The Company of Women
Since the rise and predominance of the art novel, the documentary aspect of fiction—regarded in the nineteenth century as a major strength of the genre—has figured little in critical discourse except among Marxists. Yet, stubbornly, the appeal of the documentary persists—and not only among unsophisticated readers. It is an impurity that cannot be strained out by the most finely textured filter of linguistically based criticism. Just as readers were once eager to be told what it is like to live in a coal mining town or to work in a grog shop in a Paris slum or to make one’s way up as a businessman in Boston, so we still yearn for the revelation of modes of existence that are relatively unfamiliar, even when they involve large numbers of people living in our midst.
Too often, of course, the fiction that in these days gratifies that yearning has no literary pretensions whatsoever, What is it like to have grown up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Queens, in a house that “had always been full of priests”? An exotic way of life? Hardly—except perhaps to the excessively secularized purveyors and consumers of “serious” literary culture. Yet I suspect that the careful. Yet I suspect that the careful, indeed loving, documentation of the mores of this world, arousing as it does the staring curiosity of the outsider and the pained or delighted recognition of the insider, had a good deal to do with the popular success of Mary Gordon’s first novel, Final Payments.
Fortunately for her reputation, there was much more to the novel than that. Though imperfectly resolved, Final Payments is clearly the work of a gifted novelist, a writer whose stylistic attainments are on a level with her intelligence and insight. The story of the venturing into life of a “good Catholic girl” of thirty, who had devoted the previous eleven years to the unremitting care of her once formidable, then invalided, father, was in itself moving, and the moral perplexities she faced were handled with subtlety, humor, and compassion until the plot took a melodramatic turn that damaged the credibility of the last third of the book. Her new novel, The Company of Women, is likewise a fascinating document, likewise a work at once excellent and flawed. Though it is to some degree a reworking of the themes of the earlier novel, The Company of Women is, in its structure and scope, a very different sort of book.
The company referred to in the title consists of five middle-aged, sexually inactive Catholic women—two virgins, two widows, and the undivorced wife of a hopelessly insane man who had barely consummated his marriage before being institutionalized—permanently. Their status and occupations vary; the robust and wisecracking Charlotte works in an insurance office in Brooklyn; the delicate, impractical Elizabeth teaches school and reads Jane Austen; Clare, the only one with real money, manages a successful leather-goods business inherited from her father; Mary Rose, an usher in a Broadway movie house, maintains a friendly, platonic relationship with the theater’s Jewish manager; and Muriel, embittered and envious, takes in typing and looks after her mother until the latter dies.
Somewhat reminiscent of the spinsterish Anglicans who populate the novels of Barbara Pym, these women are united not by temperament or background but by a common devotion to a spellbinding priest, Father Cyprian, who from 1932 to the Second World War conducted weekend retreats for working women. He has helped each one of the company in a time of crisis; he dominates them, exhorts them, feeds upon their love, and makes them (these “lame ducks no man wanted”) feel, collectively, that they are “something.” Ferociously right-wing, he detests the modern world and insists that there is no salvation outside the Church; scorning interfaith cooperation, “he would not let souls under his care risk eternal damnation to swim with Methodists, eat hot dogs with Baptists.”
The offspring, so to speak, of the intense bonding between the women and Father Cyprian is Charlotte’s daughter Felicitas, who is fourteen when we meet her in 1963. She is the pivotal figure of the novel. Left fatherless at the age of six months, Felicitas is the only child of the whole group, and as such she is the repository of the hopes and love of all the women except for Muriel, who, like the bad fairy in “Sleeping Beauty,” resents the fact that she was not invited to the child’s baptism and begrudges the love that is showered upon her. For Father Cyprian, Felicitas is no less than the chosen one, the one who will embody, in her preferably celibate (though not cloistered) womanhood, all that is purest, hardest, and most brilliant in the austere faith that he cherishes.
When the novel opens, Father Cyprian, who has left his order (the Paracletists) in disgust over certain concessions to the slackness of the times, is a secular priest living in his hometown in upstate New York, where, with no church of his own, he sleeps in a furnished room and fills in for sick or vacationing priests. There the women visit him for three weeks every August, bringing along Felicitas; her adolescent feelings for the priest and for the faith are caught in a remarkable passage:
There was no one she could tell about Father Cyprian. It would have been death for her to go a year without seeing him. But how could she say to her friends that the deepest pleasure of her life was riding to the six o’clock mass alone with Father Cyprian in the front of his red pickup? The light then made her see the world as fragile and beautiful. And there was the other light that came through the windows…the light she sat in, praying, with his back to her in his beautiful vestments—grass green for the feria, blue for feasts of Our Lady. She wanted always to be there kneeling, looking at his black shoes below the black cuffs of his trousers and the long white alb. They were serious and blessed and devotional…. Her soul she saw as glass filled with sky or water, as beautiful, as light, as silvery and as important. That was her soul, light let through some transparent thing, cool light refreshed by water. The side of God apart from punishment or care. The God that breathed, breathed over all. The thin, transparent God that barely left a shadow. She watched the feet of Father Cyprian as she opened her mouth. She prayed in her soul for light, a life of light, a life essential as those shoes, as serious.
How could she tell all that to her friends, who were interested that year in TV doctors?
Father Cyprian’s feelings for the girl are equally intense. When in the course of an accident (the priest’s fault) Felicitas suffers a concussion, Father Cyprian lifts her from the truck, thinking, “If this child dies, then I will die.” His love for her borders on the idolatrous. Yet he can be brutal with her, determined as he is to root out all that is sentimental, soft-headed, or “womanish” in her nature. I can think of few recent novels that begin so brilliantly, with such a plenitude of possibilities in their opening situations.
