At the time that we discover her she is busily engaged over a piece of work, which evidently has no personal use. Upon a long rich strip of gold cloth she is embroidering with still richer gold thread; and occasionally she has recourse to one or another of several elegant caskets upon the table, from which she takes out a pearl or a gem set in in gold, and introduces it to the design. It looks as if the precious ornaments of earlier days were being devoted to some higher purpose.
~ from Cardinal Wiseman's Fabiola
Fabiola, Cardinal Wiseman's fine historical novel of the early Christian martyrs, paints a vivid portrait of the life of the early Church in Rome. A work of fiction, it should not be seen as a definitive account of the life of any particular martyr, although actual martyrs are characters in the story. It does capture the spirit of the age of the great Roman persecutions, of the dread and glory of Christian life in those times. According to New Advent:
It was during [a] visit to Rome that Wiseman projected, and commenced to execute, the writing of by far the most popular book that came from his versatile pen -- the beautiful romance of "Fabiola", which was meant to be the first of a series of tales illustrative of different periods of the Church's life. The book appeared at the end of 1854, and its success was immediate and phenomenal. Translations of it were published in almost every European language, and the most eminent scholars of the day were unanimous in its praise. All this greatly consoled the cardinal when troubled and harassed by many vexations, and a spirit of new cheerfulness and courage breathes from a sermon preached by him in May, 1855, dwelling in thankfulness and hope on the revival of Catholicism in England.
The plot involves several characters, but the protagonist is Fabiola:
The heroine of the book is Fabiola, a young beauty from a noble Roman family. She is spoiled by her father Fabius, who cannot deny her anything. Fabiola seems to have everything, including a superior education in the philosophers, yet under the surface, she is not content with her life. One day, in a fit of rage, she attacks and wounds her slave girl Syra, who is a secret Christian. The proud, spoiled Roman girl is humbled by Syra's humility, maturity and devotion to her in this situation, and a slow transformation begins, which finally culminates in her conversion to Christianity, brought on by Syra and of her own cousin Agnes, whom she adores and dotes on.
The novel includes accurate descriptions of the catacombs, of the ordeals of the arena, of Roman customs, both pagan and Christian, all of which make it a superb educational resource, as well as a thrilling, inspiring and heartbreaking story.