The Letters of Magdalen Montague

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 anti-religious recipient R , the silently holy Domokos Juhász, and Magdalen Montague herself. The novella boldly addresses themes of grace, faith, evil, sacrifice, spiritual exile, martyrdom of the everyday, and the redemptive power of narrative, all mediated through the deftly-wielded pen of the protagonist. Drawing largely on the traditions of Decadent literature, The Letters of Magdalen Montague presents a profound portrait of humanity's quest for God. 

 

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, Bernanos, 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 debaucherie to the Divine. —JOSEPH PEARCE, author of The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde  

Where did it begin?

The Letters of Magdalen Montague as reviewed by DENA HUNT for St. Austin Review (StAR) www.staustinreview.com. 

 

For the literalist, the title of this little book will be misleading. Not a single one of the letters it contains is written by Magdalen Montague. In fact, she does not even appear—at least, not by name—in all the letters, nor is she the subject of them, though she is often mentioned. So why would Nicholson title this book The Letters of Magdalen Montague (my emphasis)?

 

Only after the reader has finished the book is it possible to ruminate on that question, and then the answer makes clear something never mentioned at all, yet, on reflection, it permeates every page: the mysterious and astonishingly unlimited love and mercy of God.

 

In the chaos that followed the end of World War II, there was not only a seemingly endless number of displaced persons, but also widespread confusion about such mundane matters as addresses—vacant flats, for example, which had clearly been occupied but the occupants were unknown. Records of ownership had been destroyed during the Nazi occupation. In the Prologue, we learn that in one of those flats in Paris, a packet of letters was found in an attic trunk. Was the owner of those letters—and of the flat—dead? Missing? No one knew. The letters, written in English, are all addressed to “R” and signed by “J”; therefore, ironically, only the name of Magdalen Montague, which frequently appears in the letters, seems to matter. Both the writer and the addressee of the letters are made unimportant by their anonymity, a fact that becomes rather appropriate at the book’s conclusion.

 

Fiction in the epistolary tradition is difficult to sustain at best, and in this case, it’s made even more difficult by the fact that the correspondence includes only the letters of the writer, “J”; no responses from “R” are included. Nicholson has wisely kept the book brief, even though the period of time over which the letters extend is very broad: 1902–1941. An equally difficult achievement is the transition of the “J” narrator’s voice from the classically “decadent” in the first letter to a nearly saintly voice in the last. If the book can be said to have any flaw at all, it’s the unnatural tone of its decadent voice. It’s not a voice that comes easily to Nicholson, and it shows. Yet, in the end, even this “flaw” works in favor of the novel’s theme, as we come to know the deeper recesses of “J’s” heart.

 

In fact, we come to know “J” quite well through his letters; we never know anything at all about “R” until one critical detail appears in the Epilogue—which I will not spoil by providing even a hint, though I can say it would do the reader no good at all to “cheat” and skip ahead to the conclusion. And finally we come to know Magdalen Montague, the person, the love of “J”, the inspiration of his life, and the muse of his letters, for these are indeed the letters of Magdalen Montague.

 

At the end of the novel, with its genuinely surprising little twist, the thoughtful reader will ask, where does that mysterious love and astonishing mercy end? But Magdalen Montague might believe that an even better question would be where did it begin? And that Alpha and Omega will provide much food for thought long after the reader has finished Nicholson’s little book.

 

DENA HUNT lives in Georgia. Retired from teaching at Valdosta State University, she is working on her second novel.