Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493

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.”

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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.

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