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Religious Novels

Brownson's Quarterly Review, January, 1847

ART.  V.  Dunigan's  Home Library.     Nos.  I.  to VII. New York :   Edward Dunigan. , 1846.    18rno.

MR. DUNIGAN'S design in issuing this series of neatly executed little volumes is to furnish Catholics with useful and attractive reading, which may lessen their temptation to resort to the light and mischievous literature with which the press is flooding the country. This design does him great credit, and he spares no pains or expense in its execution ; but its execution is a matter of no little difficulty and delicacy. The works published must be attractive, and in some degree adapted to the prevailing taste, or they will not be read by those for whom they are more especially prepared ; and must be moral, Catholic in tone and influence, or they will not be preferable to the literature it is hoped they will supersede. But to produce books which combine at once both of these qualifications requires a combination of piety, talent, and genius, which is not always to be had for the asking. Yet, when the intrinsic difficulties of the design are considered, we are bound to say that it has thus far been executed with much more success than was to have been anticipated. All is not done that we could wish; but much has been done, for which we are grateful to Mr. Dunigan and the contributors to his series.

These contributors appear to have regarded the religious novel as the literary form the best adapted to their purpose ; and in this they may not have judged unwisely. The religious novel is just now the fashion ; it is a form of composition which allows the author a large degree of liberty, enables him to make an attractive book without a too heavy drain on his learning or his thought, and permits him to discourse on matters and things in general, without confining himself to one thing in particular any longer than he finds it convenient, and to be grave or gay, to appeal to reason and learning, or to imagination and sentiment, according to his humor. But something may also be said against it. It in general is made up of two dissimilar parts, and it may be questioned whether the graver part, when read for the sake of the lighter, the religious for the sake of the sentimental, is likely to produce so much effect as the author contemplates.

Most Catholic novels which have fallen under our notice are made up of two distinct and separable portions, the sentimental story, and the grave religious discussion. The latter, which is the more important part, is in general what may be found in any of our elementary works intended for those disposed to inquire into the claims of our holy religion, and is often copied verbatim from them ; and the sentimental portion, as far as it goes, is very much what is found in novels in general. Now these works are designed for Catholics, for Protestants, or for both together. If for Catholics alone, this graver portion is hardly needed, for they know it already, and the novel will interest and attract them only in so far as it is light and sentimental. If they are designed for Protestants, to instruct them in our faith, to remove their prejudices, and to induce them to examine into the claims of the Church, they contain too little solid instruction, pass over too many important points, and dismiss in too summary a manner the real difficulties to be solved. U for both together, they fail, in failing to meet the peculiar wants of either. They offer a certain quantity of light and sentimental reading, on condition that one consents, without a wry face, to take a certain dose of theology, which, if he is well, he does not need, and which, if he is sick, is not enough to do him any good. Moreover, it may be set down as a general rule, that they who are seriously disposed would prefer taking the theology by itself, and those who are not so disposed will skip it. The one class will regard the light and sentimental as an impertinence ; and the other, the grave and religious as a bore.

The authors of religious novels seem, in general, to take it for granted that the appeal to the sentimental, to the class of passions and interests appealed to by novelists in general, is harmless, if made in juxtaposition with an argument for religion. But we cannot but regard this as a mistake. Is not this appeal essentially the same, whether made by a Catholic or a Protestant ? Wherein is a Catholic, in so far as he relies on the sentimental for the attractiveness of his work, better than the Protestant who does the same ? The sentimental is the sentimental, let who will employ it; and it is to the employment of it at all, as the source of interest in a literary work, that the moralist objects, not to the naked fact that he who employs it is out of the Church. The age in which we live is a sentimental age, and sentimentalism is the deadliest enemy to true piety, and to all real strength or worth of character. It enervates the soul, subverts the judgment, and lays the heart open to every temptation. The staple literature of our times, the staple reading of our youth of both sexes, is sentimental novels and love-tales, and the effect is manifest in the diseased state of the public mind, and in the growing effeminacy of character and depravation of morals. ..Nature herself has made ample provision for the passion and the sentiment of love, and they cannot be excited to an unnatural activity by the charms of imagination and the magic of poetry, without involving the most grave consequences. The early Christians chanted the praises of virginity, and employed their imagination and poetry to win souls to God, not to madden two young persons with a blind and often a fatal passion for each other, and we do not well in departing from their example.

