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Losing a Family, Gaining a Church: Catholic Conversion and English Domesticity

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 127-143 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0006

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In 1848, three years after he entered the Roman Catholic Church, John Henry Newman anonymously published his first novel, Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert. The book responded to From Oxford to Rome (1847), by dissatisfied Catholic convert Elizabeth Furlong Shipton Harris, a work that included a subplot in which an Anglican minister abandoned his wife and children to become a Catholic priest. Harris's narrative of conversion and marital separation had most likely been suggested by Pierce and Cornelia Connelly's separation in 1844. Originally an Episcopalian minister in America, Pierce Connelly was ordained a priest in 1845 and moved to England, where he circulated in English Catholic society and persuaded his wife to take the veil. In 1848, renouncing Catholicism, he sued his wife for restitution of conjugal rights. Reports of the trial in the early 1850s helped bring into play concerns about domesticity in the furor surrounding the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. Thanks in part to the work of anti-Catholic writers like Harris and the pamphleteers defending Pierce Connelly, the so-called "Papal Aggression Crisis" was thus driven as much by domestic concerns as by fear of foreign influence.

Newman, Harris, and reporters of the Connelly case were invested in determining how individuals ought to relate to imagined communities on the level of the nation, the family, and the church. At stake was the location of the proper spiritual, national, and domestic home. Harris employs domestic ideology to defend the English Church and the English home. She depicts Anglicanism as superior to Roman Catholicism because it respected domesticity, while depicting domesticity as a support of the English nation and as a marker of an insular form of English identity. Newman's fictional converts, in contrast, reject the overly luxurious domesticity enjoyed by married Anglican clergymen, opting instead for Catholic celibacy and asceticism. Thus, in addition to arguing for Catholic conversion, Loss and Gain offers an illuminating criticism of middle-class domestic ideology. Newman was not alone in his critique of marriage: similar views shared by some Tractarian Anglicans ultimately enabled later writers such as Charlotte Yonge to advocate religious celibacy or being single and professional as viable alternatives to marriage for young men and women.

Linda Colley's Britons has shown convincingly that Protestant religious identity formed a key component of British national identity. Recent work on literary depictions of Catholicism by Susan Griffin and Patrick O'Malley also informs my reading of Newman and Harris's novels. Within anti-Catholic literature, they show, Roman Catholicism represented a foreign other against which new versions of Englishness could be constructed. But, as Gauri Viswanathan argues, because nineteenth-century Britons figured conversion in terms of a rejection or revision of national identity, conversion to Catholicism also offered Victorians the possibility of dissent from the state. In fact, pro-Catholic and pro-Tractarian literature participated in projects that paralleled anti-Catholic literature: just as anti-Catholic literature often invoked a Roman Catholic straw man against which to define proper British identity, pro-Catholic literature could construct its own straw man: a narrow, insular, and often anti-Catholic version of British identity against which to juxtapose a more universal (and, in the case of Loss and Gain, more cosmopolitan) one.

In this article, I reframe the question of national identity in terms of the domestic ideal. As Griffin notes in her study of anti-Catholicism, "Nineteenth-century fiction consistently imagines Catholicism's troubling presence ... as a family story" (10). In his work on Catholicism and the Gothic, O'Malley likewise notices Victorian literature's tendency to construct "the transgressions of Catholicism as symbolic transgressions against the family ... [,] the linchpins of the heterosexual and patriarchal order" (50). I will turn from the family to the family sphere: the domestic realm. In this article, I will investigate Catholicism as an anti-domestic presence in two mid-century novels of conversion.

These fictions of conversion imagine the interplay between church, state, and individual as the search for a true home, with competing versions of "home" corresponding to competing models of English identity. I contend that Harris constructed an insular and domestic identity that was bound to the...

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