I recently finished reading Morley Callaghan’s 1934 novel Such is My Beloved, which was the first selection for a new reading group I have joined. Yes, I know: I have openly expressed my skepticism about the ‘reading group approach,’ and I never expected anyone to upset my long-held belief that nobody would want to belong to such a club if I were a member. Yet lo and behold, I have a (non-academic) book-loving friend who has another (non-academic) book-loving friend, and so on and so on, and now here we are, a group of eight women (is that inevitable? the on-site husband served wine and promptly absented himself) pledged to meet every other month to talk about our chosen text. As it turns out, the friend of my friend knows another of my friends, also an English professor, and so there are two of “us” in the group. We have vowed to be on our best behaviour, and at the inaugural meeting at least, I think neither of us betrayed any particular classroom habits. I admit, though, it felt odd just letting the discussion go wherever it went, when I’m so used to steering or focusing seminars. It was at once freeing, as I had no responsibility for things like making sure we tested our interpretations against specific passages from the novel, and frustrating–because I had no authority for things like making sure we tested our interpretations against specific passages from the novel! It was certainly an energetic and engaged discussion, and I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone better at our January meeting.*
It helped me adapt to this new reading environment that I approached Such is My Beloved with absolutely no preconceptions, and that even after reading it I came to our discussion with no fixed interpretations, or even frameworks for interpretation. If, as Henry James says, “the house of fiction has not one window, but a million,” the window of Canadian modernism is one (of many) I haven’t looked out of often–OK, not at all, really, until now. The closest I’d come is helping edit an essay on Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept for Open Letters Monthly a couple of issues ago. If we had started with something I know well–Vanity Fair, say, or Atonement–I would have had a lot more trouble letting our conversation be a conversation and not trying to subvert it into a seminar. But I didn’t know what I would find when I read the book, and having read it, I was (am) still a beginner at thinking about it, so in some respects the randomness (or, putting that more positively, the range) of our discussion was helpful because it let me consider different ideas and see if they resonated with my experience of reading the novel.
Thinking back over our meeting and then looking again at the book, I find it interesting that the issue that proved most controversial (is Father Dowling sincerely disinterested? is his love for Midge and Ronnie really pure?) is precisely the one I had thought was not at issue and which, for me, gave the novel its great poignancy. As I read Such is My Beloved, Father Dowling is absolutely sincere and noble in his motives. He may be misguided in his methods, perhaps even in the objects of his love (though I believe, also, in his commitment to loving the girls precisely because they are not particularly special or beautiful or deserving, but simply because their full humanity needs and deserves to be redeemed). He is certainly foolish, unworldly, and morally extravagant. He has the simplistic obduracy of the idealist; that in Callaghan’s world he is perceived first as disruptive (the opening paragraph tells us that Father Anglin and “some of the old and prosperous parishioners” find his ardour “disturbing,” and Father Anglin wonders if “the bishop could be advised to send him to some quiet country town where he would not have to worry about so many controversial problems”) and finally as insane, reflects on that world and its moral and spiritual limits, surely, not on Father Dowling. He reminded me of Trollope’s Mr Harding, in The Warden: having discerned the right thing to do, he can hardly bear the discovery that others cannot, or will not, support his principled effort to do it, and though he persists, he isn’t strong enough to defy his antagonists outright. And just as no particular good comes from the Warden’s resignation–except (and of course this is crucial) to the Warden’s conscience–so too no particular good comes from Father Dowling’s efforts to save Midge and Ronnie. I suppose we can hope that the priest’s influence has changed them just enough that when they get off the train in some new town, they will think a little bit more of themselves and continue to take halting steps towards a better life. Father Dowling himself vacillates between hope and despair. “I know what will happen to them,” he thinks;
“They’ll drift into the old way of life. They’ll go from one degradation to another, they’ll be poor and hungry and mean. No one will ever love them for themselves. No one will ever want to help them and they’ll get harder and harder till they’ll be immune to all feeling.” . . . Then he straightened up and thought, “I shouldn’t say that. That’s blasphemy. They’re abandoned from my help. Surely not from the mercy of God.” This comforted him. He walked more easily with the strong city sunlight shining on his face that was now almost confident and trustful. . . . He looked up, and again he was thinking, “They’ll be lost to all human goodness. What will become of them?”
