Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Glassy Sea by Marian Engel


Despite a dreadful cover and excruciating blurb, this short novel is wonderful and I am delighted that this challenge encouraged me to read it. Consisting largely of a letter from a middle-aged woman to her Bishop, it tells the story of Rita from her rural childhood, through her transformation into an Anglican nun, Sister Mary Pelagia, her gentle "eviction" out of the order and into marriage and motherhood, and her eventual breakdown. As she re-reads the letter, written the previous summer, she begins to regain a sense of equilibrium about the past, and to review and reaffirm her decision about the future.

The writing is down-to-earth, almost chatty, even when considering matters of life and death, but there is a seriousness of tone, and earnestness, that tells us that the protagonist, while capable of efficiency and practicality, is in essence a dreamer, a lover of solitude. As a youngest child, we find she learnt her solitude early, along with an introspection her family find hard to deal with:
I liked it in church , too, because . . . I thought I understood Jesus. I didn't understand any of the other people I had read about because they did unheard of things like get caught in lobster pots or vanish down rabbit holes, or were orphans, but there was He, born in a barn, child of a man who worked with his hands (and my father, too, would have walked miles in winter to be honest and pay his taxes) and a woman who obviously worked her fingers to the bone. And, like me, He asked a lot of questions. I was always asking questions.
When Rita is taken ill at university, and sent home to recuperate, she takes lessons from a retired Anglican clergyman, Mr Laidlaw, who introduces her to a community of nuns. Because the Anglican church can find no practical role for them, the Eglantines live a largely contemplative existence and Rita is drawn, despite immense parental opposition, to join them. And for ten years she is happy:
William Morris would indeed have been pleased with the Eglantines and I can't think God himself wasn't, at that time. I have read, since, books and stories by women who have dropped the veils of the Sisters of St Joseph, of the Ursulines - indeed, there must be dozens of them. But none of them seems to have found the earthly paradise I found for a while in Eglantine House, in London, Ont., as we call it, the heart of your diocese.
Unfortunately for Rita, the Eglantines are an ageing community and, although she spends a time as its acting head, her Sister Superior decides that she is young enough to build a new life for herself and ejects her kindly but firmly into the arms of her friend Maggie, to help care for her children. Filled with grief at the loss of the community, she inevitably meets a young lawyer - in fact, they have met before, in high school, where Rita considers Asher Bowen the most beautiful man she has ever seen - and recognises in him some of her seriousness and religious fervour. Continuing the separation of each stage of her life, Ash renames her Peggy, they choose a church to attend together and are quickly married:
I was empty. I handed my void to him. He told me what to wear, what to do; when he knew me better, he told me what I felt. He filled my mind, my thoughts, my body. He sat beside me in church. During sacraments his face gleamed pale and fanatic; he had an intensity I had never seen in any Eglantine but Mary Elzevir. I loved him very much indeed.
When she gives birth to a hydrocephalic child, the young couple are devastated. While Ash gradually withdraws, Rita becomes obsessive, dedicating herself to her child's welfare and survival. A "dreadful thing" occurs when Ash purchases the house of Rita's much hated (and child abusing) Uncle Eddie, as a summer cottage. For Rita, who has learnt detachment painfully during her parents' rejection, the return to her childhood home, the intrusion of the "messiness" of her country family, is too much.

With the death of her child, Rita's disintegration into alcoholism, breakdown and divorce is rapid, but she eventually redeems herself through contemplation. She considers that her life has gone wrong when she is required to be Martha rather then Mary yet, as she finally begins to achieve an inner peace, she allows herself to be persuaded that she will return to Eglantine House to re-establish and lead the order. She has learnt the difference between detachment and hiding, the need for balance between Mary and Martha, even the necessity of uncertainty. At the end, still debating with herself about the rightness of her decision, she says: "Enough. Enough. I've made my choice. I shall learn how to live with it."

Despite its brevity, this is a thoughtful book. It was first published in 1978, a time when there was rather more turmoil about woman's role in society, and this is considered at some length here, but it goes deeper, too, to a consideration what it is required for anyone to play their role. In the course of the book the Eglantines too have developed, and will play a greater role than that which they had formerly been allowed; they will no longer be a contemplative order, yet the need for a spiritual dimension to their work is still recognised and permitted time. To me this book provides a powerful affirmation of the need for spirituality, whatever the creed, and I find it already influencing my response to my next book for the challenge, which considers the role of women at an earlier period.

3 comments:

Jaimie said...

Wonderful review. I had "Bear" listed under my choice for Engel, which I did not find, but I am going to look for this one as well. You mentioned your next book. What is it?

Bybee said...

Wow, what a great review! Thank you for helping me discover a new (to me) writer. When was this written? Agree with you about the cover.
I really like the title...isn't it from "Onward, Christian Soldiers" or some hymn like that?

GeraniumCat said...

I really like Engel, Jaimie - my favourite is Lunatic Villas, which fits the "comfort read" category. I like the characters so much. I found it hard not to be very literal about Bear and found it ever-so-slightly shocking! My next book is Traveller's Prelude by Freya Stark, which I am just loving.

I should have thought to explain about the title, Bybee. Rita's surname is Heber, and the quote comes from a hymn by Reginald Heber, Holy, holy, holy. I found a great site that gives you the words and tune, for anyone who doesn't know it:
http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/h/o/holyholy.htm