Unlike most of the Victorian fiction I discuss on this blog, Rosa Mulholland, Lady Gilbert's A Fair Emigrant (1888) is not overtly "religious" in a didactic or even dogmatic sense. Although Mulholland (whose sister Clara was also a successful novelist) was Catholic and frequently wrote explicitly Catholic fiction, few characters in this novel express any sort of religious belief; its heroine and hero appear to be nominal Protestants; and onstage conversions (to anything) are in short supply. (And, unlike most of the novels I write about, it was well-received by mainstream critics at the time.) In that sense, this is clearly a "crossover" novel, aimed at readers interested in its joint American and especially Irish themes, not readers seeking religiously correct moral uplift. At the same time, the novel's narrative unfolds in a way that hints at divine providence in action. The religion, in other words, is there if you choose to look for it.
A Fair Emigrant mixes and matches genres at leisure: the main plot derives from sensation fiction, liberally seasoned with romance, social fiction, and the national tale. Our heroine, Bawn Desmond, is the American daughter of an Irish emigrant, Arthur Desmond, who left his native land after being falsely accused of murdering his rival in love, Roderick Fingall. After Arthur's death, Bawn inherits both Arthur's money and his exculpatory narrative, and she determines to go to Ireland in order to clear her father's name. The novel thus reverses the reader's expectations: in a novel in which emigration is inexorably draining the Irish landscape, an Irish-American woman reverses the process--and, as one might expect, revitalizes her father's nation. This revitalization turns out to be both economic and romantic. On the one hand, Bawn enters Ireland as a farmer, and promptly undertakes to "turn my American gold into Irish butter and wheat" (172); as Rory/Somerled, her would-be suitor (and, alas, Roderick Fingall's relative) soon admits, her methods indeed promise to turn a profit. Pointedly, Bawn's focus on butter contrasts with that of Rory's cousin-by-marriage Flora, who "cared little whether the butter of the nation was wealth-producing or not" (220); Bawn's example, which inspires one of Rory's female cousins to turn her attentions from (bad) novel-writing to (profitable) butter-making, implies both that women have valuable roles to play in Ireland's economic and agricultural future, and that Ireland can learn something from American attitudes to gender. The romance plot, which promises to resolve part of Desmond's tragedy by uniting Rory and Bawn (and, thanks to Bawn's fortune, restoring the Fingall family's finances), also suggests that Ireland's hope rests on the changes her Americanized "grandchildren" bring back with them.
The novel is at its most Gothic and most Dickensian when it comes to the Adares, the family that falsely profitted from Roderick's death. And it is here that the novel's religious undertones show themselves more clearly. Unlike Bawn (and, indeed, her father, whose farming produces "harvests of gold" ), the proud Adares are bad stewards of wealth, spending instead of investing and producing nothing of their own. The Adares, says Bawn's servant, were "great an' grand, but cracked with pride" (184), and their fate, which runs exactly counter to Arthur Desmond's, suggests divine punishment at work. Their house is a bizarre, exaggerated cross between Satis House in Great Expectations and the imploding Clennam household in Little Dorrit, with collapsing staircases, broken roofs, and hallways "dripping with damp and choked with rubbish" (267). Desmond's beloved Mave, who abandoned him, at first appears equally the joint progeny of Miss Havisham and Mrs. Clennam, a physically and mentally disabled old woman reduced to "a skeleton covered with white, fair skin" (270). The Adares' rotted home and equally rotting bodies figure forth all the corruptions of sin. Alone of the surviving Adares, and, indeed of just about every character except Rory's grandmother, Mave understands her fate in theological terms: as Mave explains to Bawn, believing her to be an "angel," she expects to be reunited with Arthur in Heaven "[b]ecause I have expiated my sin, through the mercy of my Redeemer, by long years of suffering, and both God and my beloved have forgiven me" (337). Mave's faith in the possibility of redemptive suffering--a productive pain--thus translates the Miss Havisham/Mrs. Clennam type, women imprisoned in their own pain and inflicting pain in return, into a sanctified, even exemplary figure. Significantly, Mave dies in Bawn's home, successfully extracted from her decaying surroundings in a way that neither Miss Havisham nor Mrs. Clennam can be; even though she has no earthly future, she does not necessarily belong to that collapsing space.
Mave's embrace of God's will, though, also suggests an interesting corrective to Bawn's original intentions. Bawn's "romantic devotion to her dead father" (344), which propels her across the ocean, also interferes with her growing passion for Rory Fingall. More to the point, her fixation on personally clearing her father of his purported crime, which forces her into deception, results from self-will instead of divine will. Although the novel does not condemn Bawn's free spirit--as I have already said, if anything, the novel insists that such free spirits are necessary if Ireland is to flourish--it also does not allow Bawn to succeed in the manner she intended. This is not a Poirot novel avant la lettre, and there is no dramatic scene in which she gets to expose the villains, as she once had hoped. Instead, we discover that before the novel began, Luke Adare confessed his trick to his brother, Edmund. Luke, who "do[es] not believe in conscience" (369), begs Edmund to "[w]rite it all down that I may be rid of it" (369)--a warped confessional act that, unlike his sister's suffering, cannot save Luke's soul. Mave seeks forgiveness; Luke merely yearns for amnesia. (Appropriately enough, he is killed by the house.) Edmund's near-death revelation of the confession's existence thus brings the novel full circle by completing Arthur Desmond's narrative. But it is not Bawn's agency that directly produces this confession--merely the accident of her presence, which sparks Edmund's own anxieties. The novel does not permit Bawn to confront those who perpetrated the original crime, in the manner of a Wilkie Collins novel; instead, it ascribes all punishments, internal and external, to God, who reveals all in His own good time.