If there’s hope, surely it lies as much in his own actions as in the mercy of God: he took an interest in them; he fell in love with them–not physically or romantically (I never thought so, anyway, though at least one group member suspected repressed prurience in his attentions) but divinely. Why them, as was asked at our meeting? Isn’t he surrounded with other needy people? I suppose, but that’s why I describe it as falling in love, to try to account for the idiosyncrasy of his choice, which isn’t even a deliberate choice but one that steals upon him as he pursues, not the girls, but their lost innocence. I was touched by his happiness the night he brings them the new dresses. When they try them on, they stand “shyly” in front of him, “looking around with an awkward uncertainty,” and it seems their real natures are briefly illuminated as the harsh protective attitudes of the streets fall away. It seems “wonderful to him that he had discovered these new traits in them”:
He felt very happy to have thought of the dresses. It seemed that for a long time he had been scraping and groping away at old reluctant surfaces and suddenly there was a yielding life, there was a quickening response. He sat there hardly smiling, looking very peaceful.
We can juxtapose that moment with the scene of the client who leaves an encounter with Midge with his “dark eyes shining with new life, . . . laughing and shaking his head happily.” Here are two models of satisfaction, one of the spirit, the other of the flesh. Perhaps I’m a naive reader, or perhaps it’s the result of years of reading Victorian novels, but I’m prepared to take Father Dowling’s happiness at face value: he is moved precisely for the reasons, and in the ways, he says he is. It’s true that his love becomes obsessive, and also that it leads him into ecstasies that are passionate, even erotic. For me, the most striking passages of the novel were those in which the priest’s swelling sense of love infects Callaghan’s otherwise fairly inelegant, even pedestrian, prose (something in the sound of it kept making me think of Steinbeck, though it has been so long since I read Steinbeck that I don’t really trust myself on this point). Here’s one example I particularly liked, in which the impending arrival of spring brings young lovers out into the softening evening and also brings out the love in Father Dowling’s heart:
There was a freshness in the air that made him think of approaching spring. He passed a young man and a girl walking very close together and the girl’s face was so full of eagerness and love Father Dowling smiled. As soon as the mild weather came the young people began to walk slowly around the Cathedral in the early evening, laughing out loud or whispering and never noticing anybody who smiled at them. The next time Father Dowling, walking slowly, passed two young people, he smiled openly, they looked at him in surprise, and the young man touched his hat with respect. Father Dowling felt suddenly that he loved the whole neighborhood, all the murmuring city noises, the street cries of newsboys, the purring of automobiles and rumble of heavy vehicles, the thousand separate sounds of everlasting motion, the low, steady, and mysterious hum that was always in the air, the lights in windows, doors opening, rows of street lights and fiery flash of signs, the cry of night birds darting around the Cathedral and the soft low laugh of lovers strolling in the side streets on the first spring nights. He felt he would rather be here in the city and at the Cathedral than any place else on earth, for here was his own home in the midst of his own people.
There’s certainly more at stake here than ascetic religion–something sensual, earthly, and also aesthetic. But I don’t think that makes Father Dowling a hypocrite. Rather (and here I take a hint from the title) I thought the book called into question forms of religious devotion that exclude the world and the flesh, that attempt too strict a separation between holy and earthly love. The failure is not Father Dowling’s, not his inability to ration his dedication to the girls he has made his personal mission, but belongs to the professed Christians around him who reject his vision of an all-encompassing ardour. His vision threatens those around him, of course, not only because he urges them to act as they speak, but because he redefines morality as an economic problem–a symptom of poverty, not spiritual corruption. He thus becomes a social radical as well, though in this he believes he is simply perfecting the theories preached (but not practised) by his church. Ever the Victorianist, when I read that Father Dowling becomes “convinced that moral independence and economic security seemed very closely related,” I thought of Becky Sharp‘s “I could be a good woman if I had £5000 a year.”
So for me, it turned out to be a somewhat familiar book after all, with a protagonist who joins Mr Harding or Jude Fawley in testing and ultimately exposing, and suffering for, the limits of a religious ideal. Father Dowling is an extremist of virtue in a world of moral compromises, a dreamer among prudish (and prurient) pragmatists, a leveller in an entrenched hierarchy. No wonder the poor man ends up catatonic. For me, the evidence that we are not to leave him at the doors of the asylum but should rather follow him on his quest, though it leads nowhere, is the quiet beauty of the closing imagery:
There was a peace within him as he watched the calm, eternal water swelling darkly against the one faint streak of light, the cold night light on the skyline. High in the sky, three stars were out. His love seemed suddenly to be as steadfast as those stars, as wide as the water, and still flowing within him like the cold smooth waves still rolling on the shore.
It’s the gentlest martyrdom imaginable.
*In case you were wondering, the reading group’s organizer proposed that our next book should be prompted in some way by its connection to our first. If depressing novels about Catholic priests is our genre, there’s really only one obvious place to go, and thus for January we will be reading and discussing Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.
Cross-posted (with a little trepidation) to Editing Modernisms in Canada; thanks to my colleague Dean Irvine for the invitation, and especially for lending me his vintage New Canadian Library edition of Such is My Beloved, with its interesting introduction by Malcolm Ross.