The convert Thomas Longueville primarily made his way as a Catholic satirist and miscellaneous author, but A Romance of the Recusants was a rare serious foray into historical fiction. Like a number of other Catholic novelists of the period, Longueville takes on the persecutions of Elizabeth I's reign in order to think through a number of persistent and/or contemporary problems, such as martyrdom (not an issue in its strictest form during the Victorian period...) and the relationship between Catholicism and Englishness. It has, however, a relatively brisk and simple plot. The Catholic Sherringford family is under scrutiny for harboring priests, which they indeed are. Older daughter Ethel is outraged when her sister uses subterfuge to save Bowles/Cransworth, a visiting Jesuit, because "we had talked of being prepared for martyrdom" (33-34); for the alert reader who has read a lot of Catholic fiction, her zest for martyrdom will be recognizable as, in fact, the sin of pride, and when later arrested in London, she is easily tricked by the jailer, Mr. Hollins. In short order, Hollins convinces her that he admires her argumentative skills, and so it's just one small step to tricking her into a fake marriage, impregnating her, and convincing her to give up the secret of the family priest-hole. Of course, her track record illustrates the effects of pride upon human reason, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Ethel's behavior deserves some sort of award for "most persistently stupid behavior by a character in a Victorian religious novel." Needless to say, Ethel is appropriately humiliated by all this, but after being married off (for real) to one of Hollins' followers and figuratively lopped off the family tree (her baby is stillborn), she dies penitent and everything is great. Meanwhile, her sister Clare is initially pursued by the Protestant Sir Everard Gordon, whom she convinces to inquire into the truth of Catholicism; she convinces him exceptionally well, because he winds up becoming a Jesuit and returning to England, where he is eventually caught and martyred. That romance option not working out quite as planned, she instead marries another convert, Everard's old buddy Walter Murless, but not before almost facing martyrdom herself for harboring Everard. Alas, from her point of view, she doesn't wind up martyred, but is effectively under house arrest for the remainder of her life. As this plot summary suggests, the novel adheres to the basic tropes of pursuivant (priest-hunter) fiction, celebrating the heroism of Catholics under a persecuting regime while linking post-Reformation Protestant values to predation, sexual and financial (both Walter and the Sherringfords are stripped of most of their cash and property*). As always, however, there are a few additional things worthy of note.
First, the structure, which relies heavily on doubling. Most obviously, it opens and closes with a hunt scene, separated by three centuries. The opening hunt scene introduces Walter and Father Cransworth, and ultimately concludes with the beginnings of Walter's conversion; the closing features two Protestant riders, riding over what in part used to be Sherringford and Murless territory, who note that "English Catholics have much to thank Queen Victoria for" (245). In this conclusion, the rural landscape manages to mark both the evanescence and the persistence of the old Catholic families: even though the Protestants successfully expropriated much of the Murless and Sherringford land, nevertheless the Murless estate "is the only property in the county which has gone on directly from father to son since the days of Elizabeth" (246), and there is a Roman Catholic chapel nearby (245). Despite Protestant depradations, in other words, the Catholics represent a line of unbroken historical continuity that contrasts starkly with Protestantism's more jagged forms of inheritance, and the reappearance of Catholic buildings indicates a literal and figurative Catholic rebuilding process. At the same time, the positive but slightly condescending attitude of both riders to Catholics in general and the Murless family in particular also signals the limits of toleration--it is significant that the Murlesses "don't come forward enough in public matters" (247), suggesting that the trade-off for tolerance may well be necessary invisibility. Doubling further features prominently in the case of the two sisters. Both sisters have a Protestant suitor, but Ethel's fake suitor Mr. Hollins claims that he will convert on marriage (no) whereas Clare's suitor Everard disdains doing any such thing. Similarly, both sisters marry in secret, except that Mr. Hollins brings in a fake priest (oops) while Walter and Clare are, in effect, secretly married in public by Everard while he is performing his final mass in front of witnesses. (Needless to say, Walter and Everard are also doubles.) Most importantly, Clare insists that Everard consult a priest, whereas Mr. Hollins claims that he deeply admires Ethel's skills as a religious controversialist. For the novel actively disdains religious controversy. It announces its (non)intentions at the end of the very first chapter, where Walter asks Father Cransworth (then only known to him as Mr. Bowles) to explain Catholicism--only for the next we hear about it to be Walter's conversion. There are no representations at any point of serious inquirers listening to or engaging in controversy; all of it is carefully banished offstage. Instead, we have Hollins' seduction of Ethel via her performances of secular controversy (debating the virtue of a given king, for example), which climax in her supposed "victory" over him in an event staged in front of an audience rustled up, in actuality, from Hollins' servants. (To underline just how pride interferes with perception, an audience member at the debate later returns as the fake priest before making his final appearance as Mr. Brown, the man Ethel is forced to marry; she recognizes him from neither guise.) In other words, the novel associates religious controversy with a theatricality that celebrates the individual's verbal pyrotechnics over the weight of divine truth. Insofar as it is here closely associated with predatory sexuality, too, there is also a suggestion that the controversialist turns religion into a form of seduction. By contrast, Longueville's readers are invited to critique and emulate the actions of the protagonists, suggesting--in a manner customary in Victorian Catholic fiction--that the best mode of religious persuasion is exemplary behavior.
Which leads to the novel's second concern, which is non-exemplary Catholic behavior. Walter encounters a trio of Catholics, Father Brindley and Messrs. Stewart and Dundas, who are...not fans...of the queen. Walter sternly insists that he is a "loyal subject" (134), but Stewart and Dundas are open to the possibility of assassination and even Father Brindley admits that installing a new regime by "constitutional medium" or "foreign invasion" (135) would not be off the table. (Under the circumstances, perhaps the reader is meant to contemplate the irony of James II's exit.) Here, the novel insists that there is no conflict between loyalty to one's national sovereign and loyalty to the Pope, for English national identity should be able to encompass a plurality of religious beliefs in the Protestant present, even if Catholics look to once again restore the nation's faith in the future. Walter and Everard alike complain that "[t]hose rascals will be the ruin of the Catholic church in England" (211) and denounce them as "traitorous" (211), insisting that the only means of rightly restoring Catholicism as the national faith is through divine action, not by substituting "their own mistaken and distorted views as to their duty towards their neighbor" for "their duty towards their God" (211). The good Catholic undertakes all the obligations of any good subject, in other words, so far as the state demands nothing that conflicts with the Catholic faith itself. This point makes the ending even more double-edged, since the Victorian-era Murless family has apparently disengaged entirely from the political process and the reappearing Catholic chapel is counterpointed by the sharp reduction in Catholic lands. Will there be more converts, or will Catholics remain a minority visible only as traces in the landscape? At the same time, their mutual dislike of Catholic plotting complements the novel's critique of Ethel the martyr-wannabe: as Clare is forced to concede when she finds she is not to be martyred after all, "God knows what is best" (220).
*--While Protestants absconding with Catholic property is obviously based on historical fact, It occurs to me that this also deliberately inverts what Maureen Moran calls the "popish plot," something I've mentioned fairly frequently, in which Catholics subvert the nation by converting heirs/heiresses and absconding with the property.