What with all the excitement, I'm sure everyone is thrilled for another Catholic novel. If only it were not by E. H. Dering. Fortunately, I'm almost through with Dering's oeuvre, such as it was--he was, thank goodness, not prolific--but alas, Freville Chase, the sequel to Sherborne, is not cause for enthusiasm. While Sherborne demonstrated occasional flashes of competence, Freville Chase is unremittingly terrible: the overly-complicated subplot about a baby-switch (which Dering also used in The Lady of Raven's Combe) is forgotten for long stretches of time, while the main romance plot suffers from Dering's ineptitude at characterization. Worse still, from the reader's point of view, Freville Chase is effectively fictional hagiography, and its protagonist, Everard Freville, is so drenched in the odor of sanctity that he is barely capable of movement. In their fulsomeness, the final pages--in which Everard is buried, everyone bawls over his grave, converts, and/or (in the case of his fiancee, betrayed by various Evil Machinations) dies of grief--unintentionally anticipate the glorious emotional excesses of Fr. Corvo's wish-fulfilling Hadrian VII. There are far too many moments in which Everard is besieged by compliments, as when young Elfrida, sister of Everard's fiancee Ida, tells him repeatedly that "I have not known which to admire in you most" (I.269)--which, after a while, begin to ring uncomfortably of self-parody. It doesn't help that Everard's plot, in which he and Ida are betrayed by Ida's Protestant mother and the villainous Italian Moncalvo (a Catholic who has succumbed to the allures of liberalism--i.e., the nationalist movement), largely gets under way because Everard fails to listen to multiple warnings that Moncalvo cannot be on the up-and-up. (The novel's unintentional moral is that the principle of charity leads to disaster, as opposed to the intentional moral, which is that you should only enter into an interfaith marriage if you want to be responsible for the deaths of multiple people.)
In case you hadn't noticed, I didn't like this novel.
Moving on. As always, I try to extricate some use from whatever I read, no matter how inexcusably bad, and there a few things of note here. (Given how long the novel is, one would hope so.) The first is Dering's interest in the sensation novel. Maureen Moran, who doesn't discuss Dering, has argued that there exists a mode of "Catholic sensationalism" in Victorian literature, in which the "rhetoric of exposure," for example, can be wielded by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish writers alike to "unearth the buried forces in middle-class culture that belie its orderly, progressive self-image" (14). Dering, I think, links sensationalism to his fascination with the gift of divine grace. In Freville Chase, which relies on both Gothic and sensationalist tropes (one character even dryly inquires "Have you been reading the 'Castle of Otranto'?" [II.178]), the emotional and physical extremes of sensationalist narrative open up a wide theatre in which the workings of grace appear in their clearest form. For example, when Everard nearly strangles Moncalvo when he discovers, too late, that Moncalvo has married Ida, "[n]ature and Grace were brought into collision, and nature possessed his whole being, Grace appealed only to his soul"; the victory of Grace "and the habit of listening to it carried him through a temptation than which a greater cannot be conceived" (II.56). This moment, so extreme that it causes physical damage to Everard's heart, is both obviously sensational in the literary sense (attempted murder! guy making off with girlfriend! double-crossing!) and testimony to the power of Catholic masculinity, which always subordinates bodily desire to salvation; notably, it is not just God's gift of grace that prevents Everard from killing Moncalvo, but Everard's self-disciplined "habit" of paying attention to it. This is what distinguishes Everard from not just Moncalvo, who was not the direct agent of the baby-switch, although he benefited by refusing to reveal it, but also Ida, who kept putting off her conversion, and, for that matter, Ida's father Sir Richard, whose Catholicism had long since ceased to be anything but nominal. The only way to survive sensational extremes--morally, at least, if not physically--is through a fully Catholic training that both elevates soul over body and makes the soul always aware of grace entering into it. Dering's sensation fictions both reveal how Catholicism works and suggest Catholicism as their "cure," as it were. The horrors of man's sinful nature produce sensation; the glories of the free gift of divine grace enable the protagonists to triumph, even if that triumph must be delayed to the next world and/or is experienced solely in terms of lifelong penance.
