Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1826
First published: 1880
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical-philosophical romance
Time of work: Seventeenth century
Locale: England and Italy
John Inglesant, an Englishman interested in spiritual affairs
Eustace Inglesant, his materialistic twin brother
Father St. Clare, a Jesuit and John’s mentor
Charles I, King of England, who used John’s services as an agent
Lauretta Capece, John’s Italian wife
Cardinal Chigi, John’s Italian patron
The family of Inglesant had long been loyal to the British crown, which had conferred lands and honors upon it, and yet the family also had strong leanings toward the Roman Catholic Church. Such inclinations were dangerous during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the whole of England was forced to change religions several times, according to the monarch who sat on the throne. In 1622, two sons were born to the family, twins whose mother died at their birth. One was named Eustace, after his father; the other, born a few minutes later and therefore the younger son of the family, was named John.
In boyhood, the twins saw little of each other. Eustace, the older, was given a worldly training, for his father, outwardly conforming to the Anglican Church under James I and Charles I, wished him to make a place for himself at court. The younger son, John, was given bookish training in the classics and philosophy by various tutors. At the age of fourteen, John was placed under the tutelage of Father St. Clare, who was in England on a political and ecclesiastical mission for his order. The priest saw in the highly intelligent and cultured young lad the prospects of a fine instrument that his order might use; in addition, he felt that the boy deserved the training that would make him fitted for the unquestioning discipline of the highest order, as the Jesuits saw it: the discipline that is enforced from within the individual but controlled from without.
After several years of study and training, John Inglesant became a page in the queen’s train at the court of Charles I. Father St. Clare had sent him to court so that he might come to the attention of the Roman Catholic nobles and serve to further the interests of the Roman Church in England.
The country became more and more troubled, and civil war threatened because of rivalry between the Puritans and the adherents to the crown and the Anglican Church. The Roman Catholics felt themselves in a rather strong position with the king and everyone loyal to him. As a member of the Society of Jesus, Father St. Clare dreamed of returning England to the domination of Rome. With that end in view, he did all he could to aid the crown against the Puritans. Because John Inglesant, who came from a family long noted for its loyalty to the king, was active as an agent between Roman Catholic leaders and the crown, he was often employed on secret missions by the king. Father St. Clare, who saw Inglesant as having greater value as an Anglican communicant with papist leanings, advised the young man against conversion to the Roman Church. Inglesant was puzzled and followed his mentor’s wishes.
When fighting broke out between the Cavaliers and the Puritans, Inglesant spent much of his time on missions for the king and Father St. Clare. Eustace Inglesant, after marrying a rich woman some ten years his senior, believed the king’s cause doomed to failure and left England for France. John Inglesant was sent on a secret mission to Ireland, where Lord Glamorgan was attempting to raise an Irish army to aid the royal cause in England. From Ireland, young Inglesant was sent to bear tidings of imminent relief to the royal garrison at Chester, which was under siege.
Inglesant reached Chester and gave his message to Lord Biron, the commander. Weeks went by, but the relief did not appear. At last, the garrison learned that the king had been forced to deny any part in the plan for an Irish invasion of England because of popular outcry against the project. Chester was given up to the Puritans; Inglesant wished to protect his monarch and permitted himself to be sent to London as a prisoner charged with treason.
Weeks turned into months; Inglesant still languished in prison. Meanwhile, the Puritans were trying to implicate the king in the charge against Inglesant. Finally, the king’s forces were utterly defeated, and Charles I was taken prisoner. In an effort to make him give evidence against the king, Inglesant was condemned and actually taken to be executed; true to his Jesuit training, he nevertheless remained steadfast.
Through the good offices of Father St. Clare, Inglesant was released after the beheading of Charles I. One day, Eustace Inglesant, who had returned to England under the protection of his wife’s Puritan kinsmen, brought his brother’s pardon to the Tower of London. Immediately, the two brothers set out for the estate of Eustace’s wife.
In the meantime, Eustace had been warned by an astrologer that his life was in danger, and he was murdered during the journey by an Italian, an enemy whom he had encountered while traveling in Italy years before. After a period of sickness and recuperation spent at his sister-in-law’s estate, John Inglesant left for France, where he hoped to find Father St. Clare and to gather information about his brother’s murderer, whom he had resolved to kill in revenge.
