St. Augustine famously confessed to a life of lust and sinfulness as a young man, including a longstanding relationship with a woman who was not his wife. He never named the woman, and like so many other woman in the early years of the Catholic Church, she simply disappeared from history.
Author Suzanne Wolfe takes what is known about Augustine, largely from his own writings, and weaves a tale of a young aristocrat who falls in love with a woman he can never marry and ultimately gives her up.
Like Anita Diamant’s best-selling novel “Red Tent,” Wolfe’s story is told entirely from the point of view of a woman—a perspective still so unusual in the retelling of history that it’s almost startling. It feels like a story we’ve never heard before.
Augustine emerges as an earnest but slightly lost young man who is looking for something that he can’t even name. He is frustrated by the lazy students he teaches; he has no real prospects; his father is a drunk; and his mother, St. Monica, is, well, a saint—with all that implies for a son who clearly is not.
After falling in love (or lust) with a young woman of a lower class, referred to only as “X,” Augustine makes her his concubine—the modern-day equivalent of a common-law wife. It is a relationship X enters into willingly, and the two become equal—or nearly equal—partners as they raise their son and move from the Roman Province of Africa to Rome, where Augustine is keen to advance his career.
The story doesn’t turn out well, at least for X who ultimately loses both her lover and her son. She is sent back to Africa when it becomes clear that the only way Augustine can really advance is to take a wife of his own class (and preferably one with some money as well). Instead of marrying again, however, Augustine converts—much to his mother’s delight—and begins his ascent as one of the most respected theologians and philosophers of the Catholic Church.
Against this backdrop of historical facts, Wolfe fashions a convincing picture of what life might have been like in the late years of the Roman Empire, from animals tearing each other to pieces for the benefit of spectators at a coliseum to craftsmen creating beautiful mosaics from pieces of broken tile.
There are times when the dialogue is so spare it feels underdeveloped, and several characters, including the woman who raises X, are never fully realized. But there also are phrases and passages so haunting you have to read them again, as when X, now an old woman, looks back on her life. “On the long journey of my life I have seen many beginnings and many endings,” she says. “I have seen many deaths, and sometimes the living die and sometimes the dead live on, and it is difficult to tell the difference.”
History, of course, doesn’t tell us what happens to X, and it is more than likely that she, an unmarried woman with few resources, died in poverty after Augustine cast her out. I like better Wolfe’s version, which affords X dignity if not happiness.
In fact, one of the strengths of the book is that Wolfe manages to avoid making X a victim or Augustine a villain. She clearly admires and cares about both of her characters and wants her readers to feel the same. She is intent on drawing us into a story in which love cannot surmount all odds but, still, it somehow survives.
Love is an appropriate theme for the book given the extent to which Augustine wrote on the subject in his remarkably candid Confessions. In the Middle Ages, he was often depicted as the saint of love, holding a large red heart with flames shooting out of it. The painters, of course, are likely to have had a different kind of love in mind, the kind Augustine described when he wrote, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance, to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.”
Still, we can’t let Augustine have the last word. This is a story, after all, about a woman whose love was not recorded and whose life can only be imagined.
Here, in the end, is what she has to say: “He is the last to hold my shape in the vessel of his heart and with his passing my story dies as if I had never been, like cities fallen in the desert and returned at last to sand. I am become the merest flicker of a shadow, passing fugitive and brief along the edges of another’s life.”