The second is Dering's call for a Catholicism that is simultaneously universal and, in its local expression, English. Like many other Catholic novelists, Dering associates the "old" Catholic estate with authentic English historical continuity--a true conservatism embodied in the spirit of the place. Although the house itself "had been built at different times," the architecture "harmonised" in such a fashion that it "satisfied artistic feeling and made criticism seem out of place" (I.15). "Harmony," here suggesting how the home both manifests and organically contains the signs of historical difference, returns in a later discussion of church architecture. The Gothic, Everard explains, is quintessentially English: "It symbolises in stone the faith that produced it, and is in harmony with the atmosphere, temperature and features of the country. The idea of a basilica in England, however good of its kind, is to my mind not merely incongruous, but implies a forgetfulness of history: it implies that, having forgotten the old faith and traditions which we got from Rome, and which inspired those buildings, we have to begin anew, and borrow an architecture as unsuitable as it is untraditional. But I do love basilicas in Rome. They harmonise with everything there—air, light, landscape, the history of the Church and of the world" (I.100-101). Gothic indicates, that is, how Catholicism became inseparable from Englishness, especially the English landscape. As a Catholic aesthetic, it reminds the viewer of the faith's roots; as an English aesthetic, it domesticates Catholicism so that it is not some foreign import (the usual charge against Roman Catholicism), but an organic expression of national temperament. Thus, when Everard later plans a church, he argues that its form "should look as though it grew out of the landscape and completed it" (II.133). The final building is rooted in English medieval forms, simultaneously new (heralding modern Catholic revival) and old (rooting that revival in English landscape and national traditions). But this Englishness also contains the novel's sensationalist mode: it grounds the novel's action in a historical long view that emphasizes wholeness, continuity, and presence (physical and Real), as opposed to the transitory shocks that make up the novel's action.
Ralph Crane, Jane Stafford, and Mark Williams, eds., The World Novel in English to 1950 (Oxford, 2016). Vol. 9 of the Oxford History of the Novel in English. I'm reviewing this for Choice. (Review copy)
Thanks to a tweet by Ted Underwood, I was reminded of another "best novels" list, Ten Great Novels, this one put together for reading groups by the well-known Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones. According to Lloyd Jones, the survey was taken in 1884 and the results originally disseminated in his church magazine.
The top ten results seem fairly typical for the period:
The list overlaps noticeably with one I discussed last year: Les Mis is also in second place, Romola and Adam Bede place above Middlemarch (ninth), and Dickens and Scott are similarly represented by David Copperfield and Ivanhoe; the other list differs, however, in being remarkably Thackeray-heavy (three novels, Vanity Fair in the top spot), Auerbach/Goethe/Stowe absent but Don Q present, and The Scarlet Letter in a three-way tie for tenth. In JLJ's list, the only authorial outlier from a twenty-first century reader's POV would be Berthold Auerbach, author of On the Heights, who is now pretty much in the sole domain of specialists. The differences are largely statistical blips--what's interesting is the more general agreement about "great" novelists, with which a twenty-first century reader might agree, and their great novels, with which they might not.
As is often the case with such top-ten lists, things get a bit more interesting once you reach further in:
I'm not going to go through the entire thing, but notice the lack of Austenmania here: she only picks up four votes. In line with contemporary preferences, only Charlotte out of the Bronte sisters gets any love. Anne's reputation had long since gone kaflooey (that's an important technical term in literary history); meanwhile, while Emily was beginning to enjoy something of a renaissance, it was as a poet, not a novelist. Bulwer-Lytton's appeal was clearly on the wane, at least for this group, but some of them were still interested in Dinah Mulock Craik and Kingsley. There's relatively little interest in eighteenth-century fiction here, except for Defoe; poor Samuel Richardson picks up only two votes for Clarissa, as does Fielding for Tom Jones. And despite the list being produced by and for Americans, you have to read quite far down in the votes to find anybody except Hawthorne making an impact vis-a-vis the European novelists.
JLJ's list is also interesting, though, for the letters appended to it, as several of his contributors justified their choices. JLJ wanted recommendations for the "noblest" and the "best" (3) in European and American fiction, and his correspondents visibly struggle with the question of artistry vs. moral improvement. Part of the problem is that nobody appears to have been quite clear what fictional nobility might mean (some sort of "moral element," thought one slightly puzzled writer , while another bluntly said that JLJ had not provided a real "standard" ), and a librarian, Ella Giles, pointed out that lists like this were problematic in the first place (13). One writer, Emma S. Adams, argues that she can't put Austen in her top ten because a truly "great novel" is "inspiring in the lessons that it teaches" (6), which conflates great and noble. The Rev. J. H. Allen admits that he "should quite prefer Lorna Doone to Daniel Deronda, and The Last Chronicle of Barset to Les Miserables, if one wants either a natural or wholesome picture of life" (7), a judgment that seems to call for novels that are good for the constitution--less romanticism, one suspects, and also less sex--although how that fits Lorna Doone is not precisely clear. (Moral of the story: nineteenth-century "wholesome" doesn't necessarily translate.) Nevertheless, Allen turns out to be broad church in his literary leanings, and also plumps for Balzac (surely not wholesome) and Turgenev. Mrs. J. K. Boyesen, meanwhile, was all about "moral bearings" (8) over mere aesthetics, which explains her predilection for Romola (although she's also a Middlemarch fan)--but which also turns out to encompass Vanity Fair. Another writer, Mrs. J. L. Bullard, tries to distinguish between "great" and "noble" (9), putting both Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair only in the former category; C. F. Dole, similarly baffled, goes in the opposite direction and proposes Tom Brown's Schooldays as an example of something noble without being great (12). The Rev. C. J. Staples tries to theorize great vs. noble and comes down on "uplifting power" (19), but it's not clear if he prioritizes noble or great and noble in his selections. In other words, several of JLJ's correspondents felt that "great" literature might well lack any sort of strong moral project, didactic or otherwise, but they weren't sure they were comfortable with that position, or even if the position could be articulated coherently.
