To create Margaret's situation and mood Miss Sewell had only to recall what things had been like for herself some fifteen years earlier. Margaret Percival, like the author other story, yearned for better things than her real-life situation afforded. Scarcely out of the school room herself, Margaret, at seventeen, has fallen heir to the task of educating her younger sisters and brother. As the story opens we find Margaret in the school room attempting to settle the rival claims of sisters Grace and Harriet for her attention, brother Phillip spoiling an exercise with an ink blot, Margaret losing herself in the book she is reading, older sister Agatha complaining of the confusion and Mrs. Percival arriving to save the situation by ringing the bell for lunch. After dramatizing Margaret's situation and problems the author pauses to analyze Margaret's malaise, explaining that "her Utopian schemes [for the children's education] had failed — her hopes were gone. . . . Her principles were still unsettled, and her temper was unsubdued, and her eart was wayward and discontented. " The problem seems to be that, lacking in self-discipline, Margaret cannot hope to discipline her pupils. All her reading of Dante and Schiller has failed to provide strength and direction for her tasks. In fact, such "belles lettres" have contributed to the strain of romanticism, which is at war with the dutiful part of Margaret's nature.
A solitary walk, a luxury for the next eldest child in a sizable family, provides the reader with an introduction to the two claimants to Margaret's devotion. Margaret's first stop is at Henningsley, the elegant but long-neglected estate where Margaret's fancy has seized upon the picture, in "a richly wrought antique frame, "of a young girl whose expression combined "lightheartedness and hope, and the fulness of delight" with "intellect, and purity, and refinement" (Margaret Percival, I, 25).1 Margaret's imagination has given life and substance to the unknown subject of the portrait, who later becomes identified in Margaret's mind, with an actual descendant of the sub- ject, the beautiful, widowed, young Countess Novera, who embodies all the fascination that Roman Catholicism could have exerted on a young Anglican girl of the 1840's.
After leaving Henningsley Margaret pauses at her parish church, a "hideous" building described as "on the outside a glaring brick excrescence" and "on the inside, an awkward, ill-arranged conventicle" (I, 29). Margaret's attention is diverted from the contemplation of gravestones in the churchyard, which has set her to wondering about the purpose of her own existence, to zhe sight of a man's figure coming toward her. Enter Mr. William Sutherland, the beloved clergyman-uncle, who in turn loves Margaret best of all persons alive and can see in the "irritable, self-willed, and visionary" young woman the mature Christian she might become if only he can supply the "one principle" lacking to channel the "enthusiasm in favor of all that was noble and beautiful in history or fiction" into "a devotion to true greatness" (I, 35). The missing principle in Margaret's nature is, of course, a sense of commitment to religious duty, or, in other words, self-discipline. Gradually, during his brief visits with the Percivals, Mr. Sutherland is able to implant in Margaret's mind the aspiration to make the daily life a "struggle against secret sins" and the children's schoolroom the very "proving ground of the soul" (I, 34). The relationship between Margaret and this pattern-clergyman was apparently drawn from Miss Sewell's own relationship with her brother William. Indeed the author tells the reader that their relationship is more that of sister to elder brother than that of niece to uncle.
The course of prayer and introspection, suggested with reserve and good taste on the part of the mentor, is just beginning to impart the steadiness of purpose needed to bring order out of the former chaos of the school room, when the quiet tenor of Margaret's life is interrupted by a trip to France with her worldly sister Agatha and the equally worldly Mrs. St. Aubyn and her brother, the cloddish Colonel Clive. The stay in France nets two consequences, Agatha's engagement to Colonel Clive and Margaret's first contact with the Countess Novera. Since the Colonel is neither young nor handsome or even amiable, except as he puts his best foot forward, it becomes evident that his real attractions are his wealth and social prestige. Agatha consequently dooms herself to unhappiness; and only after the tragic death of a baby daughter and a period at home under Margaret's influence does she return to be the chastened, dutiful wife of the little-changed colonel.
Margaret's romance — for there is no other appropriate word — with the Countess is not so easily summarized. The two young women first catch sight of one another at the cathedral in St. Ouen, where Margaret kneels in instinctive awe of the beauty and mystery of the place, and the Countess identifies her, correctly, as English and, incorrectly, as Roman Catholic. When the two actually meet back home in England, Beatrice Novera lets her confessor. Father Andrea, convince her that Margaret's is a soul worth winning to the True Church at all costs. And so begins the major conflict of the novel.