Arriving in France, he was not immediately successful in finding Father St. Clare. In the interval, he tried to evaluate his spiritual life. A Benedictine acquaintance tried to encourage him to enter the order, but Inglesant felt that his spiritual answers did not lie in that direction. He believed that somehow he had been singled out by heaven to find salvation more independently. When he finally found Father St. Clare, the priest told him to go to Rome and to continue his spiritual search there under the protection of the Jesuits, who were indebted to him for many missions he had undertaken in their cause.
The journey to Rome took several months, and Inglesant stopped many times. He spent several weeks in Siena as a guest of the Chigi family. One of the Chigis was a cardinal who had hopes of being elected pope when the incumbent died. From Siena, Inglesant journeyed to Florence. There he met Lauretta Capece, with whom he fell in love.
After his eventual arrival in Rome, Inglesant was sent to the Duke of Umbria on a mission by influential Jesuits who wished the nobleman to turn his lands over to the Papal See after his death. His mission was accomplished, and Inglesant married Lauretta Capece. He returned to Rome as a temporary aide to Cardinal Chigi during the conclave to elect a new pope. The Cardinal was elected.
Inglesant retired to an estate given to him by the Duke of Umbria. Inglesant and his wife lived in Umbria for several years, until a great plague broke out in Naples. Inglesant went there in an effort to save his brother-in-law, who had been in hiding there. In Naples, he also found his brother’s murderer; the man had become a monk after having been beaten and blinded by a mob. Now, with his brother’s murderer in his power, Inglesant had lost his desire for revenge. In company with the blind monk, he continued his search and finally discovered his dying brother-in-law. After the sick man had died, Inglesant returned home, only to learn that his family had been wiped out by the plague.
Once again, he journeyed to Rome in search of spiritual consolation, but because of his independent attitudes, he got into serious trouble with the Inquisition. Because of Jesuit influence, he was not condemned to prison or death. Instead, he was sent back to England, where he lived out his days in philosophical contemplation.
Judged as a philosophical novel, JOHN INGLESANT is a product of Tractarianism, deriving from the Oxford Movement of mid-nineteenth century England. For his Victorian audience, Joseph Henry Shorthouse attempts to mediate between the conflicting claims of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. He provides a historical perspective for the conflict by setting the novel in the seventeenth century, a period of great religious upheaval, to show that it is possible to bridge the gap between the two religions and their underlying cultures. In a letter to his friend Dr. Abott, Shorthouse writes that perhaps the chief object of his novel is to “promote culture at the expense of fanaticism.”
His spokesman for tolerance, John Inglesant, is trained as a Jesuit by Father St. Clare but is permitted freedom to exercise his own religious conscience. During the course of his adventures, Inglesant meets representatives of different Christian viewpoints, from those of the High Anglican monastic colony under John Ferrar at Little Gidding to the “Quietist” followers of Michael de Molinos; from Puritans hostile to King Charles I to followers of the Benedictine Order directed by Hugh Paulin Cressy. He comes to understand the intricate politics of electing a Pope and discovers secrets of the Jesuits. Wherever he goes, he meets Christians of principle, conviction, and dignity. Devoted to the “ideal of Christ,” he remains to the last a member of the Church of England. Nevertheless, he is neither exceedingly zealous in his own faith nor bigoted toward any other. Except for the Puritans, whom he considers narrowminded fanatics, he finds among all other Christians the same high-minded dedication to Christ’s ideal that he professes.
Searching for spiritual perfection, Inglesant moves freely through the different levels of seventeenth century society, both in England and on the Continent. His quest is also a romantic one. Mary Collet and Lauretta Capace, his two loves, help to perfect his character as a gentleman, just as his religious teachers perfect his moral nature. His enemy is always Malvolti, slayer of his brother Eustace, master of disguises, resourceful and cunning betrayer. The romantic climax of the novel is chapter 32, the scene in which Inglesant delivers Malvolti, now in rags and begging for pity, over to the priest of the capella for justice, leaving his sword on the altar. In his letters, Shorthouse reveals that he wrote the entire novel expressly to describe this scene (based upon a historical anecdote concerning Giovanni Gualberto of Florence). Just as Inglesant forgoes religious fanaticism through love of Christ, so he spares his enemy, making possible Malvolti’s later reformation. Inglesant’s romantic quest, therefore, is fulfilled; he becomes a true gentleman in Christ.
Inspired by William Smith’s THORNDALE, JOHN INGLESANT in turn influenced many late-Victorian philosophical novelists, including Mrs. Humphry Ward (ROBERT ELSMERE, 1888). Most important, it created an interest in philosophical romance that helped to develop an audience for Walter Pater’s MARIUS THE EPICUREAN (1885), probably the most important English work of this genre.