The semester will begin in a couple of weeks, so let's get back into the swing of things with some Catholic fiction. Grace Ramsay's (the journalist Kathleen O'Meara) triple-decker A Woman's Trials (1867) was published by Hurst and Blackett, which tended to be lower-c catholic about whom it brought out; it's telling that they somehow managed to get both John Cumming and Nicholas Wiseman on their lists. Despite having a conversion at its center, A Woman's Trials is one of those novels that leaves the reader somewhat confused about what, precisely, constitutes the difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism; characters go to Mass on occasion, of course, and there's this book for children with a picture of Mary, but the uninitiated would be no more initiated at the end than they would be at the beginning. (To make matters even more complicated, the saintliest character, Miss Jones, is a devout Protestant and remains so, yet seems unable to plead the excuse of inculpable ignorance.) However, the novel is of interest for its close scrutiny of a Protestant subgenre, the Catholic school narrative, and, more broadly, for its struggles with a question that preoccupied both Protestant and Catholic authors: what did it mean to be a "martyr" in an age that appeared to have eliminated bloody religious persecution? Was such a thing even possible, and if so, what were the implications?
A brief recap of the plot is in order, given that (as usual) nobody but myself will have read this thing. Our heroine, Mabel Stanhope, is the adored only child of a wealthy baronet. The good baronet is a Very English Englishman, which includes a staunch devotion to all things Protestant; he certainly has a terrible time understanding why his good pal and near neighbor, Admiral Oldcastle, refuses to disinherit his son when said son converts to the dreaded Popery. In any event, despite being a thorough Protestant, the baronet sends Mabel off to a French boarding school run by and mostly populated with Catholics, the better to be appropriately "finished" by mastering the language. Now, this is actually a quite loaded plot, as both British and American novelists (and polemicists more generally) warned against sending young Protestant ladies to such schools, whether run by convents or otherwise. Rachel M'Crindell's The Schoolgirl in France (1840) is probably the best-known example of the genre, although Charlotte Bronte's Villette appropriates a number of its tropes, such as the scheming, chilly headmistress; indeed, Ramsay's Mme. Saint Simon owes something to Bronte's Mme. Beck. The most striking thing about the French Catholics Mabel encounters, however, is that aside from a nice priest, just about all of them are morally bankrupt--not spectacular sinners, as a general rule, but hardhearted, greedy, and thoroughly lacking in charity or conscience. Thus, Mme. Saint Simon "never did an unjust thing unless it was necessary to her interest" (I.123)--a snarky assessment characteristic of the novel's tone. In other words, Mabel is not converted by peer pressure or any other sort of pressure (indeed, Mme. Saint Simon is utterly horrified when she finds out in volume II), or even by good example (we don't see any until the priest starts playing a significant role later in the novel); the novel's great moral exemplar, as I've already noted, is Miss Jones, the Protestant woman who practically starves to death as the school's English mistress. Nor do we see Mabel being bowled over at Mass, one of the most common conversion tropes in Catholic fiction. (Ramsay actually satirizes the trope: the other girls who go to Mass for lack of anything better to do are completely unaffected by it, and the big Mass scene primarily involves multiple girls fantasizing about a sexy soldier and completely failing to notice what's going on otherwise.) Rather, Mabel is inexorably attracted to Catholic truth, irrespective of the behavior of actual Catholics. The school in and of itself has no effect. Something about Catholicism instinctively resonates with Mabel, described throughout the novel as "pure," and leads her at some point--that point is never made clear--to convert (although she describes herself as Catholic before she is formally received). Midway through Volume II, the news of her conversion leads to a spectacularly melodramatic confrontation with her father:
The Baronet broke from her with a wrench.
"Then my worst fears have proved too true," he said in a hollow voice, "you are a Catholic!"
"Yes, father, in heart and soul I am a Catholic!"
Sir John struck his open hand upon his forehead, as if to shut out the answer from his brain. If the lightning had blasted his child where she knelt, no word of impious murmuring would have poisoned his grief; but now, something too like a curse hissed through his clenched teeth; a curse, not against Mabel, but against Heaven. (II.121)
Unlike his more charitable friend Oldcastle, the baronet disowns Mabel forever and ever. By contrasting the baronet's behavior to Oldcastle's, Ramsay demonstrates that intolerance--especially such violent intolerance--is not the essence of Protestantism, but a choice, just as the contrast between Miss Jones and the novel's surplus of unpleasant Catholics is a reminder that the Church does not hold a monopoly on saintliness. Still, the remainder of the novel sets the much-coddled Mabel on a hardscrabble journey to female independence, with the help of Miss Jones: returning to France (a bad idea, as one patron tartly points out), she must learn how to budget, find work (not successfully), build her own fire, take the omnibus, and cook. Worse, she falls in love with a mysterious but genteel Frenchman, who suggests that she read Rousseau--always a bad sign. To nobody's great surprise, the Frenchman is leading a double life, but despite the momentary nervous breakdown caused by this revelation, Mabel survives, is reunited with her parents, and is on track to marry the converted Oldcastle son at the end of the novel; Miss Jones, meanwhile, gets to die.
