Last year, I wrote about a wonderful work of light fiction, The Awakening of Miss Prim, which is more or less a novelization of the Benedict Option. Its Spanish author, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, came to speak at this year’s Idea Of A Village conference near Clear Creek Abbey, in eastern Oklahoma. If you click on that link, you can watch a video of all the talks. Fenollera delivered hers in Spanish, her native language, but provided a printout of the English translation for conferees.
Andrew Pudewa, a conference organizer, shared with me the English translation of Fenollera’s speech. Here it is:
When I sat down to write The Awakening of Miss Prim, I had no idea whether it would be published even in my own country, Spain; much less could I ever have imagined that it would actually be translated into eleven languages—English among them—and that it would be distributed in more than seventy countries! Why could I not have imagined such a thing? Not only because it was my first novel, but because my intention in writing it, beyond telling a story, was to challenge certain notions that have gained a hold in our day and are now taken for granted, notions that are supposedly settled and incontrovertible.
Much of the inspiration that brought me to write the book came from having read authors and masters of old. Resonating in the pages of Miss Prim are echoes of books I read both in my childhood and later years, but most especially echoes of those books that helped me return to the Faith, and that guided me in my search for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Works by Chesterton, Cardinal Newman, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and by someone well known and much loved here in Clear Creek—Professor John Senior.
I have not come here to speak about the rich legacy left by John Senior, as I am sure many of you know it much better than I. I would have loved to have had the good fortune of being able to attend his classes and listen to him. But to me, it has only been possible to read him, and that, only years after his death. Nonetheless, his imprint, the imprint of what he believed and taught, runs through my novel.
The Awakening of Miss Prim is a book full of hidden clues—little details that are seemingly accidental and unimportant, but that are not at all so. Details that were placed along the way as hidden pebbles, as silent acts of homage awaiting to be discovered and recognized by at least a few readers. One of these pebbles pertains to John Senior. His name doesn’t expressly figure in the novel, but is present throughout in an indirect way. As the story goes, the male protagonist of the story, the “man in the wing chair,” in the process of his conversion to the Catholic Faith, had attended a seminar at the University of Kansas, where “something” happened to him. This passing reference to Senior and Kansas, just a single line, was “discovered” by a very special reader: Philippe Maxence, editor of the French Catholic magazine “L’Homme Nouveau”; and through him, reached Abbot Philip Anderson of Clear Creek Abbey who wrote me and gave me the great joy of knowing that the hidden clue had been found and unraveled.
I believe it is thanks to Divine Providence that I am here today, and I warmly thank you for the generous invitation that has made this possible.
I am going to approach this talk about The Awakening of Miss Prim almost as one would a mystery novel. In this case, though, we won’t be in search of the assassin, but in search of the motivation: Why was such a book, containing hints of Christianity and that challenges many of the dogmas of our present-day culture—why would such a book be so well received in a world that in many instances doesn’t understand those hints, and in others, outright rejects what they stand for?
If I were to describe what The Awakening of Miss Prim is, I would say it is a story, apparently simple, that runs with that gentle simplicity of fairy tales, but peppered with unexpected bombshells. Odd bombshells, because they are coated with sugar and chocolate like Hansel and Gretel’s house, but bombshells nonetheless they are. The story begins with the arrival of Prudentia Prim—a young woman, independent and loaded with academic titles—to San Ireneo de Arnois, a peaceful village whose dwellers have declared war on the modern world. Miss Prim had come in response to an employment ad placed by a ferociously anti-modernist, and irritatingly traditional gentleman who needed a librarian to put his library in order. The clashes between these two contrasting and strong personalities, and her dealings with the peculiar inhabitants of the place, will rock many of the firm convictions self-sufficient Prudentia Prim held, and will change her life forever.
As you can see, it is not a thriller, nor a mystery novel, nor hard-boiled fiction, much less a romantic story or a historical narrative. What is it, then? I usually describe it as a tale, in the sense that it isn’t a realist novel, even though it speaks of profoundly real things. And it takes the license that tales do, which allows us to sharpen colors or tone them down as needed, to shift vantage points, and to direct focus so as to call attention to things that may go unnoticed.
When I began writing The Awakening of Miss Prim, I set out to create a story that could be read in three ways, leaving it to each reader to find his own. The first way would be as a social realism novel about the goings on in a peculiar little village, and, parallel to that, as a love story. This is how many have read the book, a reading that is rather bland because, as a love story, it is very restricted for present-day norms, and because the book is actually not a love story. At least not in the sense that we give this term in our day, though it includes a “love story” in lowercase, and another “Love” story with capital L. We will soon come back to this.