That the conflict will be subtle and protracted is clear from the delineation of the Countess. Whereas the contrast between Margaret and Agatha is that of piety and worldliness, the contrast between Margaret and Beatrice is the finely shaded difference between two forms of piety. How should poor Margaret, not yet out other teens, be proof against the beautiful Countess, who numbers among her assets a knowledge of the world tempered by illness and grief, genuine tenderness and pity for the suffering of others and the aura of Italy and the Henningsley portrait, which have already become the foci of Margaret's romanticism? Add to this the Countess's intellectual superiority abetted by Father Andrea's Jesuit cleverness. Before Margaret can say "Christopher Wordsworth" (the author's own antidote to Romanism), she has embarked on a course of reading prescribed by her Catholic friends. Set alongside the drama of the Catholic Church with its festivals, its fasts, its saints, its services, its ritual, the Anglicanism represented by her ugly parish church and its neglectful rector is scarcely strong enough to sustain her.
Circumstances conspire to keep away and throw off scent her erstwhile friend and guide, Mr. Sutherland, until it is almost too late. When Margaret finally confronts her uncle, his fear that he has come too late brings him to "tears which his own griefs could never have extracted" (Margaret Percival, II, 154). His tears and her trembling charge the already anguished atmosphere of the following interchange:
"Have I heard the worst ? . . . Speak, Margaret, speak! Are you a Romanist?"
The question startled, almost shocked Margaret, "O no! — impossible! how could it be unknown to you?
"Thank God! then there is still hope."
Mr. Sutherland then enjoins her not to see Beatrice the following day, even though it is the last such opportunity before the Countess, now terminally ill, returns to Italy. Margaret protests, "But for one hour — it can neither add to, nor take from my conviction." Mr. Sutherland, in a tone of "deep affection and pity," then replies: "My dear, dear child, if there were any other way, . . . but you are blinded, you cannot see; your danger; follow your own will, and may Heaven avert the consequences."
Margaret, unable to "resist the earnestness of his manner," there- upon agrees: "I put myself into your hands for the present only. I must think whether you are right hereafter" (II, 155).
After such an appeal to familial duty (in addition to calling her his "dear, dear child"), Mr. Sutherland has reproached her with loving a stranger better than himself) and to religious authority, the reader knows that the distraught Margaret will steel herself for the departure of her heartbroken friend and the foiled proselytizer. The crisis has passed, but a quarter of the novel still remains: the "hereafter" during which Margaret must "think whether" her counselor is right.
In point of fact, thought is a negligible part of the process by which Margaret "grasps herself with tighter rein" and learns to submit to the yoke of obedience. Banishing doubts concerning her decision — to remain in the church other fathers is hardly an intellectual process, as Mr. Sutherland outlines the battle plan:
"Crush them [the doubts] as you would a sceptical or infidel doubt. "
"By making what I would almost call a physical effort against them. Let your first help be prayer, very short . . . . Afterwards, repeat verses, walk about, read, sing, do anything which shall be actual occupation for the moment . . . . Then, do not trouble yourself at any time with more arguments than are necessary" (Margaret Percival, II, 171).
As for the quality of the argument by which Mr. Sutherland seeks to convince his niece of the rightness of remaining within die Anglican fold, the reviewer of Margaret Percival and four other Sewell novels under the title "Puseyite Novels, " all too tellingly reduces 150 pages of discourse to the following:
Required what causes can justify an individual in leaving the Anglican for the Roman Church. Answer — sufficient proof that the Church is schismatic. Again — What are the sources for proof or disproof? Answer — Inaccessible to all but those who have a life of study to devote. When to this cruel difficulty it is asked. What then are we to do with suspicions that our Church has not the authority of divine sanction? the answer is simple — Crush them. "You are born, " they say, "under spiritual authority which you have no right to disown, unless you are in a position to investigate its sources. Till you can weigh all the intricate evidence of historical authority, you must obey the guidance under which Providence has placed you: and this partic- ular evidence is just what you never can weigh, unless you are in the position of a clergyman, devoting your wbole life to such a study.2
This argument, continues our reviewer, who, whoever he or she may be, is decidedly not a High Churchman, is "More worthy of the logic of the reverend Editor himself [William Sewell], and the platform oratory of a baptismally regenerated assembly, than of the pages of this high-minded and spiritual authoress" (p. 517).
