By Eleanor Bourg Nicholson
When the amoral and cynical “J” takes up his pen to describe Magdalen Montague, he little realizes the dramatic changes that will soon be wrought in his life. His fascination for this mysterious woman catapults him into a harrowing encounter with Catholicism, conversion, and discipleship. Through the letters, intimate portraits of four souls appear: the loquacious letter-writer “J,” his virulently antireligious recipient, “R,” the weird, silent servant Domokos Juhász, and Magdalen Montague herself. Across the turbulence of the first four decades of the twentieth century, including two world wars, the mysterious correspondents in The Letters of Magdalen Montague present a profound portrait of humanity’s quest for God.
Praise for The Letters of Magdalen Montague
“Eleanor Nicholson has written an old-fashioned epistolary novel of religious awakening and vocation. Set in the heady intellectual and hedonistic milieu of Edwardian England, it mixes elements of Waugh, Wilde, Bernardos, and even a touch of Francis Thompson to create an intimate account of one skeptic’s decisive encounter with the Hound of Heaven. In this short book, Nicholson recaptures the energy of a great Catholic literary tradition.”
— Dana Gioia, poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts
“Magdalen Montague exhales the same exuberant and exotic air as Baudelaire, Huysmans and Wilde; a delicious vignette that illumines the path from debauchery to the Divine.”
— Joseph Pearce, author of The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde
On 4 April 1947, a house on the Rue des Trois Frères, raided by the Nazis and left untenanted since the liberation of Paris, was sold. Records of past ownership had been destroyed during the occupation, and, as memory is short in that district, little was known of the man who had most recently lived there. No stories were known to explain his departure. How could there be, at a time when so many were dead or disappeared without a trace? He might have evacuated the city with so many others; he might have been imprisoned; he might have been dead.
In the far corner of a dark and cluttered attic, a large, flat-topped trunk of soiled gray Trianon canvas was found. A label inside the lid boldly proclaimed the craftsmanship of Louis Vuitton, Malletier à Paris. Collaborator.
The trunk contained an eclectic collection of objects, like those found in most deserted houses—the disjecta membra of a life. Old clothes of a faded, though still gaudy, flavor. Five packets of letters. A crate of particularly colorful erotica. The manuscript of a rather sordid novel. And, at the bottom, a dusty, soiled holy card with tinny gilt edging to frame a cheerful, young martyr attired in doublet, hose, and a ruff who leaned upon the rack beside him as if it were the pleasantest deathbed ever known to man. The card commemorated a young man’s ordination to the priesthood, dated 1915. The priest’s name was so faded as to be entirely illegible.
These are the letters.
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I. The Character of Magdalen Montague
3 March 1902
My dear R.,
The character of Magdalen Montague has long been considered an acceptable topic of public discourse, so I feel utterly justified in writing to you about it. The subject has, in fact, proved to be an invaluable stimulus to waning conversations. One only has to reference that sublimely intriguing yet eminently respectable personage, and interest is revived, animation awakened. I witnessed a singular demonstration of this phenomena the other day when I had the misfortune to meet that Medusa’s head borne on a sea of bombazine—Lady Fleming, you know. I had no idea that park lanes so readily afforded corners until I was backed into one by her formidable ugliness and assailed with political pamphlets and moral lessons.
“Young man,” she said, in that particularly nasal tone of hers, “I want to have a talk with you…”
Just as she was on the brink of indicting me for the suffering of the poverty-stricken masses, I parried the thrust and inquired, “And what do you think of Magdalen Montague?”
The effect was instantaneous.
“Miss Montague!” And then, surpassing my wildest expectations, she sneered. It was like a moment in a frightfully bad play—one of those abhorrent things that occasionally blights Leicester Square. Reviled by those with taste, these monstrosities are invariably guaranteed a two-year run. As I have already noted, the mention of Magdalen Montague produces a similar effect. It stimulates conversation, provokes passionate opinions, and thus must be revered as an inexhaustible source of social dynamite. This is especially true with recent events to reintensify opinions and passions and reawaken general interest.
Of course, you can hardly be expected to know the recent Montague saga. Their house is closed. Montague, his wife, and the noxious child have fled to some stagnant watering place. They left only three days ago, the day after a dinner party in their house. (That was the night of that sordid affair of Henry Godwin’s.) The reasons for Montague’s self-imposed exile are unknown, although the hypotheses born of the minds of gossipers are legion. And Magdalen Montague is gone…perhaps forever.
