and all ills, evangelical Protestantism must be reestablished as the core of British identity, and both Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism expelled, repressed, and otherwise erased. When the Protestant campaigner, Frederic Wykeham, wins his election, he promises the people that "the Protestant cause should have his first attention in Parliament, and that he would leave no stone unturned to banish the evil from our midst" (244). The conclusion, in which Parliament bonds together over the question of Protestantism in the CofE, is set in 1900, so that the novel casts the new century as the positive turning point of Britain's once-inexorable slide towards Romanism.
I'm going to discuss the novel's plot, which I fear may bring on another attack of the snarks. I will try to remain strong in the face of temptation.
We have three main couples: Philip Vavasour and Millicent Greville; Bertrand D'Auvergne and Philip's sister, Helen; and Frederic Wykeham and Nervula Lauriston. Of this crop, Philip and Fred are staunch Protestants throughout; Millicent is an Evangelical, but "prone to look at men apart from what they teach" (363); Bertrand and Helen are deeply attracted to Anglo- and Roman Catholicism, with frightening results in Helen's case; and Nervula is a feminist disinclined to marriage. (Let me eliminate any suspense you may be feeling: they all wind up strong evangelicals at the end.) All of them must deal with the unholy trio of the Anglo- (later Roman) Catholic Orbillieres, brother and sister, and the suave Roman Catholic Father Montmorency. Most of the plot twists depend on the unholy trio being Mighty Morphin Power Rangers of sorts: all of them adopt multiple names and disguises, passing themselves off as members of different denominations in order to effect stealth conversions among the Protestant populace. Montmorency, for example, shows up as himself, as a stone worker, as a mysterious dude with a moustache... This plasticity clearly suggests something demonic at work. Characters who have no truck with this shape-shifting, like Philip, are in the spiritual clear, while characters willing to tolerate it, like Bertrand, are hovering outside the bounds of faith. And then there's Millicent:
"Oh, Mr. Montmorency," she exclaimed, "I never expected to see you here, much less employed in this way."
"What be you a-talkin' of, miss?" he replied. "I don't understand them big words. My name is Ben Jones."
"Well, you certainly remind me very much of a gentleman I have seen elsewhere."
"I have ne'er a-been in these parts afore, but I heard there was a job to be had here, so I came to get a bite and a sup." (54)
That sound you hear reverberating around the planet is that of a thousand facepalms. But yes, there's a symbolic reason for Millicent's inability to grasp that, gasp shock horror, she's looking at the Catholic priest: her willingness to take his speech at face value, so to speak, reflects her deeper incapacity to distinguish spiritual truth from moral error. Indeed, this encounter merely reinforces another Deep Symbolic Moment when she is trapped in the Roman catacombs, "left absolutely in the dark" (41); she wanders within a space consecrated to Christian suffering, yet cannot negotiate it herself or properly view her surroundings. The moral, as Philip explains to her, is that "Rome is a very dangerous place; you may be lost in it in more ways than one" (42). The novel enjoys racking up these Deep Symbolic Moments, as when Bertrand becomes so wrapped up in theological speculation that he promptly falls and breaks a bone (hey, it's a fall! The fall! Get it?) or when, after taking a walking tour that involves climbing a lot of mountains, the characters wind up in Deinseidel, which Helen dubs "a regular Vanity Fair" (118) (hey, mountains and Vanity Fair! It's just like The Pilgrim's Progress! Get it?) However, the characters like Millicent, Helen, and Bertrand frequently show themselves to be bad readers, and their inability to decode the religious symbolism of their own lives manifests itself in their susceptibility to Catholicism's myriad attractions.