As Stephen Milder crisply points out in a review of yet another new book about the (unfortunate) state of doctoral education and the job market, "[t]he obvious conclusion to draw is that the PhD survives, on the one hand, for the benefit of universities that depend on graduate students’ cheap labor to teach undergraduates, and, on the other, for the benefit of professors who want to continue teaching graduate seminars." None of the arguments in favor of maintaining doctoral programs at their current size have convinced me, at least, that they would provide useful training that could not be better acquired elsewhere. One does a doctorate in Victorian literature in order to develop specialized knowledge in the field and master the skills necessary in order to contribute to the scholarly conversation. And one may go on to do something else, either by choice or by necessity. But someone with a doctorate in Victorian literature who winds up in grants writing, public relations work, publishing, online punditry, business, or goodness knows what else did not need that doctorate in order to do it. A doctorate is a professional degree! It is training for a specific profession! Someone who wants to go into publishing would probably be better served with an MA and professional training via workshops; someone who wants to found their own company would probably be better served with some combination of on-the-job training and an MBA; someone who wants to go into any number of nonprofit careers would probably be better off with relevant internships; etc. On what planet does it make any sense to spend five, six, seven years--or more--working on one degree when another degree or professional training program would be much more useful? Certainly, someone who happens to have an interest in Victorian literature and wants to pursue a doctorate in the subject for its own sake should feel free to do so, but that doesn't mean celebrating doctorates in Victorian literature for all and sundry, whether or not said doctorates are the best tool for the job, is a good idea. Again, most academic departments do not need people with doctorates in Victorian studies; they need people who can teach freshman composition and lower-division introductory courses, which is where adjunct instructors tend to be concentrated. This point would hold true even if all adjunct/non-TT positions were magically converted into TT positions with a wave of the assistant to the associate vice provost's wand. New universities are not springing from the earth, mushroom-like, to provide employment for all the Victorianists currently seeking jobs.
For the heck of it, I started reading Catherine Charlotte Maberley's The Lady and the Priest (1851), a semi- (quasi-?) competent anti-Catholic historical novel that turned out to be about Thomas a Becket. Not quite for the heck of it, actually: contemporary reviewers thought that the novel was a covert response to the "papal aggression" controversy, and as I'm finishing up a brief overview of said controversy, I thought I'd see if there was anything here worth mentioning. Strictly speaking, I suppose Maberley could have churned out a triple-decker and seen it published in a handful of months in order to criticize the new Cardinal Wiseman & Co.--the preface is dated July 1851--but I think some skepticism may be in order, barring evidence from correspondence. I can see why reviewers would interpret the text that way, to be sure. Becket, the villain of the piece, manipulates our heroine Rosamond, a wealthy heiress, so that she winds up having a passionate adulterous affair with Henry II (oh dear), resulting in children (oh my), eventual insanity (oh no), and death (oh well); she is avenged by her spurned fiancee, who turns out to be one of the murderers in the cathedral and is also driven insane by his own actions. So, bad show all the way around, then. Maberley is not fond of convents, so we have the usual run of anti-monastic complaints, plus sneaky priests, Catholic degeneracy, etc., etc., etc. At the very least, the novel implies that Catholic influence on the throne has, shall we say, profoundly negative effects (not to mention Catholic influence on the home).
The difficulty lies in the etc. etc. etc. Because I wound up skimming the novel instead of reading it, as it so clearly did nothing that was unusual (aside from suggesting that Becket was partly of Middle Eastern descent, which I haven't found yet in any of the relevant source materials--is this derived from something non-obvious?). It wasn't E. H. Dering levels of disastrously bad--the sort of novel that makes me want to declare, "I'm in favor of taking a distant reading approach to this novel. By which I mean that I would like to be one hundred miles distant from it." But the novel was still regurgitating standard-issue anti-Catholic talking points, most of which have become, well, rather familiar by this point. At this point in my reading career, I can generally predict exactly what a mid-Victorian, middle-of-the-road Protestant novel will do and how it will do it; there's not much to be gained from reading yet another one, unless I have something very specific that I want to understand about its genre, topic, narrative structure, and the like. (I need to get back to reading missionary novels, for example.) By contrast, I'm still learning quite a bit from reading Catholic fiction, which established itself by, in part, deconstructing a lot of Protestant narrative forms and tropes; similarly, things started going haywire in all sorts of interesting ways in the last quarter or so of the century, when not only do you have doubt exploding all over the place, but also more assertive Protestant denominational publishing (chipping away at the attempts to construct ecumenical Protestant texts at mid-century) and just some generally unusual/odd/experimental work.