What with all the excitement, I'm sure everyone is thrilled for another Catholic novel. If only it were not by E. H. Dering. Fortunately, I'm almost through with Dering's oeuvre, such as it was--he was, thank goodness, not prolific--but alas, Freville Chase, the sequel to Sherborne, is not cause for enthusiasm. While Sherborne demonstrated occasional flashes of competence, Freville Chase is unremittingly terrible: the overly-complicated subplot about a baby-switch (which Dering also used in The Lady of Raven's Combe) is forgotten for long stretches of time, while the main romance plot suffers from Dering's ineptitude at characterization. Worse still, from the reader's point of view, Freville Chase is effectively fictional hagiography, and its protagonist, Everard Freville, is so drenched in the odor of sanctity that he is barely capable of movement. In their fulsomeness, the final pages--in which Everard is buried, everyone bawls over his grave, converts, and/or (in the case of his fiancee, betrayed by various Evil Machinations) dies of grief--unintentionally anticipate the glorious emotional excesses of Fr. Corvo's wish-fulfilling Hadrian VII. There are far too many moments in which Everard is besieged by compliments, as when young Elfrida, sister of Everard's fiancee Ida, tells him repeatedly that "I have not known which to admire in you most" (I.269)--which, after a while, begin to ring uncomfortably of self-parody. It doesn't help that Everard's plot, in which he and Ida are betrayed by Ida's Protestant mother and the villainous Italian Moncalvo (a Catholic who has succumbed to the allures of liberalism--i.e., the nationalist movement), largely gets under way because Everard fails to listen to multiple warnings that Moncalvo cannot be on the up-and-up. (The novel's unintentional moral is that the principle of charity leads to disaster, as opposed to the intentional moral, which is that you should only enter into an interfaith marriage if you want to be responsible for the deaths of multiple people.)
In case you hadn't noticed, I didn't like this novel.
Moving on. As always, I try to extricate some use from whatever I read, no matter how inexcusably bad, and there a few things of note here. (Given how long the novel is, one would hope so.) The first is Dering's interest in the sensation novel. Maureen Moran, who doesn't discuss Dering, has argued that there exists a mode of "Catholic sensationalism" in Victorian literature, in which the "rhetoric of exposure," for example, can be wielded by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish writers alike to "unearth the buried forces in middle-class culture that belie its orderly, progressive self-image" (14). Dering, I think, links sensationalism to his fascination with the gift of divine grace. In Freville Chase, which relies on both Gothic and sensationalist tropes (one character even dryly inquires "Have you been reading the 'Castle of Otranto'?" [II.178]), the emotional and physical extremes of sensationalist narrative open up a wide theatre in which the workings of grace appear in their clearest form. For example, when Everard nearly strangles Moncalvo when he discovers, too late, that Moncalvo has married Ida, "[n]ature and Grace were brought into collision, and nature possessed his whole being, Grace appealed only to his soul"; the victory of Grace "and the habit of listening to it carried him through a temptation than which a greater cannot be conceived" (II.56). This moment, so extreme that it causes physical damage to Everard's heart, is both obviously sensational in the literary sense (attempted murder! guy making off with girlfriend! double-crossing!) and testimony to the power of Catholic masculinity, which always subordinates bodily desire to salvation; notably, it is not just God's gift of grace that prevents Everard from killing Moncalvo, but Everard's self-disciplined "habit" of paying attention to it. This is what distinguishes Everard from not just Moncalvo, who was not the direct agent of the baby-switch, although he benefited by refusing to reveal it, but also Ida, who kept putting off her conversion, and, for that matter, Ida's father Sir Richard, whose Catholicism had long since ceased to be anything but nominal. The only way to survive sensational extremes--morally, at least, if not physically--is through a fully Catholic training that both elevates soul over body and makes the soul always aware of grace entering into it. Dering's sensation fictions both reveal how Catholicism works and suggest Catholicism as their "cure," as it were. The horrors of man's sinful nature produce sensation; the glories of the free gift of divine grace enable the protagonists to triumph, even if that triumph must be delayed to the next world and/or is experienced solely in terms of lifelong penance.
The second is Dering's call for a Catholicism that is simultaneously universal and, in its local expression, English. Like many other Catholic novelists, Dering associates the "old" Catholic estate with authentic English historical continuity--a true conservatism embodied in the spirit of the place. Although the house itself "had been built at different times," the architecture "harmonised" in such a fashion that it "satisfied artistic feeling and made criticism seem out of place" (I.15). "Harmony," here suggesting how the home both manifests and organically contains the signs of historical difference, returns in a later discussion of church architecture. The Gothic, Everard explains, is quintessentially English: "It symbolises in stone the faith that produced it, and is in harmony with the atmosphere, temperature and features of the country. The idea of a basilica in England, however good of its kind, is to my mind not merely incongruous, but implies a forgetfulness of history: it implies that, having forgotten the old faith and traditions which we got from Rome, and which inspired those buildings, we have to begin anew, and borrow an architecture as unsuitable as it is untraditional. But I do love basilicas in Rome. They harmonise with everything there—air, light, landscape, the history of the Church and of the world" (I.100-101). Gothic indicates, that is, how Catholicism became inseparable from Englishness, especially the English landscape. As a Catholic aesthetic, it reminds the viewer of the faith's roots; as an English aesthetic, it domesticates Catholicism so that it is not some foreign import (the usual charge against Roman Catholicism), but an organic expression of national temperament. Thus, when Everard later plans a church, he argues that its form "should look as though it grew out of the landscape and completed it" (II.133). The final building is rooted in English medieval forms, simultaneously new (heralding modern Catholic revival) and old (rooting that revival in English landscape and national traditions). But this Englishness also contains the novel's sensationalist mode: it grounds the novel's action in a historical long view that emphasizes wholeness, continuity, and presence (physical and Real), as opposed to the transitory shocks that make up the novel's action.