As a break from contemplating my participation on what are about to be five committees this semester--I seem to have missed the memo about full professors being able to say "no" to things--I decided to read some Catholic fiction. Louise Imogen Guiney was primarily a poet, and the somewhat awkwardly-titled Lovers' Saint Ruth's: And Three Other Tales (1895) was her only real try at prose fiction, published a few years before she relocated to England. The collection might as well have been subtitled "Three Other Tales of Sacrifice," as all four short stories explicitly address self-sacrifice in its various forms, ranging from the innocent but utterly misguided ("The Provider") to expiatory substitution ("An Event on the River") to sanctified patriotism ("Our Lady of the Union") to well-meaning but problematic (the title story).
"Lovers' Saint Ruth's" and "The Provider" seem to have struck contemporary reviewers as Guiney's most successful attempts, perhaps because both of them imagine how self-sacrifice can run aground. Whereas the tales in the middle see characters abandon themselves fully to a goal that they undertake with no hope of reward--the Union soldier who gives his life for a God-given cause; the wealthy man with a past who gladly pleads guilty to the crime his previously-unknown illegitimate son committed --the first and last tales feature characters who want to sacrifice themselves fully, but misjudge their efforts because they confuse the worldly with the sacred. "Lovers' Saint Ruth's" is, as Alex Murray argues, a tale filled with "gaps and misunderstanding"* in terms of the present narration--an Anglo-Catholic priest, the descendant of the story's seventeenth-century characters, talking to his visiting American friend--but the plot itself is filled with things unspoken. Lord Richard, "almost the only Langham with a conscience" (4), senses some sort of doom for his family; having secretly returned to his family's ancestral Catholic faith (they only have their possessions because a previous Langham apostasized), he woos the beautiful Eleanor, who out of love for him becomes a Catholic. Symbolically, the lovers pledge themselves by the wreck of Saint Ruth's chapel, not by the new Protestant church, an "architectural hodge-podge" (5) whose physical ugliness embodies Protestant degeneracy as much as the ruined chapel embodies Catholicism's tenuous place in early modern England. But before they manage to negotiate both sets of fathers, neither inclined to allow a marriage, Eleanor is abruptly assaulted and raped; the horrified Lord Richard immediately marries her in order to keep her from public shame--deriving less from the rape and more from his bringing her back to his own house, which makes the situation look like a deliberate assignation--and keeps her secret forever, although Eleanor's "reason was shaken" (12). To make matters worse, Eleanor becomes pregnant as a result of the rape, meaning that Lord Richard can only maintain the facade by accepting the child as his own. What follows from this is deeply ambiguous: Eleanor (quite understandably) loathes the child, and both she and Richard conclude that "a curse was upon them, and that they must endure it, and accept the torture of that alien child's presence for some purpose hidden from human eyes" (14). The clerical narrator, though, argues that this position is "mistaken" (14), and the boy's development into a strong, exemplary adolescent is core to the story's great paradox: Ralph, the hated child of violence who dies at thirteen, would nevertheless have been worthier of inheriting the estate than the legitimate son Vivian, who turns out to be an irreligious wastrel. In fact, both of Richard's and Eleanor's legitimate children turn out to be worse than useless, leading to the family's slow moral decay over several generations. Far from becoming a locus of English Catholic authenticity and cultural authority, the Langhams subside into moral nothingness (it's no accident that the narrator's later conversion sees him becoming a monk, ending that line of the family altogether). Ralph, who inherits neither his biological father's criminality nor Richard's no-conscience gene (as it were), can be transformed into a true Catholic gentleman, but cannot maintain the Langham family line; Richard's biological children, deprived early on of both father and mother, lose their faith altogether, but succeed in reproducing. Richard's sacrifice for Eleanor fails, I think, because both he and Eleanor are responsible for transforming Ralph's innocence (announced on his tombstone, when it is too late) into the "curse"; Richard makes the lesser sacrifice (lying to preserve Eleanor's respectability) but neither he nor his wife can make what, on the terms of the collection's two successful sacrifice tales, would be the greater one (loving Ralph). The cult of biological continuity wins the day over the more important promise of spiritual inheritance.
"The Provider," the other failed sacrifice tale, addresses the same cultural anxieties about child suicide as does Thomas Hardy's contemporaneous Jude the Obscure, and for the same reason. Twelve-year-old Hughey is the oldest child in a deeply impoverished Irish family, already marked by multiple deaths; the family's move from pastoral poverty to its darker urban counterpart triggers Hughey's growing self-consciousness about money. There is the "fine monument" to his father, the "enforced luxury" of a sister's funeral, the "costly" nature of his baby brother's chronic illness, and the ever-pressing demand for "rent" (95): domestic sufferings become all the more terrible because they carry a price tag, and each family member turns into potential negative value. By voluntarily leaving school and going out to work, Hughey translates himself, in his own eyes, from the loss to the profit side of the accounting book. But his obsession with money, which leads him to fall prey to a banking con, leads him to tell a "masterly lie" (105) about the amount of money he is making, the better to keep up his investments. His unrepentant sin, no matter how charming it seems in context, signals that his act of sacrifice has gone off the rails. Like Richard and Eleanor, his sacrifice tilts towards the worldly, insofar as his dreams are entirely (and understandably) about rescuing his mother from want; in fact, though, his fantasies about becoming his mother's "deliverer" (107)--an obvious trespass on Christ's territory--interfere with her health and comfort, insofar as he does his best to ensure that nobody else understands the true nature of their situation. Self-sacrifice turns into innocent self-aggrandizement, even though, we are assured near the end, "he had never in his life hugged any thought whose interest centred in himself" (119). His obsession with money-making climaxes in his critical evaluation of the children's value: "Oi've been a-thinkin' wan reason of ut is she has too many childher. 'Tis good little Rosy is with the saints. Childher all eats and wears clothes, and isn't much use" (113). Reducing children's lives to a harsh calculus of consumption without profit, Hughey tips the story straight over into Little Father Time territory--although he ultimately elects to kill only himself, without taking one of his sisters along with him. This sad child's parody of Christ's passion, which Hughey prefaces with "the sign of faith" (122), accomplishes nothing, and his mother dies within a few hours. This makes the story's title all the more bleak, inasmuch as his remaining siblings are now orphaned without a provider. In that sense, the story is on a continuum with "Lovers' Saint Ruth's," but at the opposite end: whereas Eleanor and Richard are psychologically constrained by aristocratic notions of honor, Hughey is equally in thrall to the cruel, all-or-nothing demands of urban poverty, which reduces human beings to sullied cash.
* Alex Murray, "Recusant Poetics: Rereading Catholicism at the Fin-de-Siecle," English Literature in Transition 56.3 (2013): 362.