This question of reading is frequently at the heart of the novel--what characters read and how they do it. Bertrand complains at one point that Philip is too "painfully literal and logical" (104), as part of their debate over transubstantiation--a debate that unfolds, as it normally does, around the question of figures of speech. What is "literal"? What is the status of metaphor? Is the metaphor the literal meaning? Philip and Fred, both literalists, are the plot's best readers, capable of leaping tall prooftexts at a single bound--I mean, capable of bruising other characters by whacking them over the head really hard with prooftexts--I mean, capable of identifying, deploying, and properly assessing the value of prooftexts in any given situation. (Whew. The urge to snark was getting a little overwhelming there.) At a rought estimate, 99% of the novel consists of nothing but characters playing prooftext tennis--a game that the Protestants always win, of course. The Catholics get ahead by recommending that people keep calm and smell the incense, or something, but since the novel consistently outs them as lying liars who lie (wait...I feel snark returning), they don't succeed for very long. (This is the kind of novel in which Jesuits actually boast about secretly running the world's governments, because when you're in charge of a massive evil conspiracy, boasting about it is exactly the sort of thing you do.) By the end of the novel, the characters have prooftexted their way through transubstantiation, the eastward position, vestments, apostolic descent, clerical authority, confession, obedience to parents, celibacy, Bible reading, lying, and just about anything else that can have a relevant (or not so relevant) prooftext attached to it. In fact, the characters are prooftexting even before the excuse for a plot hoves into view. However, and returning to reading, one of the things about the book that is legitimately interesting is tracking its references to contemporary controversial texts--that is, its attempt to construct a library of good Protestant reading, and to warn readers away from dangerous materials. Thus, we have references to the Methodist pop novelist Joseph Hocking's The Scarlet Woman (being serialized almost contemporaneously with this book), Nunnery Life in the Church of England, and so forth. Most of the novel's references are relatively recent, suggesting less a "canon" of controversial texts and more a play-by-play of what the up-to-date evangelical will have on his or her library shelves.
I'm all for survey courses, not least because that's pretty much most of what I teach. ("Our students don't go for single author courses," advised a former chair during my first year of teaching. "They're pragmatic.") However, there are times when survey courses meet, not the road, but the program requirements. In days of yore, students could use multiple 200-level courses to meet distribution reqs. In days more recent, students are limited to using two 200-level courses toward the major. And when it comes to British vs. American literature, the cries of USA! USA! USA! are louder than they are at the World Cup. (That is, I assume that they're loud at the World Cup. My television pulls in exactly one channel.) Once the program change-over happened, suddenly--as in fall-off-a-cliff, wait-there's-a-hole-in-front-of-me suddenly--enrollments in British Literature II plummeted from the 40s to the single digits. In the space of one year. It would appear that whatever we may feel about the survey, our undergraduates would prefer to hone their literary skills in other courses. And yet, surveys are essential, not just because they ought to enroll in the 40s (many students, so FTE, much wow), but also because...they're introductory surveys. They're intended to give students a grasp of basic material that they can build on over the course of the program. Victorian Gothic, which students like a lot, is not so helpful for introducing British Romantic poetry.
In comments, Roger asked an interesting question: given all these books I keep acquiring (and, therefore, have to shelve somewhere), how do I figure out when to put items from my collection out to pasture? (Or, at least, out to the free books table.)
1. As you might expect, we begin with denial, as I hear my books sobbing at the very thought that I might no longer want them. How could I be so heartless? So cruel?
"Because there are books stacked on top of books here," I tell them, firmly.
OK, I tell myself firmly.
2. Moving on past the Agony of the Books. Some books I never intend to keep. As it happens, these are the books I now buy in electronic format--SF or mystery anthologies, for example. I generally discard mysteries unless they're Victorian (I have a use for those), although I did hang on to all of my Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I also quickly discarded all those Anne Boleyn romances, and the Dracula knockoffs I currently have stacked up every which way will also decamp whenever that article finally puts in an appearance.
3. As an academic, I get free copies of teaching editions. There are times when one contemplates seven different copies of Jane Eyre and decides that there are other things that could be on one's shelves.
Now we're into the tougher decisions.
4. Question #1: Will I ever read this? For some reason, I built up a rather large stack of postapocalyptic novels. And yet, despite my naturally pessimistic nature, I then found myself deeply unmotivated to read any of them. Out they went.