Several reviews of Margaret Percival appearing in 1847 and one published in 1857 agree unanimously that The Trials of Margaret Percival, as one critic suggests renaming the novel, is something less than the author's greatest work.3 These reviews are interesting not only for what they call attention to in the novel itself but also for what they reveal concerning expectations and standards for the religious novel of the mid-nineteen century. With one thrust the Prospective Review critic has managed both to sneer at the Oxford Movement's preoccupation with establishing the Anglican Church's claim to being the True Church, and also to suggest that logic is beyond the province of an "authoress." How did other critics regard the work? And on what grounds did they judge it? Because Margaret Percival helped to establish Miss Sewell s reputation as a serious writer of religious fiction for adult readers and ^because it is representative of a genre so popular in its period, it will be interesting to examine a few other reviews contemporaneous with the novel itself. A variety of criteria are brought forward to aid the reader in judging the novel — criteria ranging from cliché of plot, through lack of cheerfulness and action, to the clichés of High Anglicanism. All the critics claim allegiance to the standard of realism, although they frequently apply this standard in a somewhat naive manner.
The anonymous reviewer for The Athenaeum of January 9. 1847, for example, begins by assuming that "these [Miss Sewell's] dressings-up of religious doctrines in fiction are factitious" and proceeds to dismiss as cliché the devices by means of which Margaret's conversion to Romanism is thwarted:
The worldly sister, with whom the heroine of a religious novel is generally paired, flies from the splendid but comfortless roof of her husband, to take refuge at home; — the extravagant brother, who as commonly runs his family into debt, involves the Percivals in difficulties; — and the father dies of vexation of spirit, leaving the family in pecuniary straits. [The Athenaeum, no, 1002, p. 42.]
Strangely enough, the latter two of these incidents are taken directly from pages of the Sewell family history; still, their handling is not particularly skillful, so that perhaps the criticism is valid after all. In any case the critique ends upon a note which strikes a responsive chord in almost any twentieth-century reader: "The little sketch of Miss Debrett [an unattractive but well-meaning spinster] as a study of character, shows that she is capable of better things, Ņif she would prefer faithful pictures of life, undertaken in a kindly spirit, to the retailing of doctrines, at second-hand ..." (p. 43). The critic reviewing nine of Miss Sewell's tales for The Christian Remembrancer, a High Church publication, some ten years later begins by calling attention, very astutely, to the mixture in the story of Margaret Percival of the "real" and die "fanciful, " Margaret's home representing reality and the world of the Countess Novera representing the fanciful. But straightaway the reviewer's own didacticism gets in the way of an appreciation of the very realism he demands. Note the ambivalence in the following:
How true are many of the home scenes! . . . yet . ... We doubt the expediency of so constantly picturing home as the scene of disappointment, want of sympathy, uncongeniality, worry, weariness, and pain. Young people are the readers of these books. It may lead them . . . to criticise and question where an unreasoning submission is their best happiness.4
For this particular reviewer, influence on the young supersedes realism as the overarching criterion of the author's success. In the above-quoted passage realism is deplored when it might lead the young person astray; at a later point lack of realism is blamed for the unequal friendship between Margaret and die Countess. The reviewer now questions "the indiscretion of presenting so fascinating a connexion to young fancies as this mutual devotion of the Countess and Margaret. They are represented as 'absorbed,' 'blinded, 'engrossed'; Margaret is the Countess' one tie to live for, her one love after her husband's death. Such a case is neither possible nor desirable" (p. 319). "Desirable"? Probably not. "Possible"? Given the emotional impoverish- ment of both the young women, why not? But our reviewer of 1857 is quite correct in labeling the farewell scene between Margaret and Beatrice "an instance of the romantic visionary side of our authoress's mind" (p. 321):
"Beatrice! dearest of all I Heaven bless you for your love! Yet we must part!"
The eyes of the unhappy Countess closed for an instant. . . .
"See, I am dying and I shall die alone; . . . Servants to watch me in my last moments! Margaret, have pity on me! " and the proud Countess Novera, clasping her hands in agony, threw herself at Margaret's feet. . . .
[Then Father Andrea]: "Daughter, farewell; oh let it not be for ever!"
The fearful warning fell like lead upon Margaret's heart. At a rapid rate the carriage descended the hill . . . . and when it again stopped at the grove, she was lifted from it insensible (Margaret Percival, II, p. 299).
In a review of "Sewell's Religious Novels 1845-1847" the critic for the North American Review raises at the outset the question: What is a religious novel? Or, since there are "not many deserving the name," what ought a religious novel to be? First, the reviewer answers, the religious novel must be "perfectly unpretending" — that is, without "romance" and without "morbid sensibility" It should not deal withthe extraordinary, but rather it should "sanctify to us our daily life . . . to show what faith, hope and charity can accomplish." Secondly, the characters should be drawn from life, "not patterns of perfection contrasted with monsters of iniquity." In fact, the reviewer demands nothing short of "Miss Austen's homely scenes and every-day people, drawn with Miss Austen's wonderful power of perception and discrimination of character, without her occasional implied bitterness of satire" (p. 349). What is curious here is that it is precisely Miss Austen's "occasional implied bitterness of satire" that provides the desired astringent effect in materials that, in the hands of a "religious" writer, might have acquired a taste of saccharine.
