What did I learn from sitting in the British Library that I didn't already know from perusing GoogleBooks et al., bearing in mind that I went specifically to read non-digitized material?
We can subdivide the learning into "confirmation," "complication," and "that's new."
1) As a genre, popular religious fiction in its Protestant form really does get "stuck," for lack of a better term, by the end of the 1830s. By "stuck," I mean that innovations on the form generally cease--after a chapter or so, you know what any given novel is going to do. It doesn't get "unstuck" until the late 1870s, for reasons I'll discuss below.
2) By the same token, there's a definite sea change in the religious novel during the 1820s and 1830s, when it becomes popular to use fiction as a substitute catechetical manual/vehicle for making explicit doctrinal claims, as opposed to as a guide to practical religion. (But see below.)
3) It's very dangerous to make claims about masculine and feminine "voices" or "traditions" in popular religious fiction, as there's considerable ideological and theological overlap. (And, of course, a lot of it is anonymous or pseudonymous.)
4) Any new history of the religious novel in Britain--like, say, the one I'm writing--will have to tack carefully between organization by chronology and organization by genre. I'm trying to avoid organization by denomination, as that sorts authors into "boxes" from which they cannot escape and downplays how religious novels engaged with each other across a wide-ranging field.
1) Most of the challenges to the status quo in the religious novel come from Catholic novelists in the last quarter of the century. Which is, you know, why people should read them--or, at least, why people like me should read them--as opposed to quaking in terror whenever faced with someone with a name other than John Henry Newman. Jewish novelists also ring some interesting changes on the form, not least because they're non-proselytizing.
2) For Protestant novelists, anything that isn't Protestant tends to be figured interchangeably with Roman Catholicism--thus, the average fictional rabbi acts a lot like a fictional Catholic priest, which, no--which makes it difficult to talk about, say, Victorian representations of Islam. That is to say: what is being contested here?
3) For much of the 19th c., Victorian Protestant novelists (as opposed to Victorian Protestants with their theological and political hats on) seem very invested in constructing a kind of fictional pan-Protestant identity to counter the Catholic challenge. Hang together or hang separately, in other words. However, that seems to be crumbling at the end of the century. It's not that there were no "Baptist" or "Methodist" novelists earlier in the century, but that a) there appear to be far more of them at the end and b) they are also far more vocal about their denominational identities.
4) The relationship between Catholic and Protestant fiction needs to be constructed as a Venn diagram, not as irreconcilable antitheses or some such. (At some point, I'll have a longer post about the ongoing "Is there such a thng as a Catholic novel?" question, which I'm thinking is maybe not the way to phrase the question in the first place.) For political reasons, Victorian Jewish novelists tend to align themselves explicitly with Protestants, which will bear discussion.
1) I was interested to come across two full-blown "controversial" novels in the eighteen-teens, because the genre didn't catch fire for another decade. A useful reminder that texts responsible for starting trends are not necessarily the texts that actually originated them.
2) I hadn't read a lot of temperance fiction before, so that was instructional.
3) I started thinking more about the functions of place in religious narrative (sacralized spaces, incarnate nature, urban exploration. etc.).
4) Quite a bit to chew on regarding the relationship between religion and empire in these novels (for example, critiques of colonial violence against indigenous peoples). I brought some recent monographs on religion and empire with me to the UK, which proved helpful as I was reading along.