I never knew the first Mrs. Montague, and it is quite unlikely that you did either. I believe she died at the birth of the formidable Magdalen; and indeed the birthing of that being might well have proved deadly to a weak maternal vessel. Yet she must have been a remarkable woman. Quite unlike her recent replacement—that light, bright, gentle ornament bears about in her head only as much in brains as might be considered absolutely necessary for existence. She and her stepdaughter are the most incongruous pair, with Magdalen towering above the light little coquette in stature and age. She must be at least ten years older in reality and at least three centuries older in terms of soul. What can have possessed Montague to marry the little blonde sprite?
I do not consider these questions because of recent events. As a matter of fact, I have for some time been occupied in contemplating the many problems inherent in Magdalen Montague. Before I can fully describe recent events, I feel that I owe it to myself to describe the circumstances of that early contemplation. Otherwise, you will not be able to understand why I have for so long and so seriously been fascinated by this strange topic.
I had not seen Magdalen Montague in years. When Montague married his second wife so long after the death of his first, the family spent a great deal of time in the country. Someplace up north where lack of style and lack of warmth compete to stupefy the brain. I heard that the lassie wife had birthed a whimpering babe, presenting her mustachioed lord with another female encumbrance. I met said wife and babe (now a frilled and frocked young suburban denizen of three or four years old) walking in the park at the start of the season. Montague looked, as always, like a colonel who has absentmindedly misplaced India. The wife simpered and caressed the babe. The babe hid in the simpering wife’s skirts. Little wonder that I fled the scene as quickly as possible. I spared only a passing thought for the mysterious, absent figure of Magdalen Montague.
About a fortnight ago I was wandering around South Kensington and meandered my way up Cromwell Road. I found myself standing outside that monstrous hulk of a church deposited on London by Newman or some other tiresome priest during the last twenty or so years. The doors stood open and a milling crowd of dupes were spilling out into the street, impeding the progress of innocent passersby like myself. I was just composing several choice and mocking phrases to be muttered in debonair asides into the sympathetic ears of London during future parties when my attention was diverted by an extraordinary sight. Magdalen Montague was standing on the steps of the blighted oratory. She was even shaking hands with the lace-encumbered priest. This extraordinary woman stood calmly, even contentedly, amid the most pathetic and gullible crowd I had witnessed that morning.
I know that you have seen Magdalen Montague many times and do not describe her for your benefit. Indeed, her physical appearance could be briefly sketched—tall, large-boned, and dark-featured, she is an imposing figure and not at all a pretty one. Magdalen Montague is no beauty. Her features are far too unorthodox. But she is striking. The eyes are large, dark, and keen, set off to great advantage by a pair of heavy, dark eyebrows. The mouth is too wide to be truly feminine, but it seethes with power and unawakened passion. In fact, she is like a magnificent sculpture of a darkened Athena—militant, wise, and impenetrable. One can only dream of what she must have been in her childhood. She is not feminine, yet I have the distinct suspicion that she was born more truly a woman than the most certifiably female matron.
She has not the face that launched a thousand ships, but had she a mind to do so, Magdalen Montague might engulf three Troys in an apocalyptic conflagration. That quiet, controlled countenance screams tempest, trauma, terror, and passion. The negligible observer will not note it. He will pass this supernatural being in the street and marvel not. But he who can capture that eye and provoke the flame of self-expression therein might count himself a greater artisan than Pygmalion.
I bid her good morning. “You have been to church,” I noted.
She did not smile, but her air was not unfriendly. “Yes.”
“You are quite a devotee of despised Popery?”
Her eyes remained unreadable. “And you are a devotee of despised ennui.”
I shrugged. “I have no need for father confessors or Puritan lectures. Religion is only a waste of time. And time, which is always a bore anyway, must be filled with more distracting pleasures than incense and grubby beads can provide.”
She did not reply. If I had expected an argument, I was disappointed. She did not even look distressed. She merely glanced into my face, wished me a pleasant good morning, and strode away up the street.
Why did she reject this fine opportunity for sophisticated confabulation? We might have lapsed into witty wordplay, each probing into the other rich, resistant soul standing on the churchly stair. We might have plumbed the depths of human existence, shocked the lazy Popish birds from their roosts amongst the cluttering statuary. We might have shaken the cheerful countenance of that vestment-laden Jesuit who returned undeterred into the church, no doubt thinking more of a waiting supper than any pedestrian mysticism.