The second manner of approaching the book—and here we already run into one of those bombshells—is reading it as a declaration of war, as a cry of rebellion against modernity and its demons. The story outlines the conflict between two radically different worldviews: the traditional, represented by the residents of San Ireneo, and the modern, defended by Miss Prim. The Ireneans (as we shall call the residents of San Ireneo), are deeply rebellious, but of a very particular rebelliousness, because they are not aiming at the future, but rather at the past; they are not claiming the new, but rather the old; they are not seeking the future in the future, but in the past.
This notion of seeking the future in the past may seem to be contradictory, especially for us who are used to associating rebellion with the rejection or destruction of something unsatisfactory in the present in order to build something new and better in its place for the future. But while we take for granted the idea of rejecting the past to build the future, history teaches us otherwise. If we think about the fall of the Roman Empire, for example, and about the centuries immediately following, we see that the Romanized people could not longingly look toward the future, which loomed dark, devastated by the invasion of barbarian tribes that destroyed everything in their way. Rather, they yearned for the past. Those people missed the old times of law and order, of government and administration that Rome took to the farthest corners of the empire. For them, progress was not something ahead of them, but rather something that had stayed behind.
There’s a moving and terrible sense of desolation contemporary texts that narrate this collapse, this obscuring of civilization. It is the voice of men who looked upon present times with horror, who could not begin to imagine what the future could hold, and who lamented a lost past. Saint Jerome, for example, who so loved and studied the great Latin authors in his youth, spoke of the sack of Rome by Alaric in these impassioned and heartbreaking words:
“My voice catches in my throat; as I dictate, sobs choke my words. The city that took the whole world has itself been taken. … The most brilliant light in the entire world has been extinguished. The head of the Roman Empire has been severed. To speak clearly, the world has died with the City. Who would have thought that Rome, which built itself upon victories wrought throughout the world, would fall in such a way as to become both mother and tomb of all peoples?”
For the people of those days, progress did not lie in abolishing old structures, not even in looking toward the future, but rather in resisting destruction and preserving portions of civilization. There is a book by Chesterton entitled A Short History of England, that explains this paradox very well. With that common sense that characterizes him, Chesterton points out that the word “progress” in itself refers to only one direction: forward. But only an unreasonable person would take a direction as being an end in itself. Progressing toward a valley flowing with milk and honey, and progressing toward a dark cliff, are not the same thing.
The residents of San Ireneo de Arnois, the little village where Miss Prim arrives, have this conviction, this sense that present-day civilization is heading toward a cliff, not a fertile valley. They believe that we live in disquieting times, a time when the sun seems to be setting, a time in which “the virtues have gone mad” (to borrow Chesterton’s words), and men have lost the capacity to recognize them.
Many readers ask me where San Ireneo is located, and if such a place as described in the novel really exists, or if it is simply a utopia. The answer is that San Ireneo is a fictitious place, but it is not a utopia, because it is a type of community that lives in Europe’s DNA, that breathes in its foundations. A tiny village born around spiritual lungs—which in the novel is a Benedictine abbey of the traditional Roman Rite—in which old ideas full of wisdom are preserved, such as those that remind us that human life must be subject to order if it is to be truly human. A place where neighborly ties are fostered, where there are solid families, the economy is small, and where its residents wage a war to preserve the best of the past, without which the present cannot be understood, nor the future be faced.
The Ireneans have fled away from modern life, away from a huge world gone out-of-hand, full of din and noise; away from a Western culture where the scale of human things has been lost, and another ancient idea has been forgotten (how beautiful are the old ideas that survive the short lives of men): the idea that the world must be fashioned by the measure of man, and not man fashioned by the measure of the world.
I mentioned three different readings the book may have. We are still missing the third one, which is the most important and also the least evident. The adventures of Prudentia Prim in San Ireneo de Arnois tell a story of religious conversion, which not all readers uncover because it is told in the way of Poe’s stolen letter. It is there, it is so obvious, but it is so intertwined with the threads of the novel … that not many see it.
Why have it so? It is said of one of my favorite English authors, Evelyn Waugh, that one day at a party, when a lady approached him to congratulate him for his latest book, Waugh, who was acid and corrosive as few can be, replied in such a way that prompted the admirer to exclaim: “How is it possible that being a Christian, you can be so disagreeable?” to which he replied “What you do not know, Madam, is that before being a Christian, I was only human.”
