Women writers’ images of the priest in two pre- Emancipation novels

Jeremy Rowe, an expert in Catholic literature, explores how two women novelists writing prior to Catholic Emancipation imagine how priests, educated by the Jesuits in France, might deal with the constraints to their vocation in England and Ireland.

A Simple Story by Elizabeth Inchbald1
Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821) was a devout Roman Catholic. In spite of a pronounced stammer, she became an actress and married another Catholic actor, Joseph Inchbald. One of their first productions together was King Lear at Bristol, in which she played Cordelia. This experience is embedded in A Simple Story. In 1773, the Society of Jesus had been suppressed, and, according to scholars, the actress started her novel in 1777. The first two volumes of the book owe their context roughly to those four years. However, A Simple Story was not published until 1791, and Volumes III and IV owe their plot to imagined events taking place nearer to this later date. The novel was praised by Wilkie Collins and Lytton Strachey. Mary Wollstonecraft said that A Simple Story was ‘truly dramatic’ and that it contained ‘a constellation of splendid characters’. A Simple Story is the mother of the Catholic novel in English, and the father of its fictional priests.

The plot: An unusual inheritance
In those days, many priests who were not in charge of a parish went under the ordinary title of Mister. Mr Dorriforth was trained at the seminary in St Omer.2 He and his Jesuit tutor, Mr Sandford, now lead a sequestered life as lodgers in a Catholic household in London. The main tenants are Mrs Horton and her niece, Miss Woodley. A very dear Catholic friend of Dorriforth dies, having found no one better than the thirty-year-old priest to be ward to his daughter, Miss Milner. According to Lady Evans, a friend of Mrs Horton, who met Miss Milner in Bath, his ward

‘Is very beautiful, that I can assure you,’
‘Which I call no qualification,’ said Dorriforth, rising from his seat in evident uneasiness.
‘But where there is nothing else,’ returned Lady Evans, ‘let me tell you, beauty is something.’
‘Much worse than nothing, in my opinion,’ returned Dorriforth.
‘All I know of her, is merely, that she’s a young, idle, indiscreet, giddy girl, with half a dozen lovers in her suite; some coxcombs, some men of gallantry, some single, and some married.’

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