All books which seek the sources of their interest in the passion or sentiment of love are to  be distrusted, and so indeed are all which, no matter in what degree, foster a sentimental tendency.    The more delicate and refined the sentimentality, and the more apparently innocent and pure it may be, the more really dangerous it is.     Works which are grossly sensual disgust all in whom corruption has not already commenced ; but works which studiously avoid every indelicate expression or allusion, which seem to breathe  an  atmosphere of purity itself, excite no alarm, are read by the innocent and confiding, insinuate a fatal poison before it is suspected, and create a tone and temper of mind and heart which pave the way for corruption. Corruption generally, if not always, begins in the sentiments, and in sentiments which in themselves are free from blame, and which apparently cannot be too strong or active.     The Devil, when he would seduce us, comes, usually, disguised as an angel of light.   If he came in his own shape, in his real character, we should at once recognize and resist him ; but coming disguised under the appearance of something which is held to be innocent and worthy to be encouraged, he is  able to  destroy the equilibrium of the character, to produce a morbid state of the affections, and to take from us all power to resist in the hour of trial.

We speak not, of course, against genuine warmth of heart, real tenderness of feeling, and strength of affection. Nay, we are pleading their cause. The sickly refinement, the morbid sentimentality, which the popular literature of the day has such a direct tendency to foster, is no less fatal to them than to piety and charity. Your inveterate novel-reader cannot love, in any worthy sense of the term. Her heart is blase before she is out of her teens. Her whole being, body and soul, heart and mind, inside and out, from top to bottom, is diseased, full of wounds and putrefying sores. She has no health, no soundness, no strength to bear even the application of a remedy. She may talk charmingly, vent much exquisite sentiment, but if you want to find true warmth of heart, genuine affection, or a noble and disinterested deed, go not near her. It is this morbid sensibility, this enervating and corrupting sentimentality, which the popular literature of the day encourages, that we oppose, and every enlightened censor of morals does and must oppose.

Now, the question seems to us pertinent, whether religious novels themselves, in so far as they are sentimental, do not, in their degree, tend to produce the very evil to which we refer, and which they are designed to cure. They contain in general, we grant, sound doctrine, and, so far as formal teaching is concerned, correct morals ; but do they, as a rule, concentrate the interest on the doctrine or the morals ? Does not the interest, for the most part, turn on the sentiments and passions and fate of the principal personages introduced, and is it not precisely of the same order as that of novels in general ? Is not a love-story a love-story, when told in connection with an argument for Catholicity, as much as when told in any other connection ? And, so far as it is a love-story, are not its effects precisely the same ? Is there not truth as well as point in the remark which some one makes, that religious novels are usually wretchedly dull as novels, and miserably defective as moral essays or theological treatises, wanting the chief attractions of the popular novel, and obnoxious to most of the objections urged by moralists against it ? We confess we cannot see how one is improved by reading a so-called religious novel, when he is induced to read it by what it contains of the sentimental, more than he would be by any other novel, or how, in proportion to the quantity of sentimentality it contains, he is less injured by it.

We regard it, moreover, considering the end for which we need a popular literature, as a defect in the works which have fallen under our notice, that they nearly all appear to be written on the principle, that they must be filled with arguments for the Church, or have a good Catholic moral tacked on to the end, or they will not be recognized as Catholic. But, unless we are very much mistaken, a book may be recognized as Catholic by its spirit and temper, by the kind of interests it appeals to, the emotions it excites, and the general impression it leaves on the reader, as well as by its formal teaching. We have in our mind, just now, a very neatly executed little work, recently published, which contains an unanswerable argument for the Church, and yet contains not a sentence which a Protestant, having one or two of our more widely circulated elementary works before him, could not have written, if so disposed.    One does not like polemics everywhere, and on every occasion. Why can we not have books which shall be attractive to the general reader, and be strictly Catholic, too, in their tone and influence, but which shall nevertheless be {fee from polemics ? A book may be as truly Catholic by what it leaves out as by what it takes in, by refraining from appeals to those passions and interests which our religion teaches us to subdue or subordinate, as by its pitched battles for the faith. The Tales of Canon Schmidt, so far as we have examined them, are illustrations of our thought. The Tears on the Diadem, by Mrs. Dorsey of Baltimore, in its general design, though not in its execution, is a specimen of the kind of religious novel we have in our mind, and would like to see flourishing among us. It seems to us we might have novels and popular tales which should have a high moral aim, a really Catholic influence, and be made sufficiently attractive by appeals to those interests and affections which the Church approves and consecrates, without set arguments for religion. They could and would be read with pleasure and profit by those who are not quite zealous enough, nor quite serious enough, if you will, to be always delighted with religious controversy.

