I've said terribly unpleasant things over the course of the years about E. H. Dering, so I will concede upfront that his Sherborne (1875) is pretty inoffensive from an aesthetic POV. Granted, the novel has all of his usual problems: the characterization is nonsensical (in particular, the characters opining about the Catholic psyche after being converts for all of five seconds), the conversation bizarre (everyone delivers "home truths" all the time, even though in reality they would probably never be invited anywhere again after the first go), and the plot contorted (not to mention badly edited--Dering seems to have been worried that his readers would be unable to remember what was going on). Still, the prose, while occasionally resembling meat processed through a clogged grinder, was at least serviceable, and the main arguments, while not unfamiliar, reasonably interesting.
Sherborne's narrative combines a harsh critique of both post-Reformation and what one might call post-Catholic Europe, on the one hand, and a slightly more sensational plot about property gone awry, on the other. The last, however, is symbolically linked to the first. In the property plot, an old woman, Mrs. Atherstone, seeks to return a Catholic estate, confiscated after the '45, to its rightful nineteenth-century heir; the problem, of course, is that the estate, Protestant for over a century, is currently occupied by de Beaufoy, who has taken the old family name, Sherborne. As a young woman, Mrs. Atherstone had temporarily withheld her discovery of an heir's existence from her employer, Mrs. Sherborne, from whose brother the estate had been confiscated because he was illegally studying at Douai. Mrs. Sherborne had "apostasized from the faith" in order to marry a Protestant, who turns out to have been "an unkind and faithless husband" (I.164); in turn, Mrs. Atherstone thinks to conceal the heir in order that her own lover might inherit, only to discover that the will renders it impossible. Just as Mrs. Sherborne was punished for her betrayal, so too is Mrs. Atherstone, whose lover is promptly drowned. The network of refusals and betrayals that alienates the Sherborne property miniaturizes the larger Protestant project of stealing Catholic lands, keeping the rightful owners in perpetual exile either at "home" (a home itself rendered alien by the new religious settlement) or abroad. As Moreton, one of the novel's protagonists and its occasional narrator, says to the current Sherborne, a Catholic convert is now a "sort of spiritual ticket-of-leave man, who is allowed certain rights of citizenship under conditions not very clearly defined" (I.52)--a citizen and yet not a citizen, figuratively transported elsewhere yet at home, free yet circumscribed. But Mrs. Sherborne's return to the faith on her deathbed, as well as Mrs. Atherstone's conversion after a life of morbid despair, both signal Catholicism's irresistible appeal to the English mind, and thus the country's projected future return to Catholic health. "Sherborne," in fact, turns out to have a double meaning, as it indicates both the present holder of the title, one of the novel's protagonists, and Moreton, the actual heir (something revealed only at the very end of the novel). Although Moreton is a recent convert, the discovery that he is actually descended from an old Catholic family literally and symbolically restores a Catholic continuity within the context of violent Protestant disruption.
This alienated property plot sits side-by-side with a Risorgimento plot, which it both mirrors and, again, miniaturizes. Although Protestant novelists (and poets, for that matter) tended to look kindly on the Risorgimento, which they (mis)read as an example of burgeoning Protestant liberty abroad, Catholic novelists were, as one might expect, far less enthusiastic. The novel's primary Catholic priest, Don Pascolini, also links the Risorgimento to the Reformation, but not as the Protestants would have it: "They are doing by degrees in Italy what was done in England by Henry the Eighth" (I.38). Sherborne's interpretation of Protestant historical narrative (not that the Risorgimento was Protestant, but that many evangelicals in particular understood the movement that way) is in line with other Catholic texts of the period, which insist that, far from any sort of Whiggish progress, Protestantism is essentially non-linear. It disrupts, fragments, steals, corrupts, displaces, but shapes nothing. Moreover, this effect extends beyond the political into the moral and subjective. The English mind, says the narrator, has been "blinded by the wretched heresy which has so often warped the instincts of noble natures, and paralysed common sense" (II.191). English Protestants cannot properly make sense of events unfolding around them; they can neither offer true moral judgments nor decode the workings of divine grace. In this matter, though, they are joined by many Continental Catholics, whose governments applaud the Italian revolutionaries rather than taking the Pope's side. Sherborne thus diagnoses a larger religious malaise that goes well beyond Protestantism and into modern Catholicism itself, a destructive desire for power that upends older hierarchies and communities ordained by God. The only solution to this problem is a large-scale reversal of Protestantism's effects through the force of Grace, not of military power. Warns de Beaufoy at the end, if England does not return to its former Catholicism, "there will be an awful crash of everything some day" (III.321). For Englishness, he insists, is essentially Catholic, right down to its Constitution (III.322). Protestants may render Victorian Catholics alien in their own homeland, but understood rightly, it is Protestants themselves who are alien interlopers, performing a form of national identity that has no organic connection to its true origins.