The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Father Darcy: An Historical Romance (1846)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Father Darcy: An Historical Romance was written by Anne Marsh-Caldwell. Marsh-Caldwell (1791-1874) was a popular historical novelist. Father Darcy is worth searching out; despite its flaws it is an entertaining and readable historical romance.

The historical Father Darcy was Henry Garnet (1555-1606), an English Jesuit who was involved in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot on the orders of Pope Clement VIII, who told him that no one ill-disposed to Church should be allowed to succeed Queen Elizabeth. Garnet took part in the Gunpowder Plot and was executed for it.

Father Darcy is set in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and portrays the conflict between Catholics and Protestants which culminated in the attempt by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators to blow up Parliament. The central characters are nearly all Catholic. Marsh-Caldwell follows their lives and shows how they are affected by and react to the anti-Catholic laws of the time and the anti-Catholic sentiment of the English people. The lead character is Robert Catesby, a young man of great energy and exuberant spirits who is beloved by all who know him. At the beginning of Father Darcy he is in love with Grace de Vaux and is a good man, albeit too wild and rambunctious. But Grace declines his proposal of love in such a way as to permanently embitter him, and the increasingly hostile and anti-Catholic environment of England poisons his spirit, so that by the end of the novel he has conceived of the plot to explode Parliament, led the conspiracy, and has become a bitter, hard, merciless and joyless person. Grace de Vaux is ethereally beautiful and a devout Catholic—so devout, in fact, that she can’t allow herself to love Robert Catesby, or anyone, since worldly attractions will take her away from her relationship with the Church and with Christ. Grace becomes a nun. But when a priest she idolizes is executed by the government, and for completely unjust reasons, Grace is devastated. She loses her innocent sweetness and becomes embittered toward Protestant England. Her beauty withers and she becomes the type of believer whose devotion leaves no room for joy or human feelings. She becomes the assistant to Father Darcy, although she knows nothing of the conspiracy.

There is also Evelyn Mulsho, the daughter of a moderate Catholic who was faithful to the Crown during the Armada days and who “had revolted at the childish bigotry and barbarous cruelties of Queen Mary’s reign.”Evelyn is Catholic, like her father, and is a good, sweet woman with an abhorrence of the violence so common to the time and to which her friends eventually resort. Evelyn survives the novel with her lovely personality intact. However, she has the misfortune of marrying Everard Digby, a decent and gentle man whose spirits are continually darkened by the injustices Catholics are forced to suffer. He eventually reaches a state of constant fury, at which point he joins the conspiracy. He does not tell Evelyn this, however, and she discovers what is going on only after the conspiracy has failed and Everard is fleeing for his life. And there is Eleanor Digby, Everard’s sister, who is beautiful but who wastes her beauty and life pining for Robert Catesby and waiting on him when he visits the Digbys.

 And then there is Father Darcy, who is a splendid fictional villain. Father Darcy has the same difficulties for modern readers which Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba and Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! pose: the underlying message of the novel, the preferred inscribed narrative, is fundamentally objectionable to the modern reader and is at odds with the quality of the story itself. The anti-Catholicism of Father Darcy will provoke a visceral distaste for the novel in many readers, which may ruin any enjoyment readers derive from the novel. This is unfortunate, since Father Darcy otherwise has much to recommend it.

Father Darcy is indeed an anti-Catholic novel, one of several that appeared in the mid-1840s and were reflective of the increasingly hostile mood that Catholics in England—usually the Irish—faced

The number of Catholic believers had increased some twenty-fold, from thirty thousand at the turn of the century to perhaps three-quarters of a million by 1850. Nearly all of this was due to the Irish immigration and had come about within the last decade. The heart-breaking experience of the Irish arriving by the hundreds of thousands, penniless, half-starved, half-clad, living in squalid rooms unfortunately only worsened the prejudices already surrounding Roman Catholicism in England. During the severe social and economic discontent of the 1840s, the English poor found themselves in direct economic competition with this new labor force…this merging of the Irish poor with the old stigma attaching to the ancient faith raised popular anti-Catholic feelings to a new intensity.2 

Too, during the decade there was a “renewed insistence on the old charge that Catholicism was incompatible with English political institutions”3 and a renewed and revitalized English Catholicism “impressive in its enthusiasm for challenging the position of the Protestant majority, and especially of the established church.”4 Marsh-Caldwell, in Father Darcy, was reacting to the surge in Catholic behavior and statements.

Unlike Westward Ho! the bigotry in Father Darcy increases in frequency and venom as the novel goes on, until, at the end of the novel, Marsh-Caldwell is blatantly gloating over the defeat of the Catholics. Although Caldwell does include the occasional aside about the common barbarities of the time and about the injustices which Protestants inflicted on innocent Catholics, she spends far more time discussing how Catholicism, an “erring religion,”5 ruins lives. Marsh-Caldwell buys into the concept of a Jesuit conspiracy (see: Denounced) and of Father Darcy and the Jesuits being the real cause of the Earl of Essex’s rebellion: Father Darcy decides that Queen Elizabeth cannot be killed by assassins, so he must strike at her in another way, through her emotions, and since the Earl of Essex is her favorite, his downfall will break her heart.