Good books in defence of our holy faith, adapted to all tastes and capacities, are no doubt desirable ; but whether a work, one half of which is a sentimental tale, and the other a brief, imperfect, and one-sided argument for Catholicity, comes within the category of such books, may be fairly questioned. Nor is this all. Desirable as such books are, they are not the books which we most want. We want books for those who are within as much, to say the least, as for those who are without. In this reading age, Catholics must and will read, and, if they do not find reading to their taste in the Church, they will be tempted to seek it out of the Church. The class of Catholics, whose welfare is in this respect to be especially consulted, are not the earnest, serious, and devout members of the Church, who are prompt to their duties, and find in religion itself all they need even to amuse them ; but that large class who think very little of any thing beyond the passing moment, and find no interest in moral lectures or religious discussions. We want books for these, even more than for the conversion of those who are without. Catholic literature should be written primarily for the Catholic community, and adapted to its wants. Living as we do in a Protestant community, where the wealth, the influence, and the worldly respectability are in great measure on the side of those who, unhappily, are opposed to the Church, we are prone to underrate our own importance, and to place too little reliance on our own people. We should be glad to see Protestants converted, but for their sake, not for ours. They have nothing to give us, nothing we want, and our first duty is not to them, but to our Catholic population. Indeed, the best and speediest way of bringing about their conversion, and of making this country truly Catholic, is for us to rely, after God and Our Lady, on ourselves, and to consult, and as far as we are able provide for, our own wants. We have enough in the simple fact that we are Catholics to be thankful for. This simple fact gives us a wealth and a nobility which make all else in comparison poor and mean. Let us know, that, with God's blessing, we are sufficient for ourselves, and think full as much of the importance of providing for the wants of those who are liable to stray away from us, as of meeting the wants of those who are already opposed to us.

Our readers must not understand us as intending to imply that the little works included in Dunigan’s Home Library are doing nothing to meet the wants of these. They do much, perhaps all that we could reasonably expect, but they do not do all we wish. They do not seem to us to be sufficiently adapted to those among us who are thoughtless and giddy, trifling and vain, and careless of what is serious and holy. We want books which these will be induced to read, and which they may read without injury, and perhaps now and then with profit. We do much when we keep them out of harm's way, out of the way of temptation, or of that which would be likely to corrupt them. Mr. Dunigan's publications, excellent as they may be in their way, look rather to the conversion of Protestants than to the preservation of Catholics, and therefore, though looking to a good end, do not look to that which is at present perhaps the more important and pressing. A Catholic young lady wrote us the other day to send her some books to read. She is sufficiently instructed in her faith not to need the more elementary books written to explain and teach it, and not sufficiently devout to read only ascetic books. What were we to send her, which would supply for her the place of the popular literature of the day ? This case explains precisely the want to be supplied. But how this want is to be supplied we know not, and that it can be at once supplied from among ourselves, without borrowing largely from the literature  of other nations, we very much doubt, as we have said on a former occasion.

We trust to the good sense and good nature of our readers not to misunderstand or to misapply our strictures. We are not insensible to the merits of the excellent men and women who are laboring assiduously in the cause of Catholic literature, and our real motive is not to discourage but to encourage, not to depreciate but to aid them. We have not devoted the last twenty years to literary pursuits without learning how easy it is to find fault, and how difficult it is to attain to real excellence ; and though we fill the critic's chair, we are not exactly without a human heart. We know something of what it is to struggle, and have not forgotten how hard it is to have one's honest and earnest efforts treated lightly, or to be told, after one has done his best, how much better he might have done, if he had had the ability. It is easy to suggest an ideal; it is not always easy to realize it. But, if we have the matter in us, even the severe handling we receive from the critic, good-natured or ill-natured, will do us no harm. No man, says Dr. Johnson, was ever written down, but by himself. We think, however, our authors, even those we are most disposed to censure, have the power in them to give us something better than we get, and that, if they would change somewhat the character of their productions, they could easily render them more excellent. We do not ask them to drop the religious novel, for it is perhaps, notwithstanding our strictures, the most convenient literary form which can now be adopted. But we do wish them to forbear seeking to reconcile opposites in the same work. The religious will not neutralize the sentimental, and the sentimental is the worst possible preparation for the religious. They who would profit by the grave portions of the religious novel do not need the sentimental ; and they who cannot be drawn to read religious controversy without the aid of the sentimental will not be drawn by it ; for the sentimental of itself indisposes them to whatever requires steady thought and sober judgment. We would, therefore, recommend the discontinuance of such religious novels as seek to entice, through interests which centre in love, to the meditation of what is serious, pious, and holy. Let the love-story be omitted, and the appeal be made, not to interests which it excites, but to interests and affections which Catholic piety and charity do not require us to subdue. The love-story is the chief thing for which young people read
a novel, and, if retained in the religious novel, it will be the chief thing for which the religious novel itself will be read. The religious novel, then, becomes only a mere vehicle of sentimentalism.

