The last article I finished primarily involved high-quality religious fiction (with the occasional poem thrown in), so it's been a while since I've been able to sit down with the kind of novel I normally discuss on this blog. But it's time to get back in the swing of things, so here we go! Julia Ormond; Or the New Settlement (Dolman, 1850) is a pre-Papal Aggression Catholic controversial novel, set not in England, but instead in a German Lutheran settlement in Missouri, founded by a kindly first-generation American, Jeremiah Dtwiller. The tiny and close-knit community experiences an upset when the Catholic Ormond family arrives, eager to escape "the contaminations of the city" (36) in order to raise morally and spiritually pure children. (Despite the country/city divide, the novel doesn't do anything with the natural surroundings.) The beautiful Julia is especially popular, thanks to being a perfect example of charity, piety, kindness, learning, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. Although the family is soon on good terms with most of the other residents, thanks to a policy of keeping their religious faith strictly private (and scruples on part of the Dtwillers to confront them), matters soon become unpleasant when a particularly anti-Catholic Methodist preacher, Mr. Gearhart, a man with a "dictatorial and overbearing manner of speaking" (52), preaches a hellfire-and-damnation sermon condemning the wiles of Satan in the community's midst. Although most of the community is unimpressed, and the Ormonds themselves mildly amused--"The truth is, we are so accustomed to such things, that we are become pretty callous to them" (81)--there are repercussions: the Dtwiller's eldest son, Abel, a Lutheran minister, has begun by engaging in controversy with the beautiful (etc. etc. etc.) Julia and ended by falling in love with her--after, that is, largely coming around to her religious POV. Alas, Julia has vowed herself to perpetual virginity (albeit without joining a sisterhood), and so poor Abel, determined to make himself her equal, takes off for further study. Thanks to a lost letter, his disappearance mystifies everyone, and between that and the obnoxious gossip Mrs. Litherbarrow, an iconoclastic mob threatens to burn the Ormonds out of their home. Fortunately, the beautiful (etc. etc. etc.) Julia heads them off, and the mystery is revealed in the nick of time. Cue several years passing, and everybody has converted to Catholicism, thanks to the beautiful (etc. etc. etc.) Julia's influence; at the very end, the new priest arrives to preach in the equally new church, and it turns out to be--er, really, there aren't any prizes for guessing the answer to that one.
As always, let's look for the points of interest. First, the plot structure is a good example of the Catholic interrupted courtship/marriage plot, which both critiques the marriage plot's dominance in nineteenth-century realist fiction, and reframes the concept of "family" to incorporate a different understanding of belonging. Julia chooses to live as a "religious recluse" (159), instead of a Sister of Charity, the better to serve as a substitute mother to her siblings; yet, her decision is on a continuum with the Sisters who are "actuated by affectionate tenderness and a sense of duty to the common Father, whose children the sufferers are" (165). The celibate, that is, abandons the worldly and bodily desires associated with reproduction, as well as with the demands of everyday middle- or upper-class life, to sacrifice herself entirely for the universal family headed by God. In this context, Julia's accomplishments (the etc. etc. etc.) are no longer the traditional signs of useless femininity--the sort of education intended to advertise a woman's suitability for genteel marriage--but, instead, the practical studies necessary to teach her brothers and sisters, a project she later extends to the rest of the community. (The novel thus adopts one of the Victorian justifications for certain kinds of women's professional work--namely, that it is at root an extension of maternal or caring labor.) Similarly, when Abel makes his case for marriage by pleading that "you may be enabled to bring another stray sheep to the great fold!" (167), Julia's firm refusal rejects a much milder version of the classic marriage plot's "reformed rake" scenario. Abel is no rake, but he is also still no Catholic, and his proposal invests his spiritual quest with definite overtones of worldly romance. Their mutual destiny, then, is one in which they are united in perfect spiritual accord, each fully relinquishing the pull of bodily desire in pursuit of holy service.
The novel also illustrates some of the gender trouble caused by the Catholic controversial novel's "flipping" of Protestant tropes. One has to go quite some way into the nineteenth century before Catholic controversial fiction ceases to react to its Protestant forebears en route to consolidating its own formal properties. In evangelical fiction, female controversialists (and child controversialists, for that matter) are extremely important: their ability to hold their own against hostile Catholic (or secular) interrogators, of whatever sort, manifests the power of sola scriptura. Anyone who has properly read and interpreted the Bible (with the help of the Holy Spirit) can take on even the most erudite opposition. For obvious reasons, this doesn't work in the Catholic context; at the same time, for polemical reasons, Catholic authors tried to hang on to the female controversialist figure. What to do? Julia's various debating scenes exemplify a number of escape routes. First, she takes apart sola scriptura and, indirectly, prooftexting as viable approaches to the Bible (e.g., pointing out that "search the Scriptures" has an immediate context that cannot refer to the N.T. [122-23]); next, she explains the limits of private reason, explaining that it extends to the point of recognizing the true Church and then obeying its "unerring judgment" (130). The narrative thus authorizes Julia's discussions of Scripture and doctrine inasmuch as they are not original to Julia. This becomes even clearer when Julia quotes from or recommends the reading of well-known modern Catholic authorities, such as Gother, Milner, and Wiseman; in so doing, she both demonstrates the breadth of her Catholic education and subordinates herself as an expositor. Significantly, Julia cannot complete Abel's education, even once romance is completely off the table--he needs to undertake a formal Catholic course of study under the guidance of the clergy. That, too, is standard in Catholic controversial fiction: a character starts by conversing with a well-read Catholic lay figure, progresses to serious reading, and finally turns to a priest. Julia's power resides in her spiritual exemplarity, which distinguishes her from both the evil Mrs. Litherbarrow and the wishy-washy Mrs. Dtwiller on the novel's moral continuum. But exemplarity inspires; it isn't sufficient.