In Part II we move ahead to 1969-1970. The Second Vatican Council has taken place. Latin is no longer taught at St. Anne’s College, to which Felicitas, who wants to major in classics, has won a scholarship; the little college’s last professor of classics advises her to transfer to Columbia rather than Fordham. (“A Dominican, he preferred to see her educated by pagans rather than Jesuits.”) By this time, Felicitas is in full rebellion against Father Cyprian and the sheltering company of women, whose lives she now perceives as bankrupt. In a furious argument with the priest over Vietnam, Felicitas maintains that Daniel Berrigan, whom Father Cyprian has denounced as a “snot-nosed limelighter,” is “the only hero in the Church.” Whereupon Father Cyprian stands up and bangs his fist on the table, “making the wine jump out of the glasses and spill like blood.”
He said, “How dare you speak to me like that?”
Felicitas also stood up. It was a foolish move; she was half his size and he bulked above her.
“I speak the truth,” she said.
“You have no humility,”he shouted. “You have been corrupted by this proud and lying age.”
“I was not brought up to be humble. I was brought up to speak the truth.”
“You are a scandal to us all,” he said.
That night he suffers a mild heart attack, the first of a series. Felicitas is sorry but unrepentant. She returns to New York, vowing to change her life.
What follows is nearly as disastrous for the novel as it is for Felicitas. At Columbia she falls slavishly in love with a handsome, posturing professor in his thirties, a self-proclaimed radical spokesman of the “Movement.” A refugee from a life of privilege that included Exeter, Amherst, Harvard, and summers on the Vineyard, Robert Cavendish has left his wife and children and now shares a dingy apartment on Amsterdam Avenue with two emotionally disheveled women, one of whom has a child named Mao. Felicitas moves in—and submits to every indignity and outrage that the hip late Sixties could have invented for a nice Catholic girl.
The professor is given to remarks like the following:
“I mean,” he said, “I didn’t know what women wanted because I was completely out of touch with the feminine side of myself. Now I wish I had been born a woman. A black woman. You know who I wish I had been born?”
“Billie Holiday. There was a woman who knew things.”
“I believe she was very unhappy,” said Felicitas.
“Of course, because she lived in this fucked-up culture. God, how I wish I’d been born Third World.”
I will not elaborate on the details of Felicitas’s degradation except to say that she ends up on the very brink of performing an act that, particularly in these times, would be considered the most horrendous sin an unmarried, pregnant Catholic girl might be tempted to commit. She pulls back—just in the nick—and the reader, Catholic or not, goes limp with relief.
The whole Columbia section rings false—not because the events described could not have happened, but because Mary Gordon abandons the delicacy of perception and the psychological subtlety that deepens the other sections and indulges in the sort of melodramatic excess that marred the last third of Final Payments. Robert Cavendish is a grossly drawn type, not a character at all; he seems to have been set up, like some mustache-twirling villain in an 1890s shocker, purely for the purpose of harrowing poor Felicitas and her admirers. And Felicitas herself is unaccountably deprived of the rather feisty intelligence that earlier characterized her.
Fortunately for the novel, an effective recovery is made in Part III, which is set in 1977. The company of women, now approaching old age, have reassembled in upstate New York, where Father Cyprian has built, on his family’s old farm, a prisonlike house of cinder blocks, with a chapel in which he is able, with the bishop’s permission, to perform the Latin mass in private. Their number is intact except for Mary Rose, who, freed at last by her insane husband’s death, is able, in her sixties, to marry her Jewish boyfriend. She is greatly missed. Felicitas is there too, and with her is her child. The novel shifts from the third person to a series of first-person monologues in which the women and Father Cyprian sum up their attitudes toward their experience, individual and communal. These monologues are beautifully written and touching; they nearly all deal in one way or another with the theme of reconciliation: to old age, to the fallibilities of the flesh and spirit, to the humbling demands of ordinary human existence at odds with the exaltations of faith, and, in the case of Father Cyprian, to the failure, through spiritual pride, of his priestly mission and to the imminence of death.
The theme of reconciliation—of the need for charity toward oneself as well as toward others—is merely one of the many themes explored in The Company of Women. The role of women in relation to male authority and to the Church, the rhythms of submission and rebellion, the perception of human love as a form of entrapment, the conflicting needs for shelter and escape—such are some of the preoccupations of this most thoughtful of recent novels. This thematic abundance is more successfully realized in short episodes and ruminations than dramatized in the compelling sweep of a major action. Mary Gordon is a reflective, even meditative novelist, and the effective sustaining of a plot is not among her strengths, either here or in Final Payments. There were times when I felt that the themes had escaped the narrative frame designed to contain them and scattered in several directions at once.
The Company of Woman, with its extraordinary marshalling of forces in the opening section, promises more than it is ever able to deliver. Yet there is so much in this novel to admire and enjoy, to make the reading of it memorable. I will conclude with one striking example of Mary Gordon’s artistry: her remarkable tact in handling the psychological alignments of the novel without so much as a Freudian nudge in the reader’s ribs. She feels no compulsion to comment on or to underscore in any way what can be seen as Felicitas’s quest for a father-surrogate or the veiled eroticism in the relationship between Father Cyprian and his flock. The veiling is thick indeed. Father Cyprian examines his spiritual state with great scrupulosity and precision and with never a consciously sexual thought; even his covert misogyny and his longing for an impassioned male friendship (such as he once enjoyed with Charlotte’s long-dead husband) are given an entirely religious coloration. His tools are those of Catholic introspection, tools handed down from one priestly generation to the next. And not one of the older women voices the slightest concern or regret over the absence of sexual contact in their lives; better off without it, they would say. It is left for us to meditate, if we choose, upon the odd twists and turnings of sublimation.