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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Woman Priest

Sylvain Maréchal

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To purchase The Woman Priest

Title: The Woman Priest
Author: Sylvain Maréchal
Genre: Novel
Written: 1801
Length: 85 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Woman Priest - US
The Woman Priest - UK
The Woman Priest - Canada
  • A Translation of Sylvain Maréchal's Novella, La femme abbé
  • French title: La femme abbé
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Sheila Delany

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Our Assessment:

B : minor period curiosity, but has some appeal

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Canadian Literature . 30/3/2017 Liza Bolen
Science & Society . 4/2017 Mitchell Abidor

  From the Reviews:
  • "While the contents of The Woman Priest make for a good story (drag, drama, and death -- what more can you ask for ?), the astonishing complexity of the novella seems to lie not necessarily in the general plot line, but rather in the context in which the author wrote the book -- as brilliantly explained in Delany’s introduction to her translation" - Liza Bolen, Canadian Literature

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Highly critical of the French establishment, Sylvain Maréchal was active in -- and ultimately disappointed by -- the French Revolution. He was an important literary figure of the times, and translator Sheila Delany provides helpful context in her extensive Introduction to this short text.
       The Woman Priest is an odd little novel -- including in its presentation.. It is largely epistolary -- with the correspondence heavily one-sided -- but the letters also include long passages in simple dialogue (as in scenes from a play). Maréchal writes himself a bit into a corner (well, a cave) with plot-turns that prevent much letter-writing in its resolutions; indeed, there's little opportunity for the back and forth of an active correspondence for much of the novel. But given that when the heroine Agatha can and does receive advice from her friend Zoé -- mainly before things really get going -- she more or less ignores it, it's clear the purpose of the letters isn't so much give and take; they are mostly confessional, or reports. The letter-focus stunts and hobbles the narrative some -- but there's still quite a story bursting through.
       The story is, basically, a love story: young Agatha is smitten by a new priest, Saint-Almont -- who, she hears, has only abandoned a worldly path because he is: "a victim of love". Desperately in love, he was led on by a flirt who didn't reciprocate his feelings; devastated, he became a man of the cloth. He's a sensitive soul, too -- his former mistress shows up at the mass Agatha attends, and literally sends Saint-Almont swooning.
       What's a girl to do ? Well, anything, if it gets her near the man of her dreams. And, as Agatha writes to Zoé -- the letters are essentially all between the two friends --:

     Would you believe I desired to be a man, to have the right to serve the mass to Saint-Almont ?
       Her wish to enjoy male privilege is solely motivated by her desire to be close(r) to the man she has fallen for; nevertheless, assuming a male guise proves empowering. Agatha dresses up in men's clothes and does manage to assume the desired role, of helping Saint-Almont -- allowing her to enjoy the proximity of her unsuspecting object of desire.
       Zoé, who repeatedly tries to rein in her friend, is conveniently shipped off to Canada with her husband, removing any possible influence -- any correspondence now takes eternities to reach the recipient ("what delays and misfortunes my letters will undergo !" Zoé complains) -- and one of Agatha's last connections in the world at large. When Agatha's beloved grandmother dies, leaving Agatha with no other real ties, she goes all-in with her deception, her transformation no longer occasional but permanent, right down to the shaving off of her long hair. As she writes Zoé:
Your Agatha is giving up the clothing of her sex, without abandoning its modest virtues. I repeat, I intend to keep myself worthy of your friendship and of my self-respect.
       And, yes:
I am giving birth to the boldest, most bizarre project that any twenty-year-old girl has ever conceived
       When Saint-Almont is appointed a superior at the seminary, Agatha decides to become a seminarian, studying for the priesthood -- something obviously forbidden to women, but, as she has assumed the male role so successfully, she finagles her way in. "I want to attach myself to you", she tells the oblivious Saint-Almont -- though hastening to add: "serve me as father, tutor, guide ...". Talk about suppressing desire .....
       Part of her misfortune is that she's too good and devoted -- Saint-Almont eventually thinks she's ready for the priesthood. But that's too much, even for her; she comes clean -- and Saint-Almont sends her packing. Well, she runs away -- taking shelter in an old quarry.
       Among the last words she wrote to Zoé are: "Here my existence ends, for I can only vegetate" -- and that's pretty much what she winds up doing, heartbroken. A misanthropic hermit, Timon, chances upon her and keeps her going for a while, but there's no real hope. By the time Zoé learns of her friend's calamity it is pretty much too late -- though a nice coda has both the hermit and Saint-Almont abandoning their French lives and joining Zoé and her husband in Canada, where they establish themselves in their own ways.
       Despite the centrality of religion here, it is noteworthy that god-belief plays pretty much no role in why the two main characters turn to the Church, and serving it. In each case, it is love -- heartbreak, in the case of Saint-Almont; passion, in the case of Agatha. Tellingly, too, they both eventually abandon the Church, and if Maréchal's critique of the Church's (and society's) silly barriers to the female sex is obvious, there's also a subtler one of the the institution per se, presented here as an outlet of convenience that fails at its supposed fundamental function. (The atheist Maréchal obviously didn't take religion particularly seriously, but its amusing to see how he uses its institutions for the foundations of his story.)
       The Woman Priest is a rather warped romantic tale, love existing here almost only in a strangely idealized form (Zoé and her husband are the only real sort of 'couple', while Agatha, Saint-Almont, Timon, and even grandma can't manage any sort of real romantic/sexual relationship). There's almost no hint of the physical -- the (sexual) lusting is, at best, implied (even when Agatha's breasts are bared, Timon can't plunge anything into her ...), with Agatha happy simply to enjoy proximity to her beloved. But Agatha is also a stalker, and she doesn't present her true self to the object of her love until very late in the game -- hardly a romantic ideal. She chooses to get close to him in a male role, because that seems the only way -- and indeed it works stunningly easily -- but suggests she wasn't thinking through her end-game: for all her protestations that: "I am happy to love him, although without hope: I love only the pleasure of loving", surely she must have hoped this would lead somewhere. With Saint-Almont introduced as obviously heterosexual -- it was a failed love for a woman that led him to renounce the worldly life --, Agatha must have realized from the beginning that offering herself up as a man could only get her so far. (Presumably, at first, that was sufficient: like the star-struck teenager, she was happy just to idolize the object of her affections; but eventually, the impossibility of their being together kills her.)
       At barely more than fifty pages, The Woman Priest is a short, packed novel, an impatient writer(-of-ideas)' work. Parts, including the summary resolution, read almost like an outline -- but Maréchal has enough of a good story here that one is willing to make allowances for many of the flaws.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 May 2017

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The Woman Priest: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Sylvain Maréchal lived 1750 to 1803.

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