"A cheerful spirit," our critic of the religious novel concludes, should be found "animating the pages of such a book."5 The "trials" of religion must not overshadow its "consolations" (p. 349). After observing that some of Mrs. Sherwood's books "excite a distrust of all innocent gayety," the reviewer heaps the heaviest scorn upon books of the class of Grace Kennedy's Dunallan (1825): "We have witnessed a paroxysm of tears over that compound of romance and fanaticism, produced by its highly wrought and unnatural scenes, which left the mind in no fit state either for thought or for action" (p. 350). After exonerating Miss Sewell's Gertrude and Amy Herbert from any serious faults and crediting them with "quiet humor" the North American reviewer goes onto complain of the "painful sense of suffering" and "feelings . . . too minutely dwelt upon" in Margaret Percival (65:360, 363).
Although the preference for cheerfulness and the objection to the detailed probing of emotions may strike the present-day reader of Margaret Percival as shallow or dated, one senses that the critic is hovering near a legitimate ground for questioning whether Margaret Percival provides aneffective portrayal of religious conflict. The writer for Prospective Reviewhits the mark squarely when he suggests that the problem with the novel is theimbalance between "inward thought and feeling" and external action. Not that one must, with Matthew Arnold of the 1853 Preface, insist that all "suffering" find a "vent in action." Rather, the reader has a right to expect an indirect explication of Margaret's tormented state of mind. The dialogue, both that internal to Margaret's mind and that between Margaret and her confessors, goes on at too great length and is replete with the jargon of the Oxford Movement. When a scene is too talky — worse yet, preachy — it ceases to move us. Lucy Snowe's brief interchange with Père Silas in Villette goes further toward making one feel the attraction of the Roman confessional for a lonely idealistic Anglican girl than all the pages of talk on that subject in Margaret Percival.
By far the most fascinating bit of analysis on the part of the non-Puseyite author of "Puseyite Novels" is the notion that the Anglican novelist's difficulties with the effective communication of his other religious beliefs is endemic to the very nature of Anglo-Catholicism. The problem with the "permanent Puseyites" — that is, those who have not gone all the way over to Rome — is that they possess neither the "habit of obedience" which sustains the Roman Catholic nor "the sweeter liberty of dissent" which invigorates the Protestant. The crux of the problem, according to this Evangelical (one suspects) reviewer is as follows:
And when, by a severe self-discipline [italics mine], men succeed in raising to the rank of moral obligations the commands . . . and all the petty ordinances of a ritual Church which try to supersede the free exercise of men's discretionary judgment, and oppress the mind with a constant sense of violated duty, it destroys all the natural health and ease of spontaneous life . . . (Prospective Review 6:522-23).
If the reader will change the phrase "ritual Church" to "ritual-bound uncle" it becomes startingly clear that "natural health" and "spontaneous life" are exactly what is missing in a protagonist like Margaret Percival.
Perhaps one important function of poor Margaret's effusions of spiritual misery was the purgative effect on their author. Having disciplined herself to obey her reverend brother's "ordinances" and in the process having disgorged some other own conflicts, Elizabeth Sewell was now free to develop as a fiction writer along more "natural" and "spontaneous" lines. Yet the discipline of writing Margaret Percival had developed the novelist's craft in waysnot totally negative. For, despite the book's limitations when judged as a novel, it must be said that Margaret Percival, in its best passages, possessesgreat emotional power. Margaret's inner turmoil derives considerable impactfrom the fact that her creator handles the Countess Beatrice Novera and herJesuit confessor. Father Andrea, with affectionate fairmindedness. They arebasically sincere, admirable persons whose only real fault is overzealousnessin the "wrong" cause. That Miss Sewell's treatment of the Jesuit father is remarkably free from prejudiced exaggeration may be demonstrated by a few examples of what Margaret Mai son has termed "the Wicked Jesuit and Company."6
In William Sewell's Hawkstone, published two years before Margaret Percival, Mr. Beattie, a High, Churchman, declares: "... I know that at this moment as often before, the agents of Rome are exerting their utmost efforts to embarrass the English Church; that they have emissaries in every part of the empire; that their operations are not confined to doctrinal discussions, but are deeply mixed up with political movements, even with insurrectionary disturbances."7 The Jesuits, Sewell and others take for granted, are at the heart of such disturbances. Frances Trollope also assumes the worst concerning the "inheritors of the power of Ignatius Loyola, " insisting in Father Eustace, a Tale of the Jesuits, published in the same year as Margaret Percival (1847), that " . . . those who, under any circumstances, presume to suspect them of doing less for the advancement of their power than they can do, are altogether blunderers and ignorami" (I, 72).8 Still another woman writer, Catherine Sinclair, some of whose writings were known to Sewell,9 depicts even more concretely the presumed treachery of the "wicked Jesuit": "Lady Edith shrank from the priest as she would have done from the sting of a serpent" (Beatrice, 1852, 6-7; quoted by Brightfield, I, 361). An anonymous novelist of the same period has one of the members of the hated order boast:
Your ladyship knows there is no country, no city, I had almost said, no family beyond the reach of spies from our holy order. One of its most influential members is now in daily, hourly intercourse with the principal partner in this bank; he is completely gained over to our interest; and, falsifying many entries in the books, is able to give an appearance of approaching ruin, when, in fact, the strength of the house is unshaken (Lights and Shadows of English Life, 1855, II, 195-96; quoted by Brightfield, I, 361).