5. Question #2: Will I ever read this again? At the risk of forever destroying what exists of my geek/nerd cred, I found that the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Silmarillion fell before this question like orcs in sunlight. (Let's just say that I think you need to have "caught" Tolkien, like Lovecraft, at a certain age; as it happens, my own immune system proved too strong for Tolkien's prose when I finally sat down to read it.)
6. Question #3: Will I ever write about this? Given my line of work, historical novels tend to survive this question, but a lot of contemporary fiction (especially contemporary fiction that didn't grab me the first time around) disappears into the ether.
7. Question #4: Will I ever teach this? Since I do teach the second half of the British novel survey, contemporary British fiction has a good chance of coming out alive. Literature in translation, which comes in handy for some lower division courses that fulfill GE requirements, also has an edge. And I generally hang on to novels that rewrite other novels and/or Shakespeare, as they're helpful for intro to literary analysis.
8. Question #5: Will I ever cite this? Culling monographs is a bit dicey--I just wound up rebuying (for less than a dollar, thank goodness) a book I discarded about a decade ago because I'd never used it, only to discover now that I need it for more than one project. Because interests are not predictable. (...Dracula knockoffs? Really?) These decisions were easier when I was a graduate student, and bought a lot of books that looked interesting without considering whether or not they were actually useful for my scholarship. A random interesting book should be checked out of the library; a useful book should be on one's own shelf.
In her acknowledgments to The Nun, Simonetta Agnello Hornby thanks Enrichetta Caracciolo (1821-1901), whose I misteri del chiostro napoletano (Mysteries of the Neapolitan Cloister) was useful for, among other things, "descriptions of ceremonials" (327). That's rather understating the case. In fact, The Nun relies very heavily on Caracciolo's account for its plot and several incidents, but yokes it to a romance narrative that echoes eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British fiction, especially Pride and Prejudice (which the protagonist reads) and Jane Eyre (which the protagonist doesn't). One way of thinking about The Nun is that it upends nineteenth-century critiques of novel reading: Agata, our heroine, has little in the way of agency, thanks to the structure of mid-19th c. upper-class Sicilian society, but she is both liberated and seduced by novel-reading--something the novel celebrates as freedom from stultifying constraints, rather than moral corruption.
Like Mysteries, The Nun is set against the backdrop of the Risorgimento, although it ends earlier, in 1848. Agata's life plot adheres roughly to Enrichetta's: both women are daughters of military fathers who married women in their early teens; both develop a passion for a young man whom they glimpse primarily from a balcony, and who is destined for another, wealthier woman; both discover that their own mothers (as well as the youth's parents) object strongly to the potential match; and both find themselves unceremoniously deposited in a Benedictine convent after their father's death. In both cases, the mother leaves Enrichetta/Agata in the convent with a promise that the ordeal will last for only "two months" (25/100) if Enrichetta/Agata dislikes the experience; in both cases, the mother returns, supposedly to remove her daughter, only to abandon her instead, which leads the daughter to collapse. Both women go on to become Infirmarians. Both have an aunt, also professed, who suffers increasingly from dementia and/or insanity, and is treated horribly. Besides this basic plot outline, The Nun also borrows a number of incidents and set pieces from Mysteries, including the poor babies in the procession car; the protagonist's unexpected invitation to the convent; the quarrel over wearing curls vs. straight hair before being admitted to the convent; the tour of the convent itself; being fondled by the priests; the anonymous Protestant who objects when the protagonist's hair is about to be cut; singing with her insane aunt; the concealed tumor; and the jewel theft. James Garson, Agata's English beloved, is inspired by an English captain whom Enrichetta meets early on in her memoir. And so on.
