Guest post by Belle Joseph.
To understand the situation of young women in the West today, you could do no better than to read a novel written by an English Catholic convert and priest over 160 years ago.
The first time I heard of Callista, the 1855 novel by Cardinal (Blessed John Henry) Newman, my interest was piqued immediately, and the book didn’t disappoint. Newman’s elegant prose is a delight to be relished at length. True, this isn’t a perfect novel; the plot creaks from time to time, and some of the author’s scholarly digressions won’t be to all readers’ tastes.
Yet despite its limitations, this is no ordinary Victorian novel. In fact, compared to reading other English-language novels from the time, discovering Callista is like moving from a dimly lit room into clear daylight. Grappling with questions of faith and doubt, sacrifice and duty, the novel is, among other things, an original and convincing account of a young woman’s spiritual journey, one that sounds a prophetic note today.
Set in the Roman town of Sicca in North Africa towards the middle of the third century, at the time of the emperor Decius, the novel follows the fortunes of a number of the inhabitants during a time of persecution of Christians. At the outset of the novel, we find one of the protagonists, Agellius, an assistant bailiff on a farm outside Sicca, striving to exercise his Christian faith despite the lack of churches and clergy in the town, the taunts of his brother Juba and the disapproval of his worldly, conformist uncle Jucundus. He becomes friends with a pagan brother and sister, Aristo and Callista, newly arrived from Greece, and falls in love with the beautiful, gifted Callista. He hopes to marry her, but his hopes are dashed in quite an unexpected manner.
Simultaneously, an edict is released by Decius, ordering the execution of any Christians refusing to sacrifice to the gods of Rome. As the novel progresses, the story shifts more and more to Callista’s interior ordeal. No longer believing in the Roman religion, she is restless and unhappy in herself, yearning for truth, clarity and peace.
Agellius is an engaging, appealingly flawed character, but Callista is the real tour de force here. The boldness of Newman’s portrait of this young Greek woman is searing. Newman is no subscriber to the submissiveness of women to their men-folk, according to the ideals of his day; Callista has a mind, a conscience and a heart of her own that demand fulfilment.
At a key turning-point in the novel, Callista makes an emotional outburst against the shallow, worldly life that her brother enjoys so much: ‘Here am I, a living, breathing woman, with an overflowing heart, with keen affections, with a yearning after some object which may possess me. I cannot exist without something to rest upon. I must have something to love; love is my life.’
A third-century Jane Eyre? Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that both books, with their spirited and morally courageous heroines, appeared around the same time, at the height of the Victorian obsession with the domesticated, compliant woman. Yet Callista reminds me more of another of Charlotte Brontë’s characters: the emotionally neglected Caroline Helstone in Shirley. Like Caroline or, to take a later literary character, Thérèse Desqueyroux in the eponymous novel by French Catholic novelist François Mauriac, Callista is dying spiritually for lack of love.
In other ways, Callista is a woman of the twenty-first century Western world. If anything, her character is more relevant today than in Newman’s time. She is prosperous, artistic, well-educated, and employed in congenial, skilled work (carving pagan idols). Like many of her generation, she has lost her belief in the religion of her parents. The philosophy of her social circle is to live solely for the pleasures of friendship and romance, art and music, intellectual exploration and self-expression. But this blithely hedonistic life-style, with its motto of ‘enjoy the present; trust nothing to the future’, no longer satisfies Callista.
Callista’s predicament is a familiar one in modern society. She sees clearly the emptiness of a life without religion – ‘If I were a Christian,’ she tells her horrified brother, ‘life would be more bearable’ – yet at first hesitates to take the leap of faith to accept the Christian faith. ‘I am not its enemy,’ she explains to the Bishop Caecilius, ‘but I cannot believe in it.’ When asked why, she responds: ‘It seems too beautiful to be anything else than a dream.’ On the other hand, she finds certain Christian dogmas, notably the doctrine of eternal punishment, ‘odious’. ‘They revolt me,’ she tells Caecilius bluntly, and it takes the Bishop’s wise and compassionate words on the subject to slowly bring her over this obstacle.
Callista’s existential loneliness and depression – what she calls being thrown back upon her ‘dreary, dismal self and the wounds of my memory’ – her dissatisfaction with the materialism and pleasure-seeking of her peers, and her emotional and intellectual struggles in accepting Christianity all give Newman’s creation a curious modernity. Apart from a few details, her story could be the story of many young women living today, coming to terms with the inadequacy of contemporary social values and ideals to give complete joy and meaning to their lives.
Newman takes a definite counter-cultural stance when he denies Callista the happy ending of marriage, perhaps just as discomforting for modern-day society as for Victorian readers. He does not deny the beauty of marriage; far from it. But he understands that human love can only partially fill the emptiness in a woman’s heart. As Professor Janet E. Smith once put it in a talk: ‘Marriage does not eradicate man’s loneliness, but only alleviates it.’ Sensitive as they are to their own spiritual and emotional needs, women are, perhaps, especially prone to the mistake of seeking total spiritual fulfilment and emotional satisfaction in their spouses – a gift that even the most exemplary husband might have some trouble in ensuring.
The answer, then, to woman’s deepest desires? For Newman, it is both simple and radical: complete fulfilment is found in a Person and that Person is Jesus Christ. Only a pure and complete love can satisfy woman’s soul; only the love of Christ can fully answer her longings.
Callista is not for the faint-hearted. Less because of its accounts of martyrdom than because it shows without varnish the demands that the Christian faith makes on us. C. S. Lewis put it with his inimitable forthrightness in his book God on the Dock: ‘Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.’ There is no room for the ‘moderately important’ brand of Christianity in Callista’s world, where religious belief is literally a matter of life and death.
What are the implications of this truth for today’s world? Perhaps Callista has something to tell us about women today, at a time when anxiety, low self-esteem and insecurities are rife among young women. In the formation of young women, there is a tendency, even among Christians, to emphasize external accomplishments: intellectual, sporting and practical achievements. While these are all very good and necessary, any intelligent woman will sooner or later fall into despair if she believes such success is all there is to life.
As the great saint and philosopher, Edith Stein, explains, the young girl’s spiritual development has to come first in her formation. She must be put in relation with the Person Who alone can love her totally. The deepest and most lasting desire in woman, Stein writes in one of her Essays on Woman, is to ‘achieve a loving union’. Stein had a special interest in Newman’s life and work (she translated his letters and diaries into German) and her words about love echo the thoughts expressed by Newman in his novel.
Indeed, Newman, whose episcopal motto was ‘Cor ad cor loquitur’ (‘Heart speaks to heart’) understood as few others have the primacy of the heart, and in particular, the call that every woman’s heart sends out for a love capable of understanding her completely. Just like Charlotte Brontë’s heroines, Callista cannot be satisfied with a loveless existence. Unlike them, she finds the love and purpose she craves in Christ, rather than in human love. It’s a historical novel, and a spiritual meditation as well, but Callista is first and foremost a love-story, the story of a woman who falls in love and discovers a joy beyond all her hopes.
Belle Joseph lives in Canberra, Australia, where she teach French. She has a doctorate from the Australian National University (ANU) in French Studies.