Another reasonably competent Victorian religious novel--reasonably competent as a novel, that is. Given my usual intake, that's high praise. In any event, John Saunders' historical novel A Noble Wife (1896), which covers a roughly twenty-year period from Henry VIII to the ascent of Mary I, has an unusual protagonist: Margarete (Margaret) Osiander, the second wife of Thomas Cranmer. I can't recall ever seeing her in fiction before, although she may have wandered through in one of the Anne Boleyn novels I wrote about a few years back. The novel's title puns on the word "noble," for it juxtaposes the Protestant Margaret's spiritual nobility to the social nobility of her opposite and (mostly) antagonist, the Catholic Lady Oldcastle. The conflict in question revolves around Margaret's fictional son, Gerald, whom in an emergency Margaret abandons to Lady Oldcastle's keeping; alas, Lady Oldcastle had recently lost her own infant son, and Gerald's apparently providential appearance drives her not only to protect him, but also to refuse to give him up when Margaret wants him back. Gerald thus serves as the linchpin which keeps the Cranmer/Oldcastle families connected through a series of historico-religious highs and lows, not least of which are Cranmer's and Sir John Oldcastle's (of whose fictional descent more in a moment) reforming goals.
Although the novel is firmly on the Protestant side, its approach is moderately philo-Catholic: that is, it simultaneously professes respect for devout Catholics and insists that the only possible framework for religious toleration is Protestant. Margarete (never actually named in the narrative) articulates the novel's most sympathetic viewpoint: "Where we see a new and infinitely more glorious world, waiting but for us to knock at the gates, and enter, they see only, care for only, the old world they have come to love; piously and wisely as they think, and which naturally they desire to stay in. Their punishment should be to live, see, and share in the spiritual Eden they denied and obstructed the way to" (123). Here, Protestantism is not just futurity, but also an entirely different mode of being, a "more glorious world" that approximates to a renewed "Eden"--it restores England to a state that is "spiritual[ly]," if not physically, prelapsarian. It is new and old at once. Catholicism, by contrast, looks backward, and thus needs to be relegated to history; at the same time, its thought-processes are, in a sense, entirely historical in a mundane sense (that is, focused on the past). At the same time, Margarete's spiritual clarity contrasts starkly with the workings of profane history: Henry VIII turns out to be a persecuting monster who murders people in his way and leaves the "poor creatures" (132) ejected from their monasteries with nothing; his son is a weakling; and, of course, Mary I does in most of Cranmer's reforms (along with Cranmer). Margarete's crystalline, perhaps utopian sense of how history ought to work counterpoints her husband's slow, sometimes problematic work at court, and their double act suggests that religious transformations require, as it were, a double gaze, one aimed at earth and one at heaven. As Cranmer says after he determines to recant his recantations, "I needed a strength more than my own, because I needed all you could give me of your strength, conviction, and peace, henceforward" (389). At the same time, the gendered implications of their division of labor are obvious: Cranmer has both faith and political savvy, and while the latter can lead him astray, it also enables him to engage in large-scale historical work that is denied to the purer but also more innocent Margarete, whose spiritual work remains "offstage" in her immediate domestic circle.
Still, this idealized religious marriage--idealized even more because the author, in his zeal to represent them as Super Awesome Couple, carefully skips over the existence of Cranmer's Wife #1 and, in his postscript, Margarete's Husbands #2 and #3--miniaturizes how the interplay of "public" and "private" religious practices enabled Protestantism's ultimate historical success. By contrast, the Oldcastles embody all the ways in which Catholic marriages (and, therefore, Catholicism) could misfire. To begin with, the Oldcastles are a mixed marriage, with the wife devoutly Catholic and the husband enthusiastically (albeit ultimately unsuccessfully) Protestant. Unlike Margarete, who only criticizes her husband in order to support him, Lady Oldcastle works to undermine Sir John whenever she thinks his behavior threatens the Catholic order. Moreover, in order to hold on to Gerald, Lady Oldcastle must engage in a series of misreadings and misappropriations that contrast sharply with Margarete's spiritual clarity: although Margarete leaves Gerald in a tiny boat in the river, deliberately evoking how Pharoah's daughter discovers Moses, Lady Oldcastle neglects to think about the larger implications of the Biblical reference, which would require a return to "his" people in adulthood. (Which, as it happens, is what eventually transpires.) Similarly, she rewrites her desire for a replacement son in terms of his providential rescue from his birth mother's "heretic fancies" (14); much later, in an equally self-serving appropriation of the judgment of Solomon, she demands that Gerald choose between her and his birth mother. As the narrator says, in a chapter pointedly entitled "The Wisdom of the Serpent," she has the knack of "explaining satisfactorily to the conscience whatever the conscience, without such prompting, was likely to revolt from" (65). Her devotion to Gerald and to the traditional Catholic faith alike spur her to manipulate Sir John whenever possible, climaxing in her success at getting him to recant his Protestantism near the end (an obvious contrast to Cranmer).
Sir John is, in a sense, wrecked by his own ancestry--that is, his devotion to Protestantism is in part an effort to reinhabit John Oldcastle's spirit, to live up to tradition, and not to craft the "new" Eden anticipated by the Cranmers. We are told at the beginning that Sir John has a habit of thinking "so long and deeply over the reforming tendency and tragical end of the latter [his ancestor], as to feel at once attracted and repelled" (3), and his Protestant efforts--which include shattering an idol and chaining up a Bible in his chapel--are grounded in this attraction. Yet in contemplating his ancestor's "tragical end," Sir John falls prey to a Hamlet-like stasis, opting for thought over action. The persecuting Archdeacon warns him that he may not be so "brave" when he "come[s] to the fate of your ancestor" (255), which turns out to be all too true: instead of emulating his former associate Ishmael, a simple tailor who dies at the stake, Sir John is instead moved to recant. His habit of "dwelling ever too intently on the fate of his illustrious ancestor" (381) parallels his wife's obsession with Gerald, inasmuch as his simultaneous desire to and fear of living up to his ancestor's example interferes with his ability to engage in right action. Even more: it interferes with his ability to conceptualize himself as a spiritual agent in his own right, rather than as a mere repetition of his martyred relative. Like Lady Oldcastle, who misreads or misapplies the Bible to suit her own ends, Sir John misreads the Protestant martyrological tradition by focusing on the death itself and not what it means.