Catalina: A Romance, by W. Somerset Maugham
Admittedly, the writing of W. Somerset Maugham was probably not the most obvious thing to appreciate when it came out in the early 20th century in the face of many disciples of various decadent moral and political worldviews. Reading his writing today, his characterization and sense of plot come off as being old-fashioned in the best way, and it is like reading an enjoyable and improbable romp through a historical scene that is often viewed in a romantic light. This particular book felt late Victorian to me, and that is a good feeling. The fact that this book is still in print even now suggests that at least a few people feel the same way as I do, even about the author’s lesser known works like this one. It should be emphasized that this book is indeed one of the author’s less well-known books, but it is no less enjoyable for that. If you like books that explore the genre of romance in ways that include the exotic horrors of the Spanish inquisition, then this book will have a lot to offer, in that most characters end up better off than they deserve.
In order to fully appreciate this book, the reader must keep in mind that this book is a romance in at least two senses. On the one hand, this book does have a romance in terms of a boy and a girl who have all kinds of adventures before they end up happily ever after. But the boy is not introduced as a character until the novel is nearly halfway done. He is not merely a cipher, but one gets the feeling that his importance is in being loved by Catalina, who comes off as a very sober and rational sort of woman, rather than in being intrinsically important because he is some kind of hero. So not only is this book a romance, in which the unwillingness of the heroine to engage in sex before marriage leads to a miracle in a small country church, but it is a romance in the sense of involving Catholic life in Spain. The novelist portrays a Spain where the Inquisition is in full force and where powerful heads of abbeys try to trap young women into being nuns to increase their own glory and power. Not everyone likes reading this sort of novel, but for those who do, there are a lot of humorous scenes to enjoy.
And that is probably what I appreciated the most about this book, its sense of humor. The author is aware he’s not writing a serious novel, and the result is something that is quite remarkable, namely that the author is able to capture a view of history that people have of Spain and its life during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We see wandering groups of players making money and dealing with the inevitable drama that occurs between actors and singers and other creative people. We see the rivalries that exist between different branches of the Carmelite sisters, and the way that someone can be a loyal servant of the church but struggle with a lack of personal faith. Although this is a lighthearted novel, it demonstrates that the author has done his research well and knows a lot about conditions in that era. The fact that the author has done a great deal of study and still wrote a lighthearted novel that would not seek to impress people as being a scholarly one is all the more impressive. To know a lot and to keep a light touch is no easy thing, and pulling it off is an impressive task.