- Radical Anti-Catholic Protestantism and When It Was Dark: The Novel and the Historical Context
JOSEPH CONRAD, Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Samuel Butler, and Guy Thorne: which name does not belong with the rest? Of course Guy Thorne is the name that stands out today. Conrad, Hardy, Wells, and Butler are easily recognizable as Transition-era authors. Yet Thorne was also not only a novelist but for most Edwardian Britons probably the best known. Despite being wildly popular among his contemporaries, Thorne is largely forgotten today in scholarly circles. When he is remembered, it is usually as the author of the best seller When It Was Dark, published in 1903. Since When It Was Dark tells the story of a Jewish millionaire who attempts to destroy Christianity, it is not surprising that scholars have seen the work primarily in light of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, such readings of When It Was Dark fail to take the work seriously on its own terms and examine the historical context within which Thorne worked.
Guy Thorne (1875–1923), born Arthur Edward Ranger Gull, was a journalist, sportsman, avid drinker, man-about-town, and a committed Anglo-Catholic. Like many of his contemporaries, he was caught up in the so-called “Great Church Crisis,” a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic parties within the Church of England occurring between 1898 and 1906. A close reading of When It Was Dark, combined with Thorne’s own statements and those of his contemporary readers, reveals that its polemics were not primarily directed against Jews or Judaism, but against radical anti-Catholic Protestantism—a forgotten early twentieth-century moral panic and a significant preoccupation of late-Victorian and Edwardian popular literature. [End Page 210]
In the late-nineteenth century, the Church of England was embroiled in the Great Church Crisis. It began in 1898 when three developments created a sense of crisis among Protestants about the growth of Anglo-Catholicism within the Church of England and the growing assertiveness of Roman Catholicism from outside.1 First, in 1897 author Walter Walsh published The Secret History of the Oxford Movement. Walsh claimed to have uncovered the Catholic conspiracy behind the Oxford Movement and its contemporary incarnation, Ritualism, which was generally called Anglo-Catholicism after the turn of the century. According to Walsh, the real aim of the Ritualists was the corporate reunion of the Church of England with the Church of Rome. The Secret History of the Oxford Movement had an immediate impact, both fueling and coinciding with John Kensit’s anti-Ritualism campaign, launched in January of 1898 at St. Ethelburga’s, Bishopsgate. Kensitite anti-Ritualist riots broke out throughout the spring of 1898. Liberal Parliamentary leader Sir William Harcourt added more fuel to the fire lit by Walsh and Kensit in 1898 through his anti-Ritualist Parliamentary speeches.2
The environment created by the Church Crisis proved to be fertile ground for Protestant polemical literature. Fin-de-siècle popular literature, not unlike today’s fare, was dominated by romance, adventure, shady villains, and harrowing escapes. Besides providing entertainment, literature can reveal a great deal about the concerns and preoccupations of both those who produced it and those who consumed it. As journalist Claud Cockburn asserted in Bestseller, “the author of a bestseller consciously or unconsciously produces a mirror of his time.”3 Examining popular literature and best sellers in particular, then, sheds light on the attitudes and preoccupations of the book-buying middle class and book-borrowing upper-working class, since “of all indices to mood, attitudes, and, above all, aspirations, the best seller list is one of the most reliable. There is no way of fudging it.”4 Not surprisingly, then, although anti-Catholic fiction has had a long history in the British Isles, it came to special prominence during the years surrounding the Church Crisis.
Many novels advancing a Protestant agenda were quite successful on the market. Despite being largely forgotten today, Joseph Hocking, a Methodist minister and one-time president of the Protestant Press Association, was one of the most widely read fin-de-siècle authors. His siblings included Silas Kitto Hocking and Salome Hocking, both of whom also...