And now we return to our regularly-scheduled religious fiction. For novelists trying to clothe current feuds in the garb of the past, the seventeenth century was a fertile hunting ground for all sorts of politico-theological problems: you have your Civil War, your Protestant infighting, your religious conspiracies, your deadly plagues. And, of course, everyone could point to such-and-such or so-and-so in order to authorize their own practices (e.g., the well-known influence of Caroline theologians on the Oxford Movement). At the same time, novelists, especially Protestant novelists, seemed more pressed to deal with the messiness of the era than did novelists writing about the Reformation (who could more easily retreat to a Protestant Us vs. Catholic Them--or vice-versa--narrative). Charles Benjamin Tayler's Truth; Or, Persis Clareton (1853), while hardly as complex as some other Victorian fictional attempts to grapple with the era (Elizabeth Rundle Charles' work is a case in point), illustrates some of these trends. Tayler, himself an Anglican clergyman, published Truth during the highwater decade for anti-Catholic political agitation, but while the novel is openly anti-Catholic, it is more specifically preoccupied with allegorizing one popular anti-Oxford Movement conspiracy theory--the belief that Oxford Movement clergymen were really Jesuits in disguise (really, secret Catholic priests were never enough, they had to be Jesuits)--and agitating against demands for Anglican uniformity.
Truth is a title that takes no prisoners, and it refers both to the true faith and to the Claretons' unfailing belief in the necessity of telling the truth at all costs. (Unlike those nasty Catholics.) The novel, although somewhat bizarrely structured--it opens with characters who turn out to be completely marginal, and has an anti-Catholic inset narrative appear out of nowhere (of which more anon)--follows the experiences of Persis and her Presbyterian father, Mr. Clareton, in the wake of the Restoration. Despite the protection of an exemplary Episcopalian like Sir Ralph Cleveland, who during the days of Cromwell "had not shut his eyes to the improved state of morals throughout the country, whenever a godly Presbyterian minister had been placed over a parish" (71), Clareton suffers through a series of laws that turn him, in effect, into a fugitive: the Act of Uniformity (1662), leading to the Great Ejection; the Conventicle Act (1664); and the Five-Mile Act (1665). Early on, Clareton muses, looking at a flower bed, that "who that looks upon these variegated flower-plots, and inhales the combined sweetness of their different odours, would wish for uniformity" (7), and this paean to the Church of England's potential spiritual capaciousness (differences harmonized within boundaries) embodies the tolerant attitude that the novel preaches, but generally fails to find. Pointedly, while the novel celebrates its saintly Episcopalians, like Clareton's brother Gabriel and Persis' nurse Mabel, the Episcopalians in power are persecuting spirits, with a sorry penchant for "the enforcing of uniformity" (209). Here's part I of the allegory: the Episcopalians ( = the Oxford Movement & its immediate descendants) falsely elevate conformity in adiaphora (things indifferent), such as wearing the surplice, over agreement in essential truths; meanwhile, the Presbyterians ( = the Low Church/evangelical wings of the C of E, as well as Dissenters) stick to the Bible. Moral of this part of the story: ignore the conformist guys.
Then, of course, there are the secret Jesuits, without whom many Victorian religious novels would be far shorter. As I mentioned, this is a lengthy inset narrative about an otherwise irrelevant family, the Avenels, who are--gulp--a mixed marriage. (This, as I have also said before, is 99.9% of the time Not a Good Thing, unless the author is a liberal Protestant.) Things are going swimmingly for the Avenels, both male (Catholic) and female (Protestant), until priest #1 (non-interfering, possibly a convert to Protestantism before his death) dies and is replaced by the this-could-go-either-way-named Father Foxe. Alas, Fr. Foxe is not a Foxe of the John Foxe variety, but merely foxy. Indeed, he encourages people to...wait for it...lie. More specifically, Foxe's arrival enables Tayler to inject yet another iteration of what Maureen Moran calls the "Popish plot," in which Roman Catholic clergy seek to retake English soil not by violence, but by proselytization: Mrs. Avenel's daughter is to be a "great heiress," and therefore Foxe seeks to convert her so that the Church can control her property (132).* Foxe's deception in the Avenel family turns out to miniaturize that of the purported Anglican clergyman Mr. Moleville, who is actually the Jesuit Father Monckton. Foxe seeks to steal one Protestant family's property, along with their child, while Moleville sets out to subvert an entire parish's spirituality (and, presumably, their property into the bargain). Roman Catholicism embodies the dangers of compulsory conformity to "ceremonies," as well as the threat posed to faith by the ardent "formalist" (56); it is the ever-present reminder that those who elevate the Book of Common Prayer above the Bible (that's how Tayler construes the situation, in any event) as the core of the C of E engage in what amounts to idolatry. It's just one step from compulsory conformity within the C of E to becoming a Roman Catholic, it seems. Here's Part II of our allegory: the Oxford Movement is a fifth column within the Church, relying on performance (of rituals and of personality) to sway the English people from their Protestant allegiance to the Bible. Moral of the story: um, again, ignore those guys. (In case you're wondering, the only decent Catholics in the novel wind up converting to Protestantism, that apparently being the definition of a decent Catholic.)
Snark aside, one of the genuinely interesting things about the novel is its interest in community-building via narratives of martyrdom. One of Book Two's points is that the Victorians were obsessed by the prospect of Protestants forgetting their Reformation heritage; here, although Persis' faith emerges from Bible reading, it is reinforced by Mabel's many "true and heart-moving stories" (48) about Lollard and Reformation martyrs, many of them women. This emphasis on the nurse's moral storytelling both offers an alternative to the kind of dangerous tales stereotypically associated with nursemaids and servants (as in Jane Eyre, for example) and associates the martyr narrative with mothering and feminized oral culture. It also reinforces that women and men are equally called to witness for the truth (a point of obvious relevance for Persis' own heroic resilience). In this novel, the nurse's martyr narratives are the counterpart to the portrait of Bishop Hooper above the fireplace, which symbolizes Clareton's own clerical priorities: in the end, "defenders of the truth" must rest on "points of real and vital importance" (12), not mere "ceremonies."
*--I've written about overlaps between nineteenth-century Jewish and Catholic stereotypes before, but the intersection of financial stereotyping (both Jews and Catholics seeking control by acquiring Gentile/Protestant property) could perhaps use some more analysis? Hmm.