Maureen Moran, among others, has demonstrated the extent to which representations of Roman Catholicism--both by Protestants and Catholics--could not escape Gothic tropes and narrative conventions. Indeed, Catholicism posed problems for nineteenth-century realism--a mode that, according to Valentine Cunningham's provocative argument, was inescapably Protestant, translating post-Reformation "religious ecstasies" into something "merely secular" (e.g., "love").1 Protestant realism finds God at work in, for example, plot construction (those providential coincidences so beloved of nineteenth-century novelists like Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens), but, despite Protestantism's own mystical tradition, generally rules out miracles and manifestations; when visions appear in Protestant novels, they normally do so when bracketed off explicitly as dreams (as in Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke or Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays). Catholic realism, by contrast, is not chary about introducing miracles and visionary messages--and thus finds itself situated in an awkward position vis-a-vis "mainstream" realist conventions and the Gothic, even when it isn't trying to be Gothic in the first place. Moreover, because so much nineteenth-century Catholic fiction from the UK and Ireland emphasizes how Catholics have been systematically alienated from their own inheritance, physical and spiritual, it again finds itself on Gothic grounds (the wronged heir and/or the wrong heir being popular Gothic villains and protagonists alike).
A. M. Clarke's collection of four novellas, A Mother's Sacrifice; And Other Tales (1893), illuminates the ways in which Catholic authors put pressure on Protestant protocols. The collection itself is various, and aside from general themes of sin and redemption, isn't particularly unified: the title novella, supposedly a translation from the Russian, tracks an impoverished peasant woman's attempts to have an icon of the Madonna painted in honor of her dead child; the two middle tales are very much on Wilkie Collins/Mary Elizabeth Braddon territory and feature murder, wastrels, and lust; and the last tale is a historical novella set during the Great Plague. Although A Mother's Sacrifice is intriguing for its ambivalence towards folk spirituality--the mother appears to be vaguely on the right track, but the entire enterprise is suffused with dark comedy, and the woman's ironic death at the end is certainly not exalted--it's hard to know how much of this is the original and how much of it is Clarke.
I'm more interested in the middle tales, "The Wyntertons of Netherwood" and "Answered at Last." As I mentioned, both stories are narrated by solicitors, another tie with the Victorian Gothic (which frequently features professional men coming into contact with unspeakable horrors--Mr. Utterson in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic example). "The Wyntertons" is part of a Catholic novelistic tradition about the collapse of Catholic families under attack by Protestantized (and, by implication, secularized) culture. Wynterton inherits a property, initially alienated from the Church during the Reformation, which supposedly bears a curse: "You are no doubt aware that in cases like the present, in which a Catholic, or one who had been a Catholic, took possession of an estate belonging by right to the Church, a curse of some kind invariably rests on the actual holder of that estate, whoever he may be" (76-77). Here, the circuit of possession--from the Church to an "apostate" (76) and ultimately to a lay Catholic--is incomplete; despite building a new church on the estate, Wynterton continues, rather than concludes, Protestantism's ongoing appropriation of sacred spaces. Matters are not improved by the current heir, Hubert, who consorts with wicked Protestants like Sir Philip Fletcher--a man with his eyes on Wynterton's lovely daughter, Beatrice. Hubert's fascination with the material trappings of Protestant culture (gambling dens, for example) leads him to murder, opening up a space for Sir Philip to blackmail Captain Wynterton into giving him Beatrice for a wife. Sensation-novel tropes accumulate apace. As our narrator observes, this situation ultimately traces back not to Hubert, but to Wynterton's own sin: his own son died at birth, and he substituted another child from a working-class twin birth so as not to distress his wife. It should come as no shock that the man Hubert murders is, in fact, his twin brother, so that Wynterton's "original sin" leads to fratricide. "I interfered with Providence and practised a gross deception," moans Wynterton (98). The divine curse, working itself out upon the family, is all too legible, as