Now, that being said, The Nun diverges sharply from its source on the count of politics. Enrichetta's personal development maps onto her growing nationalist awareness, what she describes as a "different and clearer light of salvation" (Mysteries 114); she translates her rebellion against her incarceration in the convent into allegiance to the new political cause, linking the monastic system to "despotism" and praying instead for "the downfall of tyranny, and the triumph of the nation to which it was my boast to belong" (Mysteries 114). Instead of focusing on her putative destiny as wife and mother, Enrichetta imagines herself part of a larger women's movement devoted to the Italian cause, possessed as she is with a "sacred love of country" (Mysteries 146). For Enrichetta, nationalism is civic religion, a more-than-worthy substitute for the stultifying and infantilizing qualities of monastic life enjoined by Catholicism. The convent represses authentic femininity; nationalism, by contrast, liberates it into a new fullness. The narrative climaxes, in fact, with Enrichetta associating the end of her time as a nun with Garibaldi's entry into Naples, so that personal and political freedom are ecstatically united. And, as an afterthought, she gets married--a comic ending to her plot, but one that is very much not represented as runaway grand romance. By contrast, The Nun appropriates most of Enrichetta's life for Agata, but assigns the high political aspirations to Agata's sister Sandra, who embraces her husband's argument that "a patriot's woman must remember that certain sacrifices are necessary in order to attain a given higher end: the unity of the nation and the good of the Italian people" (The Nun 139). But the reader cannot help noting that despite the apparent egalitarianism of Sandra's marriage and her radical political affiliations, she winds up deeply unhappy, thanks to her husband's eventual philandering; nationalist sentiment, far from going hand-in-hand with women's liberation, turns out to enable yet another mode of useless female self-sacrifice. Instead, the novel endorses the free pursuit of romantic desire as woman's only route to entire self-fulfillment. Although we do encounter a couple of entirely content nuns, especially Donna Maria Giovanna della Croce, Agata never shares their vocation and finds their counsels inadequate to her need "to fall in love, be fecund, bear children" (The Nun 181). Enrichetta's quest for political and personal liberty thus transforms into a quest for sexual self-realization, one free from the constraints of financial shenanigans (the politics of dowries and arranged marriages) and inequality (the nun who dies bearing a priest's child). In the world of the novel, such relationships appear to happen almost by accident, as in the case of Agata's mother's second marriage (originally contracted for pecuniary reasons) or on the margins (the lesbian lay sisters). The personal overtakes the political. Unlike Sandra, Agata welcomes the possible coming of a "better, free world" (223) primarily for her own emancipatory options. It is here that novel-reading comes into play.
Early on in Mysteries, Enrichetta is horrified to find that a priest has given a young nun a copy of Denis Diderot's La Religieuse (another influence on Hornby's novel, starting with the title), which she describes as "full of the most revolting improprieties" (54). The Nun takes the obviously erotic connotations of this gift and turns it into a form of re-emplotment: Agata's relationship with James Garson is textual long before it is ever sexual, and turns on the long-running exchange of novels and poetry (from him) and commentary (from her). Even when James isn't sending her novels, she is reading them on her own, with a noticeable preference for romances like Corinne (The Nun 188) and "tragic, heart-breaking love stories" (The Nun 182). In a Victorian novel, her reading preferences would mark her out as doomed to an early death at the hands of an evil seducer; here, the wildness of the passionate plots she so adores proves personally liberating by celebrating the power of grand passion (even when it ends unhappily) instead of erotic and personal self-repression. James' first gift to her, Pride and Prejudice, implicitly offers her a new way of understanding her own life, especially in the wake of her revulsion from her first beloved, Giacomo; rereading the novel and falling "head over heels in love with Darcy" (The Nun 178), which leads her to restart her exchanges with James, is the sign of her emotional maturity. After her profession, she conceals her comments on James' gifts in the paperoles--miniature altars--that she makes and sends to him, making self-expression substitute for an image of the Eucharist at the heart of her miniature. Her literary criticism remains secret even to the reader, an alternate form of sacred communion that derives from the shared world of books and excludes everyone but James. Later, James invites her to read along with him by marking lines with his initials, using literature to ventriloquize his passion (The Nun 276-77). Imaginative reading-with-another offers a double means for Agata to escape her mental and physical imprisonment, both by identifying with creative literature and its characters and passions, and by sympathetically engaging with James' own interpretive processes. Notably, their exchanges are a form of secret writing, which, unlike Enrichetta's texts, are difficult to decode and often hard to trace--indeed, cannot always be understood as "communicating" at all. This private language, stitched together from novels and hidden letters, stands apart from the political discourses at play in the worlds of Sandra's husband Tommaso and Enrichetta herself, which are openly subversive and dangerously readable by the authorities. Literature provides the figurative space in which James and Agata can meet, but it also suggests ways in which Agata can, as it were, escape the confines of Enrichetta's memoir.
