While Elizabeth Jervis gets points for coming up with so unexpected a plot twist as confronting her heroine with the prospect of life in a convent, it is upon this twist that her novel founders – or rather, upon the attitude that underlies her handling of it.
During this time and, indeed, across much of the 19th century, the English anti-Catholic novel was nothing uncommon. Many of those novels were virulently negative in their view of “the Romish faith” and sincere in their belief in the threat it posed to England…but Agatha isn’t really like that. It has few good words for Catholicism as such, granted, but the overriding feel of the novel is a perfectly English and perfectly Protestant bewilderment as to why anyone would want to be Catholic – let alone a nun. It’s not hostile, merely confused.
This confusion undermines the story. We are told in passing that “Agatha had been raised in her mother’s faith”, but there is absolutely no sense of either she or Lady Belmont as a devoted, practising Catholic; no hint as to when or where they attend Mass and go to confession. We hear much about Agatha’s “religion” but it’s all very generic. Nothing in the early stages of the novel prepares us for believing that Lady Belmont would make and keep such an oath. The other major problem is the character of Sir Charles Belmont, who despite retaining his own faith accepts the necessary sacrifice of his daughter and acts in concert with his wife to raise Agatha so as to prepare her for it. We in turn must accept that he believes that his wife will be eternally damned if she does not succeed in persuading Agatha to enter a convent – or at least that he believes that she believes it – but as the character is sketched, it is easier to imagine him putting down a Protestant foot and exclaiming, “Nonsense!”
However, Elizabeth Jervis’s failure to convince the reader on this point actually creates an extremely interesting tension throughout the rest of the novel. It is clear that Jervis could think of no greater sacrifice in life than entering a convent; no more extreme way for Agatha to exhibit her self-control, her mastery of her own passions and her filial devotion. In short, Agatha wins her author’s unqualified approval by doing something that meets with her unqualified disapproval.
Once Lady Belmont has explained the situation, Agatha is left to make her decision as to whether or not she can and will renounce the world – which means renouncing Edward Hammond, and life as a wife and a mother. Her choice is made no simpler by the fact that every other character in the novel thinks that becoming a nun is wrong, not just for Agatha, but generally.
Agatha takes the usual* Protestant standpoint that entering a convent is not an act of devotion, but an act of cowardice, a retreat from the temptations and challenges of the world; while the choosing of “a Heavenly Spouse” over an earthly one is both wasteful and unnatural. Almost every person that Agatha encounters expresses this opinion to a greater or lesser degree, reacting to her dilemma with unconcealed horror and sympathy.
(*Usual in this era, anyway, some fifty years before the founding of the first English Anglican convents, which were in any case viewed with similar if not equal disapproval.)
These scenes climax in a series of sickly comic passages involving Hannah, the Belmonts’ Malaprop-spouting housemaid, who upon getting wind of the scheme denounces “these nasty abominable nun notions” and encourages Agatha to run off with either of the young men seen lurking in the vicinity of the house – marriage being “a holy constitution”. (The second is William Milson, for whom Agatha is his latest hopeless passion.)
More seriously, Agatha is confronted by a vision of what she is giving up in the shape of Jemima Simmonds, who becomes the object of her sympathy after circumstances force the young woman to choose between her lover and her duty to care for the grandmother who raised her, and who is now ill and unable to be moved. The always over-the-top Mr Ormistace intervenes in the situation and reunites the estranged lovers, and Agatha is later forced to listen to Jemima’s panagyric on a life of earthly, wedded love, literally love in a cottage, where, “Our brown loaf and homemade cheese eats so sweet a lord might envy us… O Madam, them only that love and are married know what it is to be happy!”
This scene leads to one of the novel’s most drily funny moments, when Lady Belmont, who has listened to this and seen its effect upon Agatha with dismay, deflates her dangerous emotion by remarking to her daughter, “A white loaf and Parmesan cheese would not have excited a tear in either of us”, then in a flash of inspiration points out that Jemima has, in fact, been rewarded for her filial devotion. Agatha, to her credit, sees through her mother’s tactics, but is too worn down to combat them. It is, in fact, the very next day that she gives Lady Belmont the promise she seeks, and agrees to fulfil her mother’s oath by becoming a nun.
Now, you might think that upon leaving Protestant England for Catholic France, Agatha would find some support for her decision, but you’d be wrong. No-one in France thinks she’s doing the right thing, either – including the others in the convent – where if anyone has taken the veil out of a sense of vocation, we’re certainly not introduced to them.
The motives of the Abbess, who becomes “a second mother” to Agatha (I’m honestly not sure if that description was intended ironically or not), are not explored, so we’re at liberty to believe in her religious sincerity. Be that as it may, the Abbess seems to put most of her energy into discouraging her noviciates from taking the veil. Among the nuns themselves, we meet only two, neither of whom has renounced the world with a free heart or an easy spirit. Agatha’s closest friend, Sister Agnes, entered the convent following her betrayal by, and the subsequent misery and death of, her fiancé. Later, at a moment of high drama, Agnes will endanger Agatha’s life and her own by returning to her cell for her one earthly treasure, a miniature of her former lover to which she still clings.
Meanwhile, there’s Sister Frances, who drew the short straw amongst her overly numerous sisters. Frances makes no bones about her belief that, since her vows were made under compulsion, they’re not binding – nor of her intention to swap the convent for the world and a man at the first opportunity. (Frances also likes to amuse herself by putting the wind up her companions by dressing up in men’s clothes and wandering around the convent grounds.) The ludicrous climax to this particular plot thread is reached later in the novel, when a Catholic priest who has befriended Agatha admits to her that he does not consider entering a convent as being devoted to Heaven in “the truest sense of the word”, and advises her to just forget about her vows and get married.
However – all of this is intended not to dissuade Agatha from her intention, but to delineate the magnitude of her self-sacrifice, and the depth of the devotion to duty that makes it possible. It is, nevertheless, something of a shock to the reader when Agatha concludes her probationary period undisturbed, and proceeds to the taking of her vows. Even as Lady Belmont screams and faints and has to be carried out of the chapel, Agatha emerges from beneath the black pall as Agatha no longer, but as Sister Constance.
It is now late in the year of 1789 – and the French Revolution is underway…
[To be continued…]