The Company of Women
Perhaps it is her Catholic background, perhaps only an acute sensitivity with which she has been gifted, but few novelists penetrate the human heart and soul and understand the variety of human loves as deeply as Mary Gordon. The multiple ambivalences, the levels of feeling that lie beneath the surface but that sometimes reveal themselves on the surface as well, the multitude of ways of expressing love pervade her first two novels, Final Payments (1978) and The Company of Women, and offer profound insight into the human condition. The seriousness with which her characters study their motives and behavior is certainly Catholic, yet her novels are hardly treatises urging a Catholic world view, in the manner of Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh. The cord running through her works, binding her characters to a sense of meaning, is human love, not divine, as even the priest Father Cyprian in her current novel realizes, albeit unwillingly, and the prime source for this love is the hearts of women.
This is a love that transcends both the merely sexual and the spiritual but defintely sex-related salvation through love (for men) of which Richard Wagner’s heroines are the most obvious exemplars. Rather, this is a love that hopes for, forgives, desires to help, and appreciates the value in the loved one; a love that is valuable even when selfish motives are present. This love is similar to that of a mother, but its qualities are also sisterly, daughterly, and wifely (in supportive and companionable aspects rather than sexual ones). This is a love that nurtures, makes plans for, and sustains.
The women of Gordon’s current title are members of a retreat group for working (read: single) women in New York, set up by Father Cyprian, a compassionate but strict and commanding Paracletist priest who acts as the principal male authority figure in their lives. Although it is he who holds their world together, he does not permanently undermine their autonomy, for these are women who have mastered their lives. No matter how bleak their circumstances, they have refused to break down and give up but have carried on, independent women without the help of men, supported by their faith and—most importantly—by one another.
Each of these women has managed to hold her life together through a job she has held for a long time. Clare, who has chosen to remain a stylish single woman everyone admires, manages her late father’s leather-goods store. Elizabeth, left a widow by her alcoholic husband and childless by the death of her young child, is a teacher who dotes on Jane Austen and Metaphysical poetry. Mary Rose, after the failure of her marriage to a fellow dancer who went crazy out of frustrated homosexuality, became a movie usher; his survival in an asylum and the Church’s disapproval of remarriage after divorce keep her single in all but fact, but she does sustain a warm platonic relationship with her boss. Charlotte, the practical one who takes charge and gets things done, works as a secretary in an insurance office and is the sole support of her daughter, since her husband’s death six months after the birth. None of these jobs (with the possible exception of Clare’s) represents a breakthrough for women’s liberation, but in an era when few women sought (or were encouraged to seek) careers, the perseverance of these women merits high acclaim.
The hopes of the entire circle rest upon the only surviving child any of them has had, Felicitas, Charlotte’s daughter. As a very bright young girl, she becomes Father Cyprian’s pet. He engages her in theological discussions and involves her in his cherished farm and carpentry work, which made up his life before he assumed his vocation. Felicitas starts to see his flaws, however—his selfishness, pride, and obstinacy—and the discovery gives her pain. As a young adolescent in 1963 and later as a rebellious, opinionated college student of the late 1960’s, she is blind to the fact that he, a grown-up, can also have needs and weaknesses that keep him from being perfect.
College humbles her as she becomes romantically involved with her magnetic young political science professor, Robert Cavendish, and he begins treating her as insignificant, only one among his many women. When he urges a two-sided nonmonogamous relationship, she gives in reluctantly, with the result that she cannot tell which of the two men is the father of the fetus that has started within her. She plans to have an abortion without telling either of them, but when she sees another woman, bleeding and barely standing, dragged out of the sleazy pre-legalization clinic by its personnel (to avoid her being found there), she flees home to her mother.
That the novel,...
(The entire section is 1940 words.)