on 25 August 2010
I looked up this book on Amazon in the hope that somebody else would have reviewed it, because I wanted to see what they thought. Unfortunately, I seem to be the first.
I've read this little book so often that the ink is wearing thin where I've held the pages. I've been fascinated by Therese for many years, since I read her autobiography. In many ways I used to dislike her intensely. People say she's syrupy. Although I can see how one might think that of her, that isn't really what I dislike about her. To me she just seems the most awful prig, and her autobiography uses a certain sort of language, redolent of the particular kind of Catholic piety that seemed to come out of the time in which she lived, which I find massively off-putting. Somehow she's life-denying - awful. Lots of pious books have been written about her, and many of those are pretty revolting as well.
Monica Furlong, on the other hand, has written something quite different. For one thing, I don't think she's a Catholic, and that helps, because she isn't in the business of writing a hagiography. She paints a warts-and-all picture (and what a relief that is!).
Therese came from a strange middle-class French family of extreme piety. Her mother wanted to be a nun, her father wanted to be a monk, and when they both failed in these ambitions they decided to have children who, they hoped, would be religious in their stead. They had five girls who survived childhood, of whom Therese was the youngest. They all became nuns eventually, with Therese entering Carmel at 15. She is usually portrayed as a sweet, obedient, selfless child. Furlong shows her to have a will of iron: she was obedient to those to whom she chose to give obedience (her superiors in religion), but she moved heaven and earth to get into Carmel so young, even hijacking an audience with the pope. If she decided, rightly or wrongly, that God wanted her to do something, she would brook no argument. She comes across as a wilful, spoilt brat. Most of her biographers would be horrified at that assessment of her, but Furlong shows how she got like that, and how she worked with her own weaknesses, not so much conquering them but using them to become a unique, rounded individual by the time she died, of TB, at the age of 24. She was a dramatic young woman who wanted glory and since, as a woman, most paths to glory were not available to her, she decided to be a great saint, attaining sanctity by what she calls her "little way", which really means doing very ordinary, everyday things as well as she possibly could: an idea that has its own particular integrity.
One of the characters in Jayne Ayre dies of TB and says it is a peaceful way of going. Therese doesn't. As well as the obvious racking cough she had bedsores that made it agony to sit up in bed to get her breath, she had suppurating abscesses under her arms, her gut was infiltrated with the disease, and probably her peritoneum because she had agonising abdominal pain and vomiting plus an awful thirst. She doesn't exactly suffer in silence - she tells her sisters that she is tempted to suicide - but the pain doesn't destroy her spirit.
Therese and her family all come out as products of their time and particular milieu. Many people find them appealing, particularly Therese. I still find her a bit hard to take, myself, but Furlong's Therese is growing on me.