This strategy climaxes (in more ways than one...) in James' rather astonishing present to Agata of M. G. Lewis' The Monk, which clearly stands in for La Religieuse. The novel, James explains in his accompanying letter, is "full-blooded and carnal. Like the relationship that I desire with you" (The Nun 264). Although we never find out what, exactly, Agata makes of The Monk, Hornby does borrow tropes from anti-Catholic Gothic (the suicidal nun, the insane nun, solitary confinement, sexual abuse at the hands of priests) that are more subdued in her source material, and the outcome of The Monk's secondary romance plot prefigures Agata's eventual reunion with James. More to the point, James' forthright declaration of the novel's sexual intent precipitates Agata out of Pride and Prejudice and into Jane Eyre, as James is already married and, like Rochester, proposes that they live together without officially cementing the relationship. James' proposal, however, is an egalitarian one: "you will always have my love, ample economic independence, and the life that you want to live, where and as you wish" (The Nun 263). This is not a Rochester who seeks to absorb the life of his mock bride, but a proto-feminist offering up an alternative family form; unlike Sandra's husband, he celebrates mutual liberty and freely-chosen obligations instead of absolute self-subordination to a political ideal. Whereas Enrichetta yokes femininity to nationalism, Agata finds it instead in the union of Godly and erotic love, first in her sexual encounter with James and then later, at another convent, when she concludes that "there was really no difference between sacred love and profane love" (The Nun 296). Divinized eroticism (despite pesky issues like marriage, adultery, etc.) supplants political action--or, to put it differently, when faced with a choice between history and romance, Agata comes down firmly on the side of the romance.
In the fall, I'm teaching a new course on (mostly) Victorian fictions of childhood (and what we would now call young adulthood, for that matter). It's not a children's literature course, although there are certainly plenty of examples of Victorian children's literature on the list. I'm still playing around with the various electronic readings, although some of the books are set (thanks to the rule that we need to order books months in advance...). The syllabus is more thematic than chronological. I suspect that I'll move Little Henry and His Bearer down to the end with Kim.
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Frances Trollope, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong
Mary Martha Sherwood, Little Henry and His Bearer
Mrs. Molesworth, Ministering Children (excerpts)
Hesba Stretton, Jessica's First Prayer
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family (excerpts)
Frederic W. Farrar, Eric; Or, Little by Little (excerpts)
Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's School Days
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Selections from Auerbach and Knoepflmacher, Forbidden Journeys
Daniel Levine's Hyde is an interesting case (so to speak) of how the Gothic can be translated from the supernatural to the rational mode--from Lewis to Radcliffe, in other words. Readers who come to the book after scanning the back cover can be forgiven if they expect that the novel's revisionism will lead us to a heroic Hyde ("brief, marvelous life") and creepy Dr. Jekyll. As it happens, the blurb is rather inaccurate on that score. Instead, Hyde historicizes Stevenson's original novel at the intersection of two different Victorian investigations: the study of multiple personalities, on the one hand, and W. T. Stead's Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, on the other. Levine reinvents Jekyll as an alienist whose work with a French patient, Emile Verlaine (possibly inspired by Louis Vive?) went badly astray, but not before Jekyll discovered how to trigger Verlaine's different personalities with a chemical injection. Hyde, then, is one of Jekyll's own personalities, "born" from childhood abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional), and repressed from adolescence until middle age. Unfortunately for all concerned, the classic Gothic double (Jekyll/Hyde) has been interrupted by a third party. In some ways, the novel's intertext is as much Sybil as it is Strange Case.