By contrast with the above quoted fiction writers. Miss Sewell's treatment of the Jesuit order and of the Roman Church strikes the reader as indeed moderate.
The triumph of Margaret Percival's sense of loyalty to the English Church is achieved not through the fear of Jesuit treachery but through the affirmation of the English Church as a branch of the "one true Church." The author herself had sought and found reassurance on this point in works such as Theophilus Anglicanus (1843), a manual of instruction on the Anglican Church by Christopher Wordsworth, the Bishop of Lincoln. Miss Sewell commends Theophilus Anglicanus in her Principles of Education10 and is said to have taught the book effectively.11 Some of the arguments used by Mr. Sutherland in Margaret Percival to refute the claims of Father Andrea that the Anglican Church is schismatic closely resemble the premises developed by Bishop Wordsworth. Wordsworth takes several pages to establish as fact that both the Apostles and St. Augustine preached in the British Isles and that British bishops were present at the earliest Councils of Churches.12 Papal supremacy, Wordsworth further argues, is negated by the fact that "No trace whatever can be found of the Bishop of Rome having exercised any ecclesiastical authority in England for the first six hundred years after Christ [italics the author's]" (p. 138). The English Reformation, in fact, merely removed what was new and restored what was old. At the time of the Reformation the English Church, "founded in the Apostolic Age," merely "recovered herself from the errors into which in the course of time she had fallen" (p. 171). Any personal motives on the part of Henry VIII are entirely irrelevant. Finally the Bishop of Lincoln cites passages from Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian to prove that the English Church "traces the Holy Orders of her Bishops and Presbyters in an unbroken line from the Apostles of Christ." Similarly, Mr. Sutherland, when he does go beyond the "because-I-say-so" argument, instancing his acquaintance with "Taylor, Andrews, Hooker, Hammond, Bull, Beveridge, and very many besides" (Margaret Percival, II, 169) reasons thus:
Listen to me, Margaret . . . . An act of parliament Church the English Church cannot be, because she has the gift of the Apostolic , succession. Heretical she cannot be, because she holds the creed of the apostles, and the canons of the first four general councils. Schismatical she cannot be, unless the claim of the Bishop of Rome to be the universal bishop is proved to be valid (II, 168).
Ultimately, however, Margaret's decision to remain in her own church, rests not on her uncle's reasoning nor his appeals to authority, but on his simple piety and the quality of work and worship she observes in his parish at Alton. In such an atmosphere Margaret is able to subdue her doubts and find "troth and peace" in the English Church. Margaret has learned to resist not only the attempted indoctrination of Father Andrea and the pleading of her dying friend, but, to some extent, even the teachings other uncle; for she could, upon hearing of the Countess's death, "think of Beatrice as blessed, whatever might have been the errors engrafted on her faith" (II, 302). Along with her readings in the Church Fathers, both, Roman and English, Margaret has been schooled by Experience to discipline her own nature through her vows of self-sacrifice to "His service, in the Church and the home which He had appointed her" (II, 303).
Margaret Percival ends, then, on a note of disciplined acceptance of appointed lot and dedication to the practice of Christianity which will be the theme of three subsequent novels dealing with the protagonists'self-education for spiritual discipline: The Experience of Life (1852), Katherine Ashton (1854), and Ivors (1856). Katherine Ashton will be discussed first and at some length because it deals with and continues the theme of relating to one's appointed sphere and extends the problem from the religious into the social dimension. The other two will be dealt with more briefly in terms of specific religious conflicts that occur as minor themes: Anglicanism versus Dissent in The Experience of Life and Anglicanism versus scepticism in Ivors.
Last modified 6 March 2008