I stood for a moment, uncertain what to do. It is, of course, against my principles to venture into places of the so-called “sacred,” but principles were made to be broken, and such a study as the character of Magdalen Montague provides demands extraordinary measures. All visible ranks of Popery had departed. I was alone beside the church. I flicked an invisible speck of dust from my impeccable jacket sleeve, hauled open the massive door, and walked in.
What did I find, my friend? I am no Ruskin acolyte to be drawn into the pretense of divine contemplation by manmade beauty. I saw a dark, dank, candle-infested vault. Have you ever wandered into one of these icon-ridden monstrosities? Imaginative decorations born of a mercifully forsaken aesthetic crowd every corner. The very dust seems oppressed with the stench of fetid incense. Intense, nauseating, suffocating. As if they wanted to stifle unsuspecting victims into submissive, mewling adoration. So dark and so full of heavy silence.
I looked about, shuddered, and moved further up the aisle toward a gleam of cleansing sunlight. I have always appreciated atmosphere, as you know, and have been known to ridicule gothic melodrama with considerable wit and vivacity; but I don’t mind confessing that the filthy church filled me with disgust, horror, and a queasy nervousness beyond expectation. Nothing but the most intense attraction could keep me in that moribund place. Even so, as I stood there shivering, my curiosity intensified. What could bring that astonishing being, that goddess, into this empty place? There must be a reason. It cannot be mere superstition that draws her.
I remembered then that the first Lady Montague had been of an ancient family. One of those primordial recusant lines who would have rushed into Tyburn and gloried in suicidal fanaticism. Bane of the stalwart Church of England and object of intense disgust to modern intellects. I believe Montague is thoroughly high church, inasmuch as he considers religion at all. And I can hardly imagine his present Domina chanting aves and inhaling incense. It is possible that the motherless girl—if Magdalen was ever so commonplace a thing as a girl—was raised according to the bizarre tenets of her mater’s Romish religion. But the enigmatic young Montague cannot be of that ilk. Her namesake the viscountess was, by report, of formidable stature; let us imagine that she who braved the displeasure of Good Queen Bess is reincarnated and returns to Popery. Satisfying as that theory might be, there must be a different reason, a different motivation for her visits to this tawdry haven of forgotten ritual.
Can there be some man who frequents the Church? I had not noticed the departing worshippers. I had assumed them uninteresting and unpleasing. But perhaps there was some man in the crowd. He would have to be an extraordinary man to stir the passions of that dark goddess. A grungy, earthy laborer? A cold ascetic? An oily foreigner? What sort of man must he be? Perhaps they left squalid love letters in the crevices behind that abhorrent statue—one can only suppose it is meant to be some sycophantic female saint. There can be no other explanation for the insipid expression plastered on her face.
I was just about to glance behind the statue, in the nervous hope of finding something as boring and sordid as a written confession of repressed sexual excitement, when a hand touched my shoulder. I wheeled around, almost expecting to face the imagined lover. It was merely the priest. How silently the man creeps up on one!
“Can I help you, my son?” he asked with what I suppose was meant to be kindness but struck me as mere pandering.
“No.” I was surprised at the loudness of my voice. I cleared my throat and began again, “No…Thank you, Father.”
“You are not, I think, a Catholic….”
“No.” Again, the abruptness of my reply annoyed me. Why was I behaving like a sullen child caught in some unseemly act? It must be the effect that eerie Jesuit has on those not deceived by his priestcraft.
“You have come to study some of our artwork, perhaps?”
“No, I…was merely curious. I am sorry if I have given offense.” My tone had become sneering. Would the besotted little acolyte chase me from his beloved mausoleum?
“Don’t apologize. We welcome any respectful adorer.”
And with that contentious remark and a meek little bow, he scurried off, the black dress in which he was ensconced flowing around his ankles. How can that noisy, noisome little man have crept so undetected to my side?
The meeting dispelled any further daring from my soul. I could not rest until I was free of that strange place with its gaudy trappings and archaic atmosphere. I left the church and walked away, drinking in the dull light and odorous liberty of a London street.
You must pardon me, my friend, if I indulge these descriptive whims. I have often wondered at the unrealistic dedication of the heroine of an epistolary novel who records conversations of immeasurable length without considering the patience or sanity of her readers. But if the feverish fascination that drives me also motivates the insipid young lady whose adventures in Brighton fill three volumes, I can never sneer at Evelina more.
I did not see Magdalen Montague again for more than a week, taking good care in that time to avoid the taint of further association with nauseating religiosity. Then, only a few days ago, I received an invitation to an evening party at the Montagues. At moments such as the present, the height of the London season, they dabble in society. The second Mrs. Montague has not the brains to support anything more than dabbling, her aged husband is too easily bored, and one can only suppose that the inscrutable Magdalen is too unearthly a being to take much pleasure in frivolity and small talk. She could not support small talk. The opportunity afforded by such an invitation, therefore, was not to be missed.
