Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
A Candle for St. Jude is a critically distinguished short novel praised at publication for its witty and compassionate characterization of two elder heroines, as well as for an intimate, behind-the-scenes rendering of the ballet. Like a group of lightly nostalgic British novels published in the aftermath of World War...
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A Candle for St. Jude is a critically distinguished short novel praised at publication for its witty and compassionate characterization of two elder heroines, as well as for an intimate, behind-the-scenes rendering of the ballet. Like a group of lightly nostalgic British novels published in the aftermath of World War II, it focuses on a narrow but sparkling slice of humanity.
A Candle for St. Jude is a small story about art and continuity, tracing two days in the life of a small but accomplished ballet company. Told in the third person by an omniscient narrator, the novel revolves around Madame Anna Holbein, an aging Russian ballerina turned theater manager whose artistic inspirations, uncompromising standards, and heady points of view drive the action and dominate the narrative.
In this novel, as in much of Godden’s work, houses are harbingers of hope and links to the past. A Candle for St. Jude begins with the selection of a house that defines the novel’s central character. The dark, wisteria-framed London house that Madame Holbein chose to transform into a ballet school and theater was worn, difficult to clean, and nearly impossible to afford. To Madame, however, it was perfect, ripe with artistic possibilities to be realized as she saw fit. Madame is dedicated to artistic perfection: She provides vision, while the dancers, costumers, musicians, and others in her theatrical circle must deal with messy practicalities, however capricious and unreasonable Madame’s demands. Indeed, Madame’s opposite is her practical and self-sacrificing sister-in-law, the widow with whom Madame shares the London home. Ilse Holbein’s faith rests in God and the Catholic Church rather than art, but she contributes to Ballet Holbein by cooking meals, keeping books, and praying fervently for the success of the financially tenuous enterprise.
Crisis erupts the day before the new season, when Madame suddenly realizes that Lyre with Seven Strings, one of three ballets on the opening-night program, is wrong for the occasion. Conceived by seventeen-year-old Hilda French, the ardent, superior pupil who unnerves Madame but takes after her, the ballet portrays seven essential facets of a harmonious life. Madame wants to shorten and rename the ballet, or cut it entirely from the program. Headstrong Hilda resists, and theater members take sides, each with unique aspirations and loyalties at stake. Lion, a leading dancer who is drawn to Hilda as she is to him, woos her to capitulate.
Even so, Madame remains distraught: On the cusp of celebrating her own dancing debut and longtime reputation for success, she has no viable substitute for the troublesome third ballet. As her anxiety and exhaustion increase, streams of consciousness and shifts in time—frequent storytelling devices for Godden—take over the narrative. Madame’s immediate managerial worries are overtaken by a flurry of girlhood memories, lines that someone once said to her, bouquets from past admirers, and moments from Tarantella, Giselle, and other ballets in which she once starred. Madame collapses and takes to her bed.
Finally, Madame discovers the last-minute program solution in Leda and the Swan, a primal and strangely powerful ballet for two based on the classic seduction of a young virgin by a virile winged beast. The new ballet is Hilda’s, written in a notebook the girl left in an empty practice room where sleepless Madame wanders. When Lion and Hilda demonstrate the new ballet—its power intensified by their attraction to one another—Madame recognizes Hilda’s considerable vision, which has surpassed the artistry of Lion’s usual dance partner and Madame’s favorite student, Caroline.
Caroline herself recognizes the potency of Hilda’s new ballet. Like Lion, Caroline has advanced to the Metropolitan Ballet but returns to perform with Ballet Holbein as guest artist, in deference to Madame. Afraid of being outshone by Hilda, Caroline walks out, threatening to draw Lion into mutiny, too. When Caroline returns in time to perform, Madame gives her a treasured keepsake from the czar of Russia. Meanwhile, Madame has ordered and cajoled others to draft musical scores, refashion new costumes from old, and hurry to produce Hilda’s new ballet on time.
The story closes with an assured Madame Holbein dressing for the evening and planning how to single out Hilda for recognition when the curtain falls, marking the start of an unbounded career for the girl. Madame wonders, after days of theatrical missteps, quarrels, tears, and opportunities, what accounts for the eleventh-hour miracle of a wondrous ballet program? Ilse is convinced that the credit goes to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. She had lit a candle to him on Ballet Holbein’s behalf.