The Essex/Southampton “conspiracy” is a good example of another of Father Darcy’s flaws: altered or inaccurate history. Some readers will not find this a significant flaw. But while fiction is read more for its emotional truths than its historical facts, historical accuracy helps maintain a novel’s verisimilitude, particularly in historical romances. In Father Darcy Marsh-Caldwell fails at that. She changes a fair amount of the historical facts to fit the thesis of her story, so that it is the Jesuits who are behind Essex’s rebellion, rather than Essex’s pride and foolishness. Marsh-Caldwell likewise changes the personalities of several of the main characters, including Robert Catesby and, most importantly, Father Darcy himself, who in real life was not nearly the villain that Marsh-Caldwell makes him out to be. Of course, Marsh-Caldwell does not pretend to be telling objective history and is open about the fact that she is taking sides. She is for Good Queen Bess and the English Protestants and against King James and the Catholic Church.

Marsh-Caldwell’s alteration of history may have been unconscious, so that Father Darcy was the way she thought history must have gone. Or it may have been willful, the act of a propagandist. But the changes in history extend even to the portrayal of Elizabethan England itself, which is presented as a nearly idyllic era. Marsh-Caldwell does not apply this type of romanticization to the Elizabethans themselves. Her characterization is relatively realistic, albeit floridly written, and she is willing to concede flaws in all the characters, even Elizabeth herself.

Romanticizing aside, Marsh-Caldwell does have a firm grasp on the clothing, scenery, and practices of the era, and even if her focus is almost solely on the privileged classes she effectively conveys the sense of what life might have been like, in a material sense, for those living at that time. She also occasionally describes what life in England or London was like in the sixteenth century, and then compares it to England and life in England during the nineteenth century, and always to the detriment of the modern day.

Marsh-Caldwell’s dialogue might be described as cod-Shakespearean. She is free with statements like, “Dost thou understand, Grace, this heart?”6 Generally the dialogue and narration is of an older and more formally structured style, so that Father Darcy has numerous sentences like 

And she had, perhaps, taken refuge in the endeavour to render herself insensible to the dreadful subject, and thus to preserve the equilibrium of her too excitable mind; but such a resource against the stings of regret, it may be of remorse, infallibly tends to harden the character.7 

This is not bad writing, but the style can be slow going for the modern reader.

Father Darcy has another drawback, although this one is as much the product of the current, decayed educational system as it is Marsh-Caldwell’s choice. She begins matters in media res and provides next to no context for the historical situation or figures. Her assumption was that the reader would already know who the Earl of Essex was and the significance of Robert Catesby’s last name. Unfortunately, the modern American reader (and perhaps the modern British reader) is not likely to be so familiar with the details of the Guy Fawkes plot that she or he recognizes the name “Robert Catesby” on reading it.

Despite its flaws, Father Darcy is interesting. Marsh-Caldwell’s characterization is usually solid, and she does a good job of showing how someone like Robert could change from being benign, if far too energetic and spirited, to malign. Marsh-Caldwell also has an interesting and credible exploration of the nature of faith during the Elizabethan era, especially regarding Grace’s bitterness at God for allowing the priest she idolized to die.

Father Darcy is a villain who while not an immortal on the level of Eugène Sue’s Father Rodin (see: The Wandering Jew) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (see: Dracula) is still quite memorable. Father Darcy’s real name is Henry Garnet, although most of the characters know him as “Father Darcy.” In Father Darcy he is the head of the Jesuits in England and the man behind many of the Catholic plots which bedevil first Queen Elizabeth and then King James. He is a schemer, an “arch intriguer,”8 and a man with a virulent, religious hatred for Queen Elizabeth and for all Protestants. He is middle aged, well dressed, mild-looking, and almost effeminate of manner. He is “a little too much embonpoint perhaps to be perfectly handsome, and his countenance might have seemed to some too soft and languid; it carried a certain appearance of indolence, and of a negligent and indifferent temper.”9 That is all a pose, however, for underneath his affectations he is formidable. Marsh-Caldwell compares him to a serpent, and his smooth, insinuating, and sardonic manner conceal a sharp mind and a ruthless attitude. Father Darcy is willing to use Robert Catesby and his other young charges to advance his aims, and to manipulate their ambitions and romances to achieve his ends. Father Darcy is an arrogant Catholic ideologue who is the stated enemy of reason (as opposed to faith), but Marsh-Caldwell makes it clear that he cares much more about temporal power than about the spiritual ideals of the Church. Darcy is such a ends-justify-the-means, triumph-at-all-costs person that when King James begins passing restrictive anti-Catholic laws Darcy is actually happy, since laws accommodating the Church faithful would make them less likely to revolt and overthrow the Protestant government. Darcy is a master casuist, and uses his rhetorical skills to good end in confusing and misleading his young charges and in persuading them to do things they know to be wrong.

The anti-Catholic bigotry which mars Father Darcy is a shame, since otherwise it is an entertaining (if old-fashioned) historical romance worth the effort to find and read.

Recommended Edition

Print: Anne Marsh-Caldwell, Father Darcy: An Historical Romance. Palala Press, 2016.



1 Anne Marsh-Caldwell, Father Darcy (London: Chapman and Hall, 1846), 29.

2 Walter Ralls, “The Papal Aggression of 1850: A Study in Victorian Anti-Catholicism,” Church History 43, no. 2 (Jun, 1974): 244.

3 Ralls, “The Papal Aggression of 1850,” 244.

4 Ralls, “The Papal Aggression of 1850,” 245.

5 Marsh-Caldwell, Father Darcy, 288.

6 Marsh-Caldwell, Father Darcy, 281.

7 Marsh-Caldwell, Father Darcy, 21.

8 Marsh-Caldwell, Father Darcy, 276.

9 Marsh-Caldwell, Father Darcy, 35.