The reason I mention Evelyn Waugh and the clear understanding he had about the effect of grace in himself, is because his Brideshead Revisited served as a model for me, as I traced out the story of conversion in The Awakening of Miss Prim. In his magnificent novel, Waugh tried to explain, within the bounds of possibility, how grace guides us through the events of our lives, through the people we know, through our joys and our pains, through the contemplation of beauty and, most especially, through our wounds and failures. That is what I tried to do in the book, within all the limitations imposed by this theme, and that is why the clues in this third type of reading, are not as evident as in the other two. That is because God doesn’t usually make Himself obvious; things would be much simpler if He would, but that is certainly not the case. This is a fact experienced particularly by converts; this experience that grace acts in gentle ways, speaks ever so softly, whispers in the ears, without haste, without imposing itself, gingerly.
Waugh himself once said that conversion is like climbing up a chimney, passing from a world of shadows, where everything is like a caricature, to the real world. Cardinal John Henry Newman’s epitaph reflects a similar idea: “Out of shadows and images unto the Truth.” [Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem]. In C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, one of the characters explains to us that the lands of Narnia are only a “shadow” or copy “of the real Narnia, which has always been here and will always be.” And Miss Prim is disturbed when, upon an afternoon in a garden, four children explain to her that the Gospel is a “real” fairy tale, not because it is similar to a fairy tale, but because fairy tales are similar to the Gospel. It is this fascinating concept of Revelation as reality in myth that underlies Tolkien and Lewis.
It is also in this third type of reading that we find Miss Prim’s love story. In the beginning of the novel, when she first arrives in San Ireneo de Arnois, she loves, in particular, her own self. She carefully protects her self-esteem and is very concerned about her dignity. Soon she discovers the second type of love—friendship—as she gradually comes to know the Ireneans and enters into the life of the village. Then follows the third type of love: love between a man and a woman; a love that is only truly possible when the fourth type of love is attained, which is the source of all others: Divine Love. That is when everything falls into its proper place—love of self and love of others—all find their proper place and measure when one finds Love, with capital L.
The love story of the two protagonists in the book, Miss Prim and the man who hires her to organize his library, entails a conflict between two completely different personalities. Different not just because of how they view the world, but also because of the way they approach reality. He represents reason, a reason enlightened by faith (because he is a convert), which is the only way reason will avoid falling into the temptation of becoming a blind monster. And she represents sentimentality, which is an old pathology affecting reason, or, if you prefer, of feelings that swell up, overflow, and then occupy a place that does not belong to them, something the ancient philosophers diagnosed very accurately. Miss Prim is very sensitive; she loves the arts and beauty, but she thinks with the heart instead of the head. And the heart has a marvelous and unique function—to love—but it fails miserably when it is used for what it is not meant.
Let us now talk about other sugar-coated bombshells. What other targets do Ireneans fire at? Among them are feminism as an ideology, and, most especially, modern education. One of Miss Prim’s first surprises is that in San Ireneo de Arnois there is a peculiar educational system that surprises and scandalizes this librarian. Ireneans educate their children at home and in community. The children take classes from several of the village’s residents. Whoever masters biology, gives biology classes. The literature expert teaches literature; the scholar of mathematics, mathematics. There is a teacher in the village who teaches the Trivium to little ones; three tools—grammar, rhetoric and dialectic—that not too long ago were considered as indispensable for learning how to think. Reading is an absolutely essential thing in this small community, with an especially reverential fervor toward the classics, to the point where the villagers pridefully proclaim that most of what the world calls literature, in San Ireneo is called “a waste of time.”
Many readers ask me if the relationship I describe in the book between childhood and literature—something in which are evident John Senior’s enlightened and on-target teachings, and my own childhood experience—if this relationship is truly possible. The children of San Ireneo grow up surrounded by fairy tales, solid children’s literature, old poems, sagas and legends, and by the classics … a lot of classics. These are children who are able to enjoy The Wind in the Willows of Kenneth Grahame, but also who can recognize lines by Virgil, in Latin. They grow up in a home in which one can learn to love Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and fairy tales, but also the Odyssey and the Iliad, the medieval romances, and Robinson Crusoe or Oliver Twist. Another utopia? If we consider children’s literature of the 19th century, or of the early 20th century, and compare it to many of the works that are written for children in our day, we must come to the conclusion that, either the children of our day are less intelligent than children were in the past, or society believes them to be less intelligent than they are. I believe the second option is the correct one.