As readers will remember, Strange Case really consists of multiple acts of storytelling, whether oral or written, attesting to encounters with/visions of Mr. Hyde. Most of the time, these tales are mediated to us through Mr. Utterson, the dour lawyer. Like many other Victorian Gothic narratives, Strange Case pits professional, middle- to upper-class men--the social elite, the experts--against apparently supernatural phenomena; the question, then, is whether or not the professionals can survive the novel with their sanity intact. Hyde's strange difference, which is always in some other place than where the viewer looks for it, troubles rational thought processes. Lanyon, of course, dies from the revelation of Jekyll's/Hyde's identity; by contrast, the reader never learns Utterson's response to Jekyll's narrative, leaving Jekyll with the last word. By contrast, Hyde is entirely focalized through, well, Hyde, with occasional newspaper articles or mysterious letters taking the place of the original's more fragmentary construction. Unlike the eminently reasonable Mr. Utterson, however, Hyde is himself fragmented: not only is he frequently relegated to passive observation but also he doesn't necessarily understand Jekyll ("[h]is work was sealed off in regions of the mind well beyond me" ). To make matters worse, it becomes clear that there is a third personality, "Mr. Seek," whose subjectivity is entirely inaccessible to the other two personalities inhabiting the body. (Jekyll's account of his work with Verlaine, who had a third and much nastier personality lurking within, should warn readers that something is up.) Thus, whereas Jekyll's narrative in Strange Case supposedly explains the rest of the text, Hyde's (and, by extension, Jekyll's) promises revelations only to come to a crashing halt in front of a mental abyss. Jekyll tries to explain Hyde to Utterson, but Hyde is in the awkward position of trying to explain Jekyll to himself and himself to himself--and, because of his imperfect access to his "own" mind, fails on both counts. By shifting focus from the rational professional to the "irrational" alternate personality, Hyde reworks the traditional problem of Victorian Gothic--"convert" to a belief in the supernatural/paranormal or die. Here, there is an explanation for Hyde's existence (Jekyll's abuse at the hands of his/their father) but it is not, for lack of a better term, functional: the answer to the mystery, whether proto-psychoanalytical or not, doesn't help.
Like many neo-Victorian rewrites of classic Victorian novels, there's much more explicit sex in this novel than in the original (as in, there's explicit sex in the novel in the first place), but given that sexual transgression was already in play in Strange Case, the lust isn't as extraneous here as it often is. In Hyde, though, the sex is part and parcel of the narrative's emphasis on both exploitation (of female bodies and bodies in general) and filth. I've joked about neo-Victorian "filthfic" before--novels focused on sewers, slums, and associated physical secretions. The exuberant filthiness of filthfic recasts the classic Victorian novel in terms of repression, boundary-making, and self-containment; Dickens may discuss "dust" (and Rossetti, more explicitly, the "middle street"), but Hyde offers us urine, feces, saliva, mud, and goodness knows what else. Indeed, the novel makes the distinction between professional Jekyll and criminal Hyde a matter of cleanliness: when Hyde transitions back to Jekyll, there's almost always a ritual moment in which he shaves off Hyde's stubbly beard, bathes, and changes his clothes. As Carew points out, although Hyde's physicality seems "deformed" and "twisted," he nevertheless is obviously Jekyll (199)--Hyde's dirtiness and Jekyll's cleanliness are each part of a personality's performance. At the same time, Jekyll's obsession with being clean, which amounts to a fear of his own body and its potential (he cannot look at himself naked in a mirror), is also associated with his inability to perform sexually. Hyde's "job," in effect, is to be "dirty" in every possible way, to revel in his body but also in sexual pleasure.