Accordingly, I found myself two evenings ago in the superficially stylish drawing room of young Mrs. Montague, smiling at that lady’s obnoxious tittering while glancing toward the door, awaiting her stepdaughter’s entrance. How would the woman attire herself for the evening? A bold red? A sober black? A stunning pastel that would shock the company by clashing with her dark complexion?
The door opened and Magdalen stood before us, graceful in cold purple silk. I noted with approbation the absence of gloves. Those large, powerful, beautiful hands should never be concealed at an evening party. Admiration held me back a moment too long, and her attention was claimed by that doddering Lord Ingleton. He drooled in her face for a few moments. Was she impatient to flee his abhorrent dullness? If so, she made no move to escape, even when opportunities for flight abounded. He moved away, smiling at something she had murmured, but before I could step in and demand her attention, a flurry of matronly skirts announced conquest by one or another unattractive gorgon of advanced years.
It was some minutes before I could insinuate myself into her path.
“Good evening, Miss Montague,” I said with my most charming smile. She acknowledged my greeting with a brief smile in return. How magnificently that woman’s face is sculptured.
I complimented her on the fine gathering of bright lights and dim minds. She nodded.
“I glanced inside your church on Cromwell Street the other day after we met.”
“An interesting building.”
She did not reply. She did not even nod her head. She merely looked.
“And I believe I met your resident priest.”
Again, there was no reply. I decided to change my line of attack. Magdalen Montague, you might or might not know, is said to dote on her diminutive stepsister. A ringletted blonde with her mother’s dimples and a merry laugh, she skips in the park, speaks charmingly to guests, and bores me to tears with her trite prattle.
“And the dear little Miss Montague,” I said coyly, “are we not to be graced by her presence?”
Only a fool would expect to win over the confidence of Magdalen Montague with idle flattery, but if softening is possible for a myth in the flesh, she did so then. “Bella is asleep.”
“What a pity!” I began, but catching her penetrating eye, I stopped. An overabundance of enthusiasm for the detested child could not hope to be believed. “You are fond of the child?”
“It must be a different house for you now.”
“Yes.” There was no bitterness, no distress. I was wrong when I said Magdalen Montague could not support small talk. She was born to crush small talk utterly.
“Will there be music this evening?”
“Yes, I believe Mrs. Montague intends to grace us with a performance.”
“I am not averse to playing, although I do not enjoy performing.”
That was something. The expression of personality relies on negation.
“Why do you dislike performing?”
“Perhaps it is from lack of study.”
That was an unfair avoidance of the question. I pressed further. “But I have been told that you are an impressive musician.”
Devil take the woman. She absolutely refused to accept an innocuous compliment.
“Oh, I believe it is generally known. But you are inclined to think your education insufficient?”
“No, I said perhaps that is why I dislike performing.”
We had reached an impasse. Well, another impasse. I bowed. She bowed. I moved across the room. Why did I fall back so easily from her implacable defenses? You well may wonder. But I had not fled the battle. I’d merely postponed my attack. I was determined to lay siege to the lime-tree bower prison of her mind. If she was reluctant to perform, I would be the hand that drew or dragged her to the instrument.
In theory, I was prepared to beg, beseech, implore, or demand. In fact, it required little more than a quiet insinuation to simple Mrs. Montague that a performance by her stepdaughter would give great pleasure to the assembled throng. A bright-eyed request was made and the Magdalen acquiesced.
It was, of course, an astonishing performance. I had hoped to provoke her into self-expression, and the room was rife with it, but I did not think myself victorious. I cannot recall what she played. Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, or any of half-a-dozen accepted composers. Her execution was faultless, and the passion well-articulated and stirring. And it was effortless. One expected her life’s blood to spill out over the keys, a being expended in an overflow of musical greatness. But the Magdalen Montague who began was the Magdalen Montague who concluded. Quiet. Composed. Unreadable.
Such a performance could not help but stun the audience into silence. Perhaps they were too stupid to appreciate the superiority of her talent. In that brief moment, before the need for applause could be satisfied or the mind could move to signal applause to ready hands, a blood-curdling scream rent the silence.
