There are times when exploring non-canonical fiction opens up all sorts of new intellectual worlds to explore. New authors! New ideas! New narrative forms! New tropes!
And then, there are times when exploring non-canonical fiction leads you to contemplate a new life as a George Eliot specialist.
This would be one of the latter.
If you're going to study nineteenth-century Catholic fiction, then it's impossible to escape Anna Hanson Dorsey (1815-96), an American novelist who was extremely popular in the USA and enjoyed some measure of transatlantic success. Unfortunately, "success" does not equate with "remains readable," and the experience of reading Dorsey's work is somewhat akin to being clocked over the head by a never-ending stream of clumsy adjectives and adverbs, then slowly drowned beneath waves of dialogue unlike anything that ever has been or ever will be spoken by mortal tongues. In The Sister of Charity, characters have a bad habit of declaiming thus:
"I know, I know, that these tumultuous feelings are not natural to me, dearest father; I fear nothing for myself, but oh! some strange, sad presentiment assures me, that human life is struggling in wild agonies with those waves whose loud thunder we hear—that prayers which can only be heard in heaven mingle with the blast—that ere long, the brave, the lion-hearted, the fair and good, will go down to their death, beneath the waters of yon furious ocean; within hearing almost of our sheltered home." (I.9-10)
In other words, there's a ship out there in a storm.
I managed to get about one hundred pages into Charles Dolman's UK reprinting of The Sister of Charity before reaching peak exasperation. It's time to defuse my ire by diffusing it, as it were...
I. 96: We're in the midst of an apparently hopeless murder trial--for patricide, no less. The young and hunky Herbert, a lawyer, has been brought in as part of a last-ditch effort to save the defendant; the defendant is a saintly Catholic, whereas Herbert, while (as I said) young and hunky, is also addicted to laudanum (gulp) and, even, worse...
I.98: ...reads Voltaire. Shock, horror, &c.
I.103: The prisoner "fell fainting back on some kind breast, which sprang forwards under a momentary impulse, to save him from falling." Somebody's chest detached itself from their body and took pity on the prisoner?
I.103: The author declines to transcribe the "burning eloquence" of Herbert's speech, which is probably wise, under the circumstances. Not only is the speech "burning," but it's also akin to "the lightning-fires of heaven" and tinctured with "immortal fire." It's amazing that the pages haven't scorched.
I.104: Dorsey really likes "lightning," I guess.
I.105: In a fit of guilt, the real murderer shows up and exonerates the prisoner. Now we have fratricide instead of patricide.
I.110: The murderous uncle, having cleared his nephew, conveniently drops dead right after his confession. Violent relations can be so aggravating.
I.111: Uncle-the-corpse is "trampled out of all resemblance to humanity," which is presumably some sort of cosmic poetic justice at work.
I.117: Herbert turns out to be terribly anti-Catholic, which means that he is either going to die horribly or convert and die pleasantly.
I.119: "Evelyn Herbert, are you an atheist?" I will pause a moment to allow all of my readers to recover from this terrible shock.
I.124: Alas, in the wake of Herbert's revelation, the beauteous Corinne is most unsympathetic to his marriage proposal. You would have thought that Herbert might have noticed the atmosphere growing distinctly icy.
I.126: Also, Herbert apparently needed to use breath mints.
I.132: Herbert resorts to "copious potations" in order to get over the sting of rejection.
Just taking a drink was not, I gather, sufficiently elegant for Dorsey's tastes.
I.132: When drunk, Herbert has a habit of "declaiming" atheism like "a madman." He turns out to be a fan of Lucretius, Zeno, and Epicurus, all of whom Dorsey's readers should be careful to avoid.
I.133: Mom charitably wishes that her son had "died" of illness as a boy instead of living to drink alcohol and read Voltaire.
I.143-48: We pause our drama to explain the life of a sister in the order of St. Vincent de Paul.
I.150: I'm not sure that the name "Father Borgia" would have conjured up the most positive associations...
I.158-59: We pause our drama again in order to demonstrate how to set up a domestic oratory.
I.168: Protestant nations are given not just to all manner of horrors, but also to "fanaticism" and, even worse, "transcendentalism." Ralph Waldo Emerson, what have you done?
I.176: After expounding on the difference between Catholic nations (good) and Protestant (bad), we move on to explicating the role of images in Catholic worship. As in a Protestant novel, this is a signal to hit "monologue mode" on the character's control panel.
I.183: What the--Dolman's must have made a printing error and transposed a lot of text, because while the page numbers are correct, the action has skipped mid-word to an entirely different scene. I am confuzzled. Is there a Tardis handy? Perhaps we could send a proofreader back in time.
In case you're wondering, Herbert's mother seems to have collapsed.
I.184: Now we're back to our first speaker, but we're still missing a chunk of his monologue. I mean, that's probably all for the best, but...
I.185: And now we're back to Herbert (I guess), threatening someone (who?) with a stone pitcher. This certainly lends a postmodern aura to the proceedings.
I.186: OK, we're back to our first speaker at Elverton Hall, whose monologue apparently concluded while the narrative skipped to this...other thing. Perhaps the rest of the monologue will show up in Herbert's scene?
I.188: Well, we had about two pages in the same scene, and now we're somewhere else entirely. This is the most bizarre reading experience I've had in some time. I can only imagine what some literary theorist, happening upon this book two thousands year from now, will conclude about nineteenth-century narrative form.
I.190:...And we appear to have jumped to the end of the novel, except that we're not yet at the end of volume one. I need to find a different copy of this book to inflict upon myself read.