Here we have another unusually well-known novel--unusually well-known for this blog, that is. (It was even filmed multiple times--in fact, there's far more scholarship related to the various early films than there is about the novel itself.) The title character of "Maxwell Gray"'s (Mary Gleed Tuttiett's) The Silence of Dean Maitland (1886) is an Anglo-Catholic clergyman famed for his speaking voice--a "beautiful voice" (17), a "musical voice" (74), a "richly compassed voice" (80), and so on. Not surprisingly, then, the title is both literal and ironic: Cyril Maitland, famous for speaking, keeps silent about the events that threaten to do him in. Cyril, momentarily taken with the beauty of a young working-class woman with whom he grew up, Alma Lee, seduces and impregnates her; when, much later, he is confronted by her enraged father, the coachman Benjamin Lee, Cyril fights back and kills him. For obvious reasons, this sequence of actions is not conducive to a successful clerical career. At one point, Cyril remembers how, as a child, he broke a vase, only for his best friend, Henry Everard, to be punished instead. "I was miserable for days," Cyril tells Henry, "hating myself, and yet too frightened to tell the truth" (95). In a novel somewhat over-enamored of foreshadowing ("Could she but have had one glimpse of the swift-coming future..." ), it will come as no shock to the reader that Cyril proceeds to reenact his childhood failure on a grand scale, with Henry spending nearly twenty years doing hard labor in prison after being convicted of Cyril's crime. As the narrator says of Cyril, "But he was a coward, and loved the praise of men" (283). Despite all this, Henry is kept alive by both the love of Cyril's better half, his twin sister Lilian, and his eventual realization that he can do good to other men while in prison. Eventually, of course, the novel's sensationalist aspects reassert themselves at the end, as both Alma and her adult son return from America, Henry returns home, and Cyril (whose life has been plagued by a disillusioned wife and multiple deceased children) delivers a stinging self-indictment from the pulpit before conveniently dying right there. (In a depressingly obvious bit of symbolism, the cat he raised with his sister chooses that moment to die, too.) At least Lilian and Henry get to live happily ever after, adopting all of Cyril's remaining children in the process.
Despite Cyril's affiliation, this is not an anti-Anglo-Catholic novel. Much of what Cyril does in his early career, such as working in the urban slums alongside other Anglo-Catholic priests, is represented as clearly admirable; the novel is much harsher on Henry's killjoy brother George, a hardcore evangelical who later becomes a hardcore Ritualist. Instead, beyond its obvious critique of Christian hypocrisy, of which Cyril is actually far from the only example in the text, the novel attacks clerical charisma or, to put it differently, the cult of the saintly clergyman--the preacher as rock star. Cyril's upward trajectory depends on his ability to embody popular aesthetic notions of the true ascetic Christian, and to perform Christian sermons instead of simply delivering them. Henry, for example, meditates on Cyril's "pale, saint-like features and white-stoled form, the crimson from a martyr's robe in the south chancel window staining in a long bar the priest's breast and hands and the very chalice he held" (75); elsewhere, the novel dwells on Cyril's "worn cheek" (98), his "haggard face" (130). Cyril's peculiar beauty, which derives in part from the very haggardness of his features, appears to signify virtue according to all the tropes of Christian imagery, and actually signifies that he is being eaten from within by his own consciousness of sin. His sermons, which seem "brilliant and soul-searching orations" (326), are identified as theatre by a clergyman who has discovered the truth: "How did you like the play?" (298). These sermons provoke extreme emotional effects from his audiences; early on, an anxious Everard "began to fear some unseemly hysteric excitement in the little congregation" (78) as Cyril speaks. Cyril's ability to manipulate both men and women into sobs and self-condemnation threatens to overstep the boundaries between a righteous awakening to the reality of sin and a more dangerous (and implicitly feminized) mass delusion. Such rhetorical skill, which has market value within the Church of England, tips the congregation over into something resembling a fandom. In fact, when Cyril preaches his final sermon indicting himself as a criminal, most of his auditors refuse to believe it, interpreting his confession as the result of madness rather than violate the saintly image he and they have together constructed. The dangers of such charisma emerge when Henry first realizes the truth and concludes, because Cyril betrayed him, that "[t]here is no God [...] there is no good, no help anywhere" (179).
The novel's alternative to the dangers of clerical charisma is, in effect, a non-dogmatic lay Christianity, practiced by both men and women. Henry Everard's long imprisonment on Cyril's behalf, which eventually turns into a loose Christ analogy of sorts--highlighted by Cyril's sermon on Psalm 55:14, which sets up Cyril as Judas to Henry's Christ--becomes an act of ongoing ministry to the other prisoners. He finds "flowers and charity" strewn along the way in prison and becomes instrumental to saving several of his fellow inmates; when released, he comes across another former prisoner, Smithson, who uses his shop as a means of rehabilitating others instead of focusing on profit (285). Similarly, Cyril's twin sister Lilian is partly responsible, we are told, for "all that was best and most enduring in his writings" (317), and her purity makes her capable of taming dangerous animals (and non-dangerous ones), solving all moral problems within a square mile, and, in general, wearing a halo. Moreover, Lilian's animal-taming powers are linked specifically to sexual innocence. When Henry asks Cyril, who used to be able to do the same thing, why he has lost the skill, he sadly replies, "I am a man!" (101)--here, unbeknownst to Henry, associating sexual sin with the nature of manhood, in a way that Henry himself proves capable of resisting. The novel links Lilian's and Henry's moral and erotic purity, I think, with its Wordsworthian paeans to natural beauty: throughout, the created world appears as a good thing, overflowing with "the richest tones of color" (192) and providing an abundance of innocent aesthetic enjoyment to the properly attuned viewer. Lilian's ability to tame animals associates her with this kind of natural goodness, not prelapsarian but certainly the best that can be had in a fallen world.
Her movement from Cyril to Henry, moreover, suggests the right place for sexual maturity within this world, drawing on an implicitly complementarian view of gender identity. Cyril has a "feminine element" (93), an "almost feminine piety" (188), and an "almost womanly tenderness" (282), all of which in the end prove inadequate to moral action; instead of complementing his sister, he turns out to be inferior to her, both in his self-delusions and in his sexual failure. Unlike his sister, who has a "perfect self-command" (102), Cyril engages in excessive ascetic practices, such as wearing a spiked cross, in order to tame his bodily desires. (This is a standard Victorian critique of asceticism: the ascetic focuses on bodily disciplines at the expense of the mind.) Henry, who is more "masculine" (93), is in part so because he resists erotic desire through the equivalent of Lilian's mental strength. In that sense, the novel assigns both genders the responsibility of caring (Henry proves to be as nurturing as Lilian), but also suggests that caring needs to manifest itself in gender-appropriate ways. Lilian, the exemplar of perfect and self-controlled womanhood, is the right emotional and physical partner for Henry, the exemplar of perfect and self-controlled manhood; Cyril, defined by a problematic masculinity and an equally problematic tendency to physical and emotional excess, has to be shown the door.