Added to this is the fact that we have become used to labeling certain things as impossible or utopian which were never thought to be so by those before us. To illustrate this, we have a good example in Tolkien’s childhood (only one example among many). Tolkien was educated at home by his mother, a woman of the middle class who had received a solid education. With her help, he started reading at age four, and learned Latin, French and German when he was seven, before going to school. Another example is provided by Ronald Knox, a British convert, whose biography was written by Evelyn Waugh. At the age of seven, he composed sweet poems in Latin. And then we have Bernard Shaw, who used to say, with characteristic irony, that his education ended at age seven, on the day his parents took him to school.
I was brought up in the 70s, a time when books were not classified by age groups, and no one thought anything of a child thumbing through a classical work, and perhaps even enhancing it with a few dabs of color. I was brought up in a large family—in that noisy, free and semi-wild environment in which large families lived and breathed at the time. I was raised with many siblings, and also with many poems, legends, fairy tales and classics … a lot of classics, at the reach of children.
Two years ago, when I presented The Awakening of Miss Prim in Germany, I had a conversation with an elderly professor of literature who told me with great sadness: “German children no longer know Goethe; Goethe is no longer read.” In a certain sense, we Westerners have turned into those fairy-tale dwarves who sit upon a treasure trove and have no time to enjoy it—a treasure of tradition and culture of incalculable worth, which is the best gift one can give one’s children. There is an old Western world that was built by dreams and wonderful stories filled with heroes, woods, dragons, swamps, warriors, magic rings, witches and knights, monsters, spells, courage and sacrifice, which all wield such force that it is difficult not to feel vanquished. This magic language of fairy tales, of medieval epics and pre-Christian Nordic sagas, is a language extraordinarily suited for transmitting to children truths that are not as easily expressed in other ways. I remember that the first time I read Beowulf, in Tolkien’s translation, to four very small nephews of mine, they listened to the entire story without blinking an eye. This force is almost like an elfin spell … marvelous!
Another one of the battles fought at San Ireneo is for preserving the magic of childhood. We have become used to the idea that children be continuously present to the adult world, that they be the center of gatherings, and often of conversations. But not too long ago, a child’s world was something apart, a warm, sunny country, safe and magical. And this magic largely came from their not being exposed to the interests and problems of the adults around them and from not being considered the center of attention at any gathering. San Ireneo preserves this magic. When Miss Prim first comes into the garden area where the children of the house are playing, she enters into a world she does not belong to and that has its own rules. She is a stranger, a foreigner, an adult. And they are children. These are two distinct races, and their worlds operate under two distinct logics.
I opened by saying that we would be talking about a motivation that would explain the why of this book, a book that defends tradition in the face of society’s blind cult of progress, and which is in itself a story of conversion. It has been well received by a large number of readers who actually are aligned with this progress and are in no way religiously inclined. I believe the key to this lies in that it isn’t a story written especially for Christians, nor is there any intention of catechizing its readers. It is a simple tale that speaks of something that has been in the human heart since always: the search for paradise lost, that indefinable nostalgic sense that we all have engraved in our hearts. A nostalgia that at times savors of childhood, and which neither noise, nor frenetic activity, nor the massiveness of a world that no longer has time to reflect about the perennial ancient questions, can completely muffle. The Awakening of Miss Prim begins with a quote by Newman, from one of his sermons while still an Anglican, that magisterially explains the reason for this ongoing search, for this perpetual dissatisfaction that the human being carries:
“They believe they yearn for the past, but in reality the yearning has to do with the future.”
And I will close this talk with another Englishman, Robert Hugh Benson, also a convert who is very special to me. Born during the Victorian age, Benson was the son of the archbishop of Canterbury and an Anglican clergyman. He wrote a small book entitled Confessions of a Convert in which he describes what we are, with the simplicity and magical beauty of a fairy tale:
“But all of us together are but a party of children wandering in from the country, travel-stained, tired, and bewildered with glory.” [Benson, Confessions of a Convert (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.: 1913), p. 163.]
The novel is The Awakening of Miss Prim, by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera. You can see this speech (delivered in Spanish) and the other conference talks here. Believe me, if the Benedict Option resonates with you, you’ll enjoy this book. The Benedictine monastery in Norcia even figures into the plot.