I don’t suppose I had ever heard a “blood-curdling scream”—it is the sort of thing one reads of in gothic novels and does not experience in the everyday. This shrill cry—almost animalistic in its pure, unadulterated terror—sent a shock through the company. Surprise, coming so quickly on the heels of the overwhelming sensual intoxication of the song brought general impotence. Each man stared wide-eyed at his fellow, and the women sat in a sort of frozen hysteria. No one moved. No one. Except Magdalen Montague.
At the moment the scream pierced the solemn stillness, she rose from her place at the piano and fled from the room, vanishing from our sight with the rapidity of a spectre. I could not hear her foot on the stair; perhaps she flew beyond every obstacle, like Demeter racing to rescue the weeping Persephone from the jaws of lecherous Hades.
Then movement was again afforded us, and militant Montague ran from the room after his daughter. We followed in a bedraggled mess of confused intentions and fears. No man stayed to comfort the frantic nerves of the little mother.
At the foot of the stairs I paused and looked up. Montague had passed the landing and stood looking up at the goddess. A weeping mass of curls and lacy nightdress was huddled in her arms.
“Lina! Lina!” wept the child, clinging to that powerful neck. The whole situation had melted into the dullness of melodrama. A child’s pathetic nightmare, not an epic crisis, had disturbed the evening. I gazed with aversion at the perpetrator of this distasteful anticlimax. I was overwhelmed with a desire to strike the tawdry infant into silence and pry her arms from about the Magdalen.
From thence the dinner party lapsed into mundane and predictable dullness. The Magdalen disappeared upstairs and did not return. The little mother was too nervous to fulfill her obligations as hostess and instead graced us with many reiterated expressions of distress, concern, and overall nervousness. Matrons aplenty clustered round her, offering advice, encouraging the tragicomedy. Montague looked blank and talked of indifferent subjects to anyone who would listen. I left the house the moment retreat was made possible. I might have constructed an excuse for departure earlier but waited in vain to see if the unfathomable Magdalen would reappear.
The next morning we all awoke to the sensational news of Henry Godwin’s death. You know his mad wife has been a nuisance for years upon years? Well, it seems he inclined toward intoxicated violence and exacted a heavy fine for her mindless dependence. The servants have industriously circulated a most repulsive tale of insanity and murder that I will (without vouching for its truthfulness) give you.
That night, the very night of the party, Godwin set about the madwoman with particular ferocity and left her huddled and weeping somewhere in the house. The maid claims her mistress was ravaged and beaten in her boudoir, left in less than her shift. The butler insists it was the drawing room and that innumerable family treasures were destroyed in the wake of Godwin’s vicious fury. (As the family was only modestly outfitted, it is difficult to imagine mounds of crystal shattered against priceless paintings, but I give you the fellow’s story to counterbalance the maid’s rape of Lucrece.) The cook makes no comment, and the scullery maid does nothing but cry. Godwin left his beloved spouse, they all agree, and went to drink his way to further villainy.
The wife crept to his side while he snored in intoxicated slumber and plunged a large hatpin into his heart and brain a dozen or so times. Would a hatpin survive this harrowing experience? Owing to my limited experience of such matters, I cannot say. I merely give you the story as it is popularly told.
She then beat his bleeding corpse with whatever came to hand—a bloody and ineffectual pillow, says the maid; a broken bottle, says the butler. The cook makes no comment, and the scullery maid does nothing but cry.
I ought to apologize to you for recounting such a sensational tale, but really it strikes me that everyday melodrama is not half as entertaining as the saga of the Montague woman as I see it. Although by itself the sordid affair provides little stimulus for the mind, its aftermath is full of perplexing interest. That was three days ago. And that same day the Montague household, just across the street from the torrid murder scene, was closed up. The family is gone, supposedly to Bath or the like. Is this the reason for the child’s ill-timed nightmare? Did the mewling infant wake and witness some dark deed by moonlight?
And what of the Magdalen? Is she dead in a ditch? Has she eloped with some unknown lover? Has she been sent to the country in disgrace? Can it be that she carried on a sordid affair with the villainous Godwin? Does she now despair at his death?
I have wandered the streets for hours, passing her strange oratory again and again. I even ventured inside once but found nothing beyond my own disgust. Where can she be? Why is she not with her aged father, simple stepmother, and the noxious babe?
Well, my friend, I have written you an appallingly lengthy missive, but I do hope you will pardon me. Perhaps it is the uncharacteristic dullness of London that inspired me to such loquacity. But I think not. How could one write less with such a fascinating subject as the character of Magdalen Montague? I can only hope that the tale will unfold with appropriate drama to justify the composition of a second installment.
Until then, I remain
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