Somewhere halfway through the François Mauriac’s 1941 novel, A Woman of the Pharisees, the narrator sides with his stepmother, Bridget. It is a small thing, but it is clear this is no social novel. It is, as the title suggests, more interested in a certain kind of faith, one that is more universal than its very Catholic setting might suggest. Mauriac’s erudite, and yet brief novel (it is only 204 pages in my 1988 Penguin edition), captures a search for a faith that is grounded in personal belief, not the guarding of it. That is why the off handed passing of the tragic fates of its characters is not as important as Bridgette’s inner struggle.
I mention the core struggle of the novel here because the focus on faith slowly bubbles up, in what otherwise appears to be the reflections an aging author on the family scandals. Scandals are there. There are at least five different scandals that weave their way through the book. By modern standards they are tepid, but for 1890’s Catholic Bordeaux they carry the weight of social damnation. For Bridgette Pian, the greatest scandal is when a local teacher, her weekend secretary, falls in love and marries a brother from a Catholic order. What seems loving, to her is a sin, a break down of the way the religious should behave. She does not hesitate to slow the marriage and when the couple find themselves penniless, she does not offer them jobs, even though it is in her power to help. Yet she is not without a sense of obligation. When the young woman is bedridden during a difficult pregnancy, Brigit gives them money. The narrator makes it quite clear that this isn’t a christian forgiveness that makes her do it. It is what the upstanding christian does. But even that comes with a heavy hand, as she not only insists the husband tell his wife that she has been giving them the money, which he had, heretofore, lied and said he had earned it; she goes to the squalid apartment to tell the wife that information, even though it might cause her to miscarry.
It was during this incident the narrator decided to side with Bridgette. Although he seems dispassionate there are moments when his Catholicism seeps in.
I owe it, in justice to myself, to add that his appearance moved me to a sense of pity, or, at any rate, produced in me the sort of moral discomfort which is always excited by the sight of another’s poverty. and which we are tempted to call by the nobler name. But when I thought about Monsieur Puybaraud’s misfortune I could not but feel myself in agreement with Madame Bridgette. I found it difficult not to despise him for having yielded to an attraction which, though I had yet felt its power myself, I was already inclined to view with suspicion and disgust.
The narrator can’t quite decide where his loyalties lie. Are they with his friend Mirbel who has a scandalous affair with his sister, or are they with Bridgette who in her determination to set the world straight, sends his father to an early grave? That conflict gives a seeming dispassionate account of the crashing lives. It is at once callous, as it is to the poor couple, as it is open to a full examination of events, because in the end it is through the suffering and the journey is salvation achieved. That a perfectly good and christian couple fall into poverty and untimely death is beside the point. As with Mirbel and his mother’s scandals. Mauriac uses that duality to give us some delicious lines. When describing Bridgette, a liberal priest says
He said that there are some people who choose God, but that perhaps God doesn’t choose them…
Or is this the narrator making a point that about the end for Bridgette, one that he approves of? Mauriac leaves these questions open.
Despite the religion, there is humor and wit. Mirbel’s mother, a countess has one of the best introductions, one that suggests how scandalous she might be.
“The Comtesse de Mirbel,” said the priest, “is a lady of letters”—and he gave vent to a guffaw of laughter out of all proportion to the very mild humor of his remark. “Did you know that she has written novels?”
“Has she ever had any of them published?” I asked.
“No,” snapped my stepmother in her most sarcastic tone; “she finds it sufficient to live them.”
Finally, Mauric’s writing is precise and at times he creates precise miniatures of an idea. The sense of a lost time and the passage of an era is perfectly captured in this very literary moment.
…I am not going to set own the real name of a man who was once as celebrated as Donnay, Bernstien or Porto-Riche, though to-day it is entirely forgotten. If nothing now remains of a body of work which was once highly considered, if the very titles of his most famous plays have passed from human memory, it remains true that he once exercised a profound influence on many who are still alive and who, like the Comtesse de Mirbel, are dragging out the fag-end of their existence before taking the final plunge into nothingness.
One wonders if Mauriac was not thinking of himself. It is certainly too early for that to happen to A Woman of the Pharisees.