Love and marriage are important matters, no doubt; but they are not the whole business of life, nor are they so essential to usefulness or happiness as novels in general lead the inexperienced to imagine. Undoubtedly there must and will be marrying and giving in marriage, and this is well enough ; but there are men and women, very respectable people, too, with warm and loving hearts, who continue to live, without love and marriage, very useful, and apparently very happy, lives. They remember their Creator, their Redeemer, their neighbour ; and the poor bless them, the orphan clasps his tiny hands in prayer for them, and God loves them ; and they have joy in hoping, though hoping in fear, that they may at last be received into mansions prepared for them eternal in the heavens. There is not less to attract, to charm, to fix attention, in the love and espousal of the soul to her heavenly than to her earthly lover. Leave out, then, the earthly, and confine yourselves to the heavenly.

We have read in our day a few novels, perhaps more than a few ; but we have found a higher and a more intense pleasure in the lives and legends of the Saints than we ever did in the novels even of the Magician of the North ; and it was a pleasure which we enjoyed without finding ourselves wearied and jaded in our feelings, ill at ease, and looking upon ourselves as in a false position, without place or duty in this low work-day world, and with no opportunity to bring out the power within us; but which refreshed and invigorated us, made nothing seem mean or low, every place the right place, every duty the proper duty, every hovel a palace, every dunghill a throne ; lor in it we felt God was everywhere present, could be loved everywhere, in one place or from one position as well as from another, and that every place could be made sacred, every duty be ennobled, every soul be heroic, royal. There was no occasion for shifting one's position, or changing one's state in life. Communion with the Saints very soon teaches one that he may be above or time or place, and while in this mutable and transitory world, in some sort, live in the Eternal and Immutable. Can our writers find nothing here to enliven their works, to attract, charm, and elevate their readers ?

But this it may be said is too high, too grave, and it is necessary to descend to the earth, and appeal to a lower order of interests. We grant it. But cannot this be done without becoming sentimental ? Amusement, relaxation, has its place, and may be innocent and salutary. But the sentimental is no relaxation, is no amusement. It kills amusement, and substitutes the heart's grief for the heart's joy. Why not give us the heart's laughter instead of its tears ? Better, far better, to laugh than to sigh and mope. Old Chaucer, who belonged to England unreformed, to "Merry England," is too broad, and by no means free from grave faults, but his faults flow from his exuberance of life and health, and his influence is a thousand times less immoral than that of your Bulwers, D 'Israelis, L. E. L.s, Tennysons, and Nortons. There is always hope of the heart that can laugh out and overflow with mirth. It is the heart oppressed with sadness, overclouded with gloom, that starts back with horror from a little fun and frolic, that is to be dreaded, both for its own sake, and that of others.

The Catholic is serious, for he sees a world lying in error and wickedness,  serious, for he has his own sins to lament, his own soul to save, and he sorrows ; but never does he sorrow as one without hope, and his sorrow is less of the sensibility than of the will, less in what he feels than in what he wills. He is always free, calm, rational, possessing his soul, and overflowing with health and gladness. His free and joyous spirit he impresses on his literature. Catholic literature is robust and healthy, of a ruddy complexion, and full of life. It knows no sadness but sadness for sin, and it rejoices evermore. It eschews melancholy as the Devil's best friend on earth, abhors the morbid sentimentality which feeds upon itself and grows by what it feeds upon. It may be grave, but it never mopes ; tender, affectionate, but never weak or sickly. It washes its face, anoints its head, puts on its festive robes, goes forth into the fresh air, the bright sunshine, and, when occasion requires, rings out the merry laugh that does one's heart good to hear. England is sad enough to-day, and her people seem to sit in the region and shadow of death ; but in good old Catholic times she was known the world over as " Merry England." It is on principle the Catholic approves such gladsome and smiling literature. It is only in the free and joyous spirit that religion can do her perfect work ; for it is only such a spirit that has the self-possession, the strength, the energy requisite for the every-day duties of life. Mrs. Dorsey has admirably illustrated this in her Sister of Charity, in the contrast she draws between the sisters, Cora and Blanche Lesley. Cora is all light and life, never sad, always joyous, and always prepared for whatever is to be done, and able to do it; while poor Blanche is so full of sentiment, feels so much, that she is never able to do any thing that is painful or disagreeable.