Wynterton's projected future, based on a fiction (the false heir), wrecks the family fortunes. As a false heir, Hubert is merely one more would-be link in the chain of wrongful possessors, who take the sacred and make it profane out of greed. Disaster follows disaster: Beatrice agrees to marry Sir Philip and Wynterton dies almost immediately, albeit with God's mercy. At the same time, Hubert's crime leads him to become a true "penitent" (110) and he winds up living happily overseas as a farmer, reconciled with the Church. Similarly, Sir Philip dies just before he marries Beatrice, an honest convert in his own right; in this cluster of providential exiles and deaths, we see the power of divine forgiveness at work. In other words, the novel averts the poetic justice one might expect from a Wilkie Collins novel, and substitutes instead the potentially unappetizing reminder that all sinners may be forgiven. Finally, Beatrice sells the property and donates most of the proceeds to the Church--thus healing the broken circuit of possession--and miraculously dies on the day she professes her vows as a Carmelite, rewarded with "glory everlasting" (115). The "fix" for the curse, which appears Gothic but is not, requires all the false inheritors to understand and reject their own worldliness. Or, to put it differently, the family must grasp that the curse is part of the fabric of reality, which cannot be separated from the workings of Providence. Marriage with Christ the Bridegroom is Beatrice's reward for subduing her own earthly desires; this is a rather different iteration of the marriage plot. Pointedly, however, it leaves the Wyntertons not only dispossessed, but entirely extinct.
"Answered at Last" trespasses on even more overtly Gothic space. Our narrator, the solicitor Mr. Furnival, is called out to conduct some business in the countryside. There, he has an experience that, as he says, demonstrates that "the supernatural" still works in the world, and that it is explicitly the hand of God making His "over-ruling Providence" felt (118). Whilst sitting in the country-house library, the narrator has a horrifying vision: a man brutally stabs a young woman to death. The difficulty, then, lies in accounting for the vision, which the butler coolly dismisses as impossible ("There are no ghosts in this house" ); the narrator's host is equally unimpressed. (If it's not a ghost, then perhaps it's "delirium tremens" .) That the solicitor insists on the truth of his vision subverts one Gothic convention, in which the professional man initially rejects evidence of the supernatural. (The butler's disinterest subverts the convention in another direction--normally, servants are more likely to believe in ghostly manifestations, and therefore ought to be listened to.) Narrator, host, and butler alike make a key interpretive error, though: they understand the vision in terms of "haunting." If the house is haunted, then the vision announces the undercurrents of unresolved past violence persisting into the present. But whereas "The Wyntertons" made the Catholic past into its own "ghost" forever stalking the Catholic present, here the vision is not of the past at all, but of the future: a lapsed Catholic man, ultimately rejected by his devout beloved, murders her in a fit of rage. It is essential that Furnival reject purely Gothic readings of this phenomenon (the ghost) in favor of the miraculous. The use of this premonition, though, seems initially hard to determine. In the end, the man still stabs the woman and the woman still dies. It is only at the tale's end that we discover the vision's real purpose: many years later, Furnival encounters the Spaniard, Alfonso del Mar, again in an Australian hospital (yet another act of providence) and successfully persuades him to confess to a priest. Furnival's premonition turns out to be Alfonso's haunting: "Ever since that fatal night a curse has pursued me. I have failed in everything" (144). The Gothic "curse" turns out to be divine punishment via the medium of human conscience. But in del Mar's confession, the narrator finds the answer to his own puzzlement: the premonition enables Furnival to lead del Mar back to the Church and, therefore, to his own salvation, for "having repeatedly made acts of humble contrition and complete resignation to the will of God," del Mar will likely receive a "merciful" judgment from Christ (148). Interpreted from a properly Catholic point of view, then, supernatural horrors turn out to have beneficial consequences.
1 Valentine Cunningham, "The Novel and the Protestant Fix: Between Melancholy and Ecstasy," Biblical Religion and the Novel, 1700-2000, ed. Mark Knight and Thomas Woodman (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), 46.