Although, like the original, the boundary between Hyde and Jekyll slowly disintegrates as the novel continues, the presence of the third personality--"Mr. Seek"--warns of more brutal impulses within Victorian culture. Seek, present to the reader only through scraps of riddling text and traces of his criminal activities, is the personality embroiled in sex trafficking; what both Jekyll and Hyde initially believe to be a nefarious plot concocted by Sir Danvers Carew (the novel's explanation for Strange Case's inexplicable act) turns out to be the product of an absolutely uncontrollable personality who taunts "himself." Reading a newspaper report clearly implicating him, Hyde notes, puzzled, that "I knew it couldn't be referring to me--I hadn't bought any virgins or ruined any maids" (182), but that confidence is precisely what the novel attacks. Hyde "knows" what he does and does not do, just as Jekyll similarly believes he knows, but neither grasps the presence of the third "I" in the equation. (A passing reference to Frankenstein suggests the extent to which the mental "Creature" exceeds the creator's control.) Seek's first letter to Hyde, "you be hide and I play seek/tho I know where you've hid, you see,/so I play hide and you play hide/and see who's found out first!" (143), suggests the secret's nature: Hyde/hide has already lost the game (Seek "know[s]" where Hyde is), so Seek will "play" as Hyde by walking about under his name (hiding as Hyde) and exposing both Hyde and Jekyll to the public as deviants. The personality who knows most of all is the one that neither Hyde nor Jekyll nor the reader ever encounters directly; moreover, Seek's evil is effectively untraceable, since it has been ascribed to Hyde. In one respect, the novel keeps drilling down, as it were, to greater and greater evils, until it finds an evil that appears containable (because it has been "named") but in fact escapes social control. And because Seek is only one of many participants in the trafficking underworld, "their" death does not, in fact, end the repercussions of Seek's evil, in the way that Jekyll's/Hyde's death does in Strange Case. Destroying the monster does not, in the end, change anything.
Back to the Victorian Catholic novels! Lady Amabel Kerr's A Mixed Marriage (1893), originally serialized in The Month, exemplifies the flip side of nineteenth-century discourses about religious toleration: anxieties about the pressure to assimilate. Readers of earlier nineteenth-century novels will certainly recollect examples of interfaith romance plots as signifying national reconciliation (The Wild Irish Girl) or, contrariwise, the apparent impossibility of same (Ivanhoe). It is no accident that Israel Zangwill's famous The Melting Pot (1908) concludes with a possible romantic union between Jew and Christian. The interfaith romance, in its most positive mode, assumes that the personal (love) can trump the political (ongoing sociopolitical disadvantages) and promises to remake public space (the nation) in the image of the private (the pluralist home). But many novelists were skeptical about the interfaith romance plot's religious implications, as well as its political ones. After all, as Mary Jean Corbett notes of The Wild Irish Girl, the "gendered paradigm of marriage" rests on an "inequality" that certainly makes it difficult to think of the novel's proposed Anglo-Irish "union" in egalitarian terms.1 Although Kerr writes long after Catholics had been relieved from most of their civil disabilities, she also reminds readers that they were still on the receiving end of serious religious and cultural prejudice, and her novel takes on that intersection of civic freedom and lingering bigotry. Under those circumstances, what seeds does the interfaith romance plot sow in the private sphere and, by extension, in the public? In that sense, A Mixed Marriage joins with better-known works like Mrs. Humphry Ward's Helbeck of Bannisdale and Mrs. Wilfrid Ward's One Poor Scruple in trying to think through the state of Catholic and Protestant (or free-thinking) relations at the end of the century.