The contrast between Catholic literature and Protestant is striking. There is deep melancholy that settles upon the world as it withdraws from Catholicity. All Protestant nations are sad. Their literature is dry and cold, or the wail of the stricken heart, whose ever recurring burden is, "Man was made to mourn." Their epic is one long monotonous plaint of woe, or unearthly howl of despair. Read Milton, read Byron, read whom you will, it is always a lamentation. There is no laughter, but the frightful Ha ! ha ! of the maniac. There is no bounding of the heart, no sparkle of the eye, — unless over the wine-cup ; no fulness of life, no exuberance of health, no glorious heaven above, no flowery earth beneath, no sweet music from the grove. All is cheerless and dark. Man's life is short and full of care and trouble. Whence comes it ? Why is it? Whither tends it?  How could it be otherwise? How should they chant in hope who hope have not ? How should they exult in joy who joy have none ? Even the Protestant ascetic literature is cold and forbidding, makes one feel that God is hard and austere, cruel and tyrannical, taking pleasure only in the sufferings of the creatures he has made and hates. It presents us no Father's love, awakens no filial affection, never invites us to run with open hearts and joyous faces to our Father's arms, to hang on his neck, and in our childish prattle tell him all we think, all we feel, all we fear, all we wish. The very thought of doing so would scandalize it. Just as if the more tender, the more affectionate, the more familiar and self-forgetting our confidence, the less respectful it is,  and as if naturalness, simplicity, confidence, familiarity, are not what our good Father most loves in us !

Now against this pagan gloom, doubt, despair, and this morbid sentimentality, not pagan, but of modern growth, the curse of the literature of the age, it is necessary to be on our guard, both as authors and readers. If we must have a literature for those who are not serious,'for the weak and vain, let us have it, but let it be free, healthy, and joyous. Let it laugh out from the heart, the free, unconstrained laughter of innocence and gladness.    Let it throw the sunlight over all the relations of life. If it will unveil the heart, let it be the heart's mirth, not its grief; and if it will parade the merely human sentiments, let it deck them in gala robes and crown them with fresh-gathered flowers. Let it beat the tambour, sound the trumpets, ring out the merry peal, and go forth with fun and frolic, in the exuberance of joyous spirits, if it will ; but let it, in the name of all that is sacred, never sigh, and mope, and talk sentiment.

We have reserved but brief space in which to speak of the little works before us. The first four numbers have been noticed in the former series of this Journal, and need not to be noticed again. The best which has yet appeared is Zeno-sius, the first of the series, by the Rev. Dr. Pise, of New York, and is not obnoxious to the strictures we have made. It is what it professes to be, and the interest it excites is of the same order as its formal teaching, and the heart and understanding of the reader are moved along together to the same end. There is no linsey-woolsey in it. Its author is one of our best writers. His works are always sure to be chastely and gracefully written, sound in doctrine, pure in sentiment, and healthful in their influence. We regret that they are so few, and yet, with the author's known devotion and fidelity to the calls of his sacred profession, sufficient for any ordinary man, we are puzzled to understand how they can be so many.

The Sister of Charity, Numbers V. and VI., is by Mrs. Anna H. Dorsey, of Baltimore, a talented lady, and a convert to the faith, who appears to devote all her time and thought to the cause of religion. The work has some faults ; the only ones worth specifying are that it contains a love-story, and, what is worse, the lovers are cousins, and apparently first cousins, and are married without even a hint that their marriage must be null. The work, however, is in the main free from sentimentalism, for the main interest of the story is not concentrated on the lovers. It is written with a good deal of power, and is highly creditable to the excellent authoress, and to the Home Library in which it appears. The character of Cora Lesley is admirably conceived and well sustained throughout. She is a character worthy to be a wife, or, what is more yet, a SISTER OF CHARITY. Excepting the matter of the cousins, we recommend it very cordially to our readers, whether old or young ; they will find its perusal pleasing and not unprofitable.

The seventh number is entitled Julia Ormond, or the New Settlement. We do not know the author or authoress. It deserves a respectable rank among works of its class. The controversial part, however, is not felicitously managed ; and the work would better please us, if Abel had been converted without first falling in love with Julia, and if he had become a priest from a higher motive than that of his admiration of an excellent young lady, and his determination to prove himself worthy of having been her proselyte. We know not on whose corns we may be treading, nor how many smart gallants will spring up to challenge us, and we do not pause to inquire ; but this mixing of love and piety, and employing beautiful and fascinating young ladies for the conversion of sentimental young men, the common practice of lady-theological writers, is not altogether to our taste or to our judgment ; and we think the effect of the work would, have been better, if Abel's objections had been silenced by the father's logic, instead of the daughter's beauty.