Like a frosty glass of lemonade, iced tea, or beer on a sultry summer afternoon, Bruce Marshall’s perfect little novel The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith delights, pleases, relaxes, and satisfies.
Yet there’s more, for along with all that comes hilarious satire, spiritual richness, and much food for thought.
Written in the early 1940s and set in a Scottish city, this poignant story juxtaposes gentle Father Smith’s humility, goodness, orthodoxy, and wisdom against a world gone astray that is surprisingly like our own in many ways. Father Smith gets it just right: “It’s what I call the new hypocrisy. In the old days people pretended to be better than they were, but now they pretend to be worse. In the old days a man said that he went to church on Sundays even if he didn’t, but now he says he plays golf and would be very distressed if his men friends found out that he really went to church.”
In a style reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, Marshall weaves three decades of the lives and occasional deaths of both Catholic and Protestant clergy, exiled French nuns, and his parishioners — mostly poor but including a Hollywood movie actress and upper-crust Lady Ippecacuanha. Father Smith explains to Lady Ippecacuanha, who has been offended by the sight of ragged scruffy children from the parish school, “In this country the Church is the Church of the poor, and on the whole I’m not sorry, since it tends to keep both clergy and people in the invigorating and spiritual and material conditions of primitive Christianity.”
Although now largely forgotten, Marshall’s books were popular in his time. His 40 novels were published between 1924 and 1988; his final novel, An Account of Capers, appeared a year after Marshall’s death in 1987. His books were favorably reviewed in major publications in the United States and in Europe. Also known under the title All Glorious Within, Father Smith was produced as an Armed Services Edition during World War II. It and Vespers in Vienna were chosen as selections for the Book of the Month Club in the United States. In 1949, Vespers in Vienna was retitled The Red Danube and made into a motion picture by MGM. Marshall’s two non-fiction books, The White Rabbit, the engrossing true story of British secret agent Wing Commander F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas’s exploits and suffering while in the Resistance during World War II, and Thoughts of My Cats, an altogether charming glimpse into the Marshall family’s domestic life in Paris, were also well received.
Marshall’s best-known novel, the delicious fantasy Father Malachy’s Miracle, still in print, has been widely praised. Like The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith, it presents a holy priest battling the evils of modernity, although it lacks some of the sweetness and warmth of Father Smith. Yet, like Father Smith, what remains at book’s end is the soothing voice of Father Malachy’s adamantine Catholicism whispering to his reader to follow his example of faith and obedience.
A convert to the Faith, Bruce Marshall was Catholic to the red bone. The hero of both The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith and Father Malachy’s Miracle is unquestionably God, and the heroine clearly the Catholic Church, something that can be said of all Marshall’s novels.
Humble priests like Father Smith and Father Malachy figure in A Thread of Scarlet, Father Hilary’s Holiday, and The Month of the Falling Leaves. In Vespers in Vienna, about Allied troops quartered in a convent, it is spunky Reverend Mother Auxilia who insists that “…old truths require a Church and a hierarchy to keep them the same truths as when they were first revealed to man by God.” Even in The Accounting, possibly the most secular of Marshall’s novels, there is one Catholic character whose faith survives his worldly surroundings. Marshall describes the man as he leaves the confessional:
Out in the street men’s faces were what they had done to life, but even as he watched their ugliness Wormit managed to smile…he suddenly felt happier than ever in his life before: he was once more going to be able to get on with the hard boring exciting grind of being a daily Christian.
Marshall’s writing is always interesting, and occasionally even poetic. For example, in Vespers in Vienna, he writes,
Down at the far end of the train somebody began to sing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. The hymn rose in hope and fell in blessing upon the snow and the empty starless night and the three dead men lying on the platform and the priest walking up and down, A little girl of five or six was also walking up and down the platform now with her mother holding her hand, and the sound of the hymn blessed her too, because she was a little girl at Christmas.
Or, in Father Malachy’s Miracle, Father says,
The ways of Almighty God are delicate, aren’t they? I often think that the world is like the shroud which wrapped Our Lord’s Body when It was laid in the tomb: it bears His imprint in every mountain and valley.
Born and educated in Scotland, Marshall served in the British military during World War I. Injuries resulting in the amputation of one leg led to his leaving the service in 1920. He studied accounting and moved to Paris where he worked as an auditor. After the 1940 invasion of France he returned to England, rejoined the military, and served until the end of World War II. He returned to France, where he spent the remainder of his life. Both his accounting work and his military experience figure heavily in most of his novels.
In the 1920s, when Marshall began publishing, religion had often been ostracized from fiction or else it was included only in order to be blasphemed. With love, sensitivity, and the determination to spread the truths of his Catholic faith, he bravely defied that tradition. In our day, when Catholic readers hunger for good stories undergirded by a Christian worldview, Bruce Marshall’s humble priests are examples of how one novelist succeeded in writing books that delight and entertain while also offering a beautiful message of faith and hope.
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