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  • The Sensory Citizen-Witness:Liturgies of Torture in Mid-Victorian Martyrological Novels
  • Katherine J. Anderson (bio)

Martyrological novels, produced in Britain throughout the nineteenth century, constitute an immense archive. Both their original readers and contemporary scholars classify these texts in multiple ways: as historical fiction, historical romance, or religious fiction, or, more specifically, as early Christian novels or Reformation tales. Some have even been dubbed poorly disguised hagiography. Although martyrological novels constituted a “most popular literary genre of the Victorian age,” the majority of these texts are largely unknown today (Maison 117). In what follows, I examine martyrological novels produced by both Catholic and Protestant authors in an attempt to explicate one of their significant similarities: the portrayal of martyrological torture. I focus specifically on seven martyrological novels written in the 1850s and 1860s, when the religious controversy following the “Papal Aggression” of 1850 was at its height.1 Three of the novels were written by Catholic authors: Nicholas Wiseman’s Fabiola, or a Tale of the Catacombs (1854), John Henry Newman’s Callista: A Sketch of the Third Century (1855), and Frances (Fanny) Taylor’s Tyborne, and Who Went Thither in the Days of Queen Elizabeth (1859). The Farm of Aptonga: A Story of the Times of St. Cyprian (1856) was written by the Anglo-Catholic John Mason Neale. Two novels are the works of Protestant authors: Anne Manning’s The Lincolnshire Tragedy: Passages in the Life of the Faire Gospeller, Mistress Anne Askew (1866) and William H.G. Kingston’s The Last Look: A Tale of the Spanish Inquisition (1869). Finally, I end with George Eliot’s Romola (1862–63), which is neither Catholic nor Protestant but instead uses the martyrological novel as a vehicle for Eliot’s secular humanism. Martyrological novels made a significant contribution to mid-century cultural debates over religious rights, presenting their truth claims to a mass audience in the guise of (often bestselling) popular fiction. These texts demonstrate the importance that the martyrological novel placed on the rhetoric of torture in determining the status of the religious community in relation to the state during a time of cultural turmoil.

Martyrological novels provide a liturgy of torture that enlists readerly devotion primarily through the embodied act of reading. Liturgy commonly refers to an act of public worship (such as the performance of the Eucharist), in which a community of believers forms around a known, shared ritual [End Page 143] and performs it together to acknowledge their god. I identify two specific forms of liturgy operating in and around moments of torture in these novels: a secular liturgy of the state and the competing liturgy of the church. Within martyrological novels, torture first constitutes a liturgy of the state: a well-known ritual meant to unite spectators in an acknowledgement of sovereign power. However, the victims in martyrological novels co-opt the state’s liturgy through their acts of witnessing during torture, transforming the secular ritual of sovereign power into a specifically religious liturgy. Furthermore, martyrological novels immerse readers in the scenes of torture through shocking sensory detail, insisting that they interpret the moment of torture as a triumph of the martyr’s faith. The reader thus takes on the role of witness as well. Performing the ritual of reading these novels becomes a form of liturgy for the religious communities in question, uniting a reverence for historic tradition with more personal and reflective religious practices. Just as believers within the texts co-opt the liturgies of torture, religious novelists co-opt and combine secular forms of the popular novel in order to disseminate their message: elements of Gothic fiction, sensation fiction, and realism appear in these texts.2 Their liturgies of torture encapsulate the conflicting beliefs of Catholic and Protestant faiths equally well, demonstrating the integral importance of rhetorical (and fleshly) form to the successful communication of religious content and the solidification of religious community. These novels deliberately employ gruesome depictions of torture that evoke visceral sensation. In so doing, they essentially convince readers through their bodies: it is the body’s reaction that binds the reader-witness to the community of faith, taking place before a response from the soul or intellect...


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pp. 143-161
Launched on MUSE
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