As a novel, A Mixed Marriage derives from the tradition stretching back to Samuel Richardson's Clarissa about the dangers of a virtuous woman trying to "reclaim" a corrupt man. Its most obvious Victorian antecedent in this line is Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--except it's a Tenant of Wildfell Hall in which the attempted escape completely fails to work. However, Kerr also signals that her plot takes place in a sort of Trollopean realist universe: the setting is upper-crust life in a gossipy "Cathedral town," one of the novel's good Catholics is a banker named not Melmotte but Melnotte (not Melmotte?), and the heroine's jealous husband, Lord Alne, has some obsessions in common with the monomaniacal husband of He Knew He Was Right. Our protagonist, Margaret Bligh, begins the novel as a young woman in her late teens who, after enjoying a "hidden, uneventful life" (13) in rural Catholic society, is swept off to London with her mother by a wealthy Protestant cousin. (Yes, it's the attack of the country vs. city distinction again.) Much partying and wrangling later, Margaret falls in love with Lord Alne, the Protestant-ish (rather lapsed) son of a hardcore Evangelical. Despite her uncle's warnings, they marry, but only after Lord Alne promises that his children will be raised Catholic. Things cease to go swimmingly after the arrival not only of their first child, but also of Lord Alne's aforementioned mother, who drips old-school anti-Romanist prejudice into her beloved son's ears. As a result, Lord Alne concludes that he was a "confounded fool" (89) when he made his promise, and this position, which he maintains for the rest of Margaret's life, both shatters the foundations of their marriage and suggests the difficulties with a highly-individualized Protestant "conscience." Matters only worsen when they have a son, whom Margaret fails to save from Lord Alne's determination to raise a proper English gentleman. Although the marriage eventually rights itself somewhat, it is never entirely happy again, and Margaret becomes entirely alienated from her son (who winds up in unspecified but probably sexual difficulties). Not only does neither man convert, but both of them become less Christian as the novel continues; as Margaret, now in her early forties, lies dying at the end, the last thing she sees is that "the only two whose knees were not bowed in prayer were her husband and her son" (216). Female virtue turns out to have no effect whatsoever on men who are in no mood to be influenced.
As Maria LaMonaca has reminded us, Victorian Catholic fiction does not assume that marriage plots are inevitable, and it's telling that Kerr assigns this point not to any of the novel's women, but to the Catholic patriarch, Mr. Melnotte: "Well, I for one have never thought marriage absolutely necessary for any woman's good or happiness. I do not care two straws whether my Katie ever marries or not" (38). In effect, Margaret's life goes haywire because both she and her mother subscribe to an essentially Protestant worldview, which focuses on a woman's earthly needs (being "provided for"  through marriage) instead of her spiritual obligations. By investing themselves in their cousin's Protestant marriage plot, Margaret and her mother opt, however unintentionally, for social conformity over Catholic faith. This choice allies them with an otherwise minor character who is nevertheless the first Catholic we meet, Mrs. Munro, who "was one of those Catholics who take as their standard the Protestant world which surrounds them" (7)--an assimilationist position for which the novel has no brief. Instead, Kerr presumes throughout that the English Catholic ideally critiques normative "Englishness," especially English masculinity. As Mr. Melnotte complains, the position that "young men must be young men" (endorsed by Lord Alne and, to detrimental effect, his son) assumes that "God had created young men only for the purpose of sinning against Him" (41). But Margaret's decision to embrace her idyllic romance plot on the grounds of "instinct" (48) elevates individualist self-will above her obligations to God as laid out by her Church's teachings; by opting for desire instead of emotional self-discipline, Margaret negates Catholicism's critical and moral distance from the ungrounded Protestant "conscience." Although Margaret dislikes the assimilationist Mrs. Munro, who tells "real lies" (67) about Catholicism in order to conciliate Protestants, her own marriage leads to spiritual self-alienation: "I say my prayers, and I go to Mass, and I try to be good, but I am sometimes almost unable to realize that I am a Catholic" (68). Domestic religious pluralism, far from indicating any meaningful meeting of the faiths, instigates a series of fractures--between husband and wife, wife and child, wife and Church, and so on--that imply the absence of God's grace in the household. The wife cannot fully look to the husband's authority; moreover, given that the increasingly anti-Catholic Protestant husband quashes his wife's ability to instruct her children, she also cannot follow the example of Mrs. Melnotte, who "ruled where she was meant to rule" (95). As the interfaith marriage plot plays out, we see that love must falter under the weight of other commitments, both religious and social. Far from being free of religious, cultural, and historical entanglements, romantic love under an anti-Catholic regime turns out to bring with it a network of assumptions that undermine domestic stability. From A Mixed Marriage's point of view, interfaith marriage is neither "liberal" nor a guarantor of social belonging; it is, rather, a doomed assimilationist project in which the Catholic partner is fated to suffer the pains of never being like enough.
1 Mary Jean Corbett, Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 68.