One of the more interesting things about how Ramsay structures this novel is her use of alternate pathways--potential fates that either prefigure Mabel's choices or warn of dreaded outcomes. Thus, Mabel's brief romance with the double-dealing Frenchman was anticipated in the first volume by a classmate's elopement with the aforementioned sexy French soldier, who neglects to marry her. (The novel is, in fact, more oozing with eroticism than one might expect from a religious novel: the teenage girls are all on the lookout for hunky guys when they aren't reading Dumas and Sand, and men are represented throughout as sexual threats looking for easy prey.) Her more successful classmates, Milly and Olga, go on to not enjoy their eventual marriages to wealthy Frenchmen; Milly has no interest in her husband, while Olga, in thrall to ennui, is all too aware that her husband is a philanderer. (Said husband makes a brief play for Mabel at one point.) Here, then, is another dangerous option for a wealthy woman: upper-class but unloving relationships. None of these characters appears redeemable or even aware that some redemption might be in order, and the girl who elopes disappears entirely from the novel, not even recurring as a corpse or penitent. As I've already mentioned, Admiral Oldcastle's acceptance of his son's conversion is a positive alternative to Mabel's own experience, one eventually duplicated by the end (that this is the only duplicated alternative seems significant). Miss Jones' life, meanwhile, exemplifies all the worst horrors that a working "lady" might have to face as a governess or teacher: she is underfed, underwarmed, underhoused, and generally underappreciated, until the stress of her existence ultimately kills her.
Both Mabel's and Miss Jones' experiences, the novel argues, exemplify what martyrdom and suffering might look like in the mid-nineteenth century. There are no spectacular dismemberments on view, no strange prisons, no miracles. Instead, there are the physical privations and humiliations attendant on being a penniless woman in a dangerous urban environment. In the case of Miss Jones, Ramsay cleverly transforms the meaning of suffering: early on, when Miss Jones is still something of a figure of fun, eternally incapable of mastering a decent French accent (she pronounces "Monsieur" as "Moshu"), so too is her claim to being a "martyr," namely, "cold feet" (I.79). But later, when Miss Jones is faced with the stark alternatives of being dishonest or losing her position, the narrator praises her staunch Christian adherence to truth as an exquisite act of moral courage: "there was the majesty of truth, something perhaps of the Martyr's halo shining from that pale, wan face. Oh, surely, many a martyr's palm was won with less heroic faith!" (I.253). There may be no "ghastly treason of a Pagan sacrifice" (I.253) involved, but that's exactly Ramsay's point. By witnessing to Christian faith through her actions, Miss Jones engages in an explicitly modern form of self-sacrifice that resists not ancient modes of torture, but modern capitalist calculations about the relationship between employer and employee; the choice, which will leave her unemployed and penniless, still threatens death from illness and/or starvation. Too, Miss Jones' life is deeply ascetic--granted, by necessity rather than by choice--but it echoes classic hagiographical imagery of fasting and self-mortification (freezing rooms, sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor, trying to avoid any sensual indulgences). Similarly, the narrator compares Mabel nerving herself for her confrontation with her father to "the Christians of the early Church, who, before the decree had gone forth condemning them to martyrdom, were wont to visit the amphitheatre, and listen to the roar of the wild beasts chained in the vaults below" (II.93). Again, no literal lions are around, but losing status as a wealthy eligible heiress constitutes its own form of social death, as Mabel is soon to find. Mabel's struggles against hunger and squalor in her quest to achieve self-sufficiency require her to progressively strip herself of her worldliness and class prejudices--risking her ladylike hands in cooking and fire-making, for example--and thus constitute their own form of spiritual discipline. Moreover, like Jane Eyre, she must resist the allure of a man who, unable to marry her, offers instead a life without the "empty form" (III.222) of marriage. The similarity may well be intentional: like Jane, she realizes that her love has been "idolatry" (III.222), but unlike Jane, she sternly and permanently rejects the man who betrayed her, itself an act of self-sacrifice with physical as well as romantic implications (the man had been subsidizing her living experiences without her knowledge). Here, again, is modern martyrdom, weighed out in the refusal of both cash and worldly desires. It's a small thing--no audiences around--but an act of witness all the same.