Mary Gordon is probably the first who comes to mind when I think of women writers writing fiction about women self-identifying in relation to their children, mothers, and lovers. See her haunting Pearl, for example, or the three novellas published together as The Rest of Life, which I’m currently reading. So it’s not surprising to see her weigh in on Colm Toibin’s new novella, The Testament of Mary, which presents a new perspective on the life of Jesus’ mother—perhaps the most universally honored while simultaneously subjugated woman in history.
In her New York Times review, Gordon gives Toibin credit for tackling the trickiest of assignments:
The writer who assumes the task of making a fictional character of someone whose life took place in history faces particular challenges. When the character’s life is a part of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the ante goes way up.
But perhaps it’s a worthy challenge. Because the Mary who’s been handed down century by century has an emotional profile as veiled and shapeless as her ubiquitous statue:
Mary, the mother of Jesus, has given Christianity a good name. None of the negatives that have made Christianity a byword for tyranny, cruelty and licensed hatred have attached to her. She has been free for centuries of the “blame Mom” syndrome, representing endless patience, loving kindness, mercy, succor, recourse.
This sentimental view does injustice to her as a whole person, a woman, and a mother, and has turned her—in the hands of more than a few powerful abusers—into “a stick with which to beat independent women.”
So while many will label Toibin’s novella sacrilegious (and will do so without reading it), Gordon praises it as a “beautiful and daring work” that avoids “the swampy terrain of sentimentality” by presenting Mary as a grieving mother, both victim and fighter. Rather than a girl quietly accepting her fate, she is a wounded woman straining to make herself heard against overpowering male voices.
In Toibin’s telling, these oppressors are the gospel writers interviewing/persuading her as they craft their narratives for the purposes of their own legacies. This notion of Mary at odds with the Evangelists resonates as both obvious in the world of her day and yet completely fresh in terms of the historical tradition.
Considering the significant, if sanitized, role Mary has played in the Christian tradition, it is surprising how little about her is recorded in the New Testament. Jaroslav Pelikan, in his Mary Through the Centuries, gives some attention to the question of how much of Mary’s perspective may or may not have been captured in the gospels. The gospel of Luke in particular claims to be based on eyewitness testimony. Was any of this the testament of Mary? Pelikan notes of the first few chapters of Luke that, in addition to seeming to present her vantage point, the Greek appears to be a translation of Aramaic instead of the Attic used throughout the rest of Luke’s writings, leading some early Christian writers “to characterize the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel as the memoirs of the Virgin Mary—a characterization that has not commended itself to the historical-critical study of the Gospels.”
In their own accounts, the gospel writers admit that they discounted the testimony of the women at the open tomb, so it seems unlikely that Mary’s point of view would have held considerable weight with the men who were concerned with documenting their own relationships with Jesus and each other in the wake of such violent events. But failing to seek out and record her perspective is not the same thing as actively suppressing her articulated thoughts. Given the condition of women in the Roman world of the first century (and in nearly every century before and after), it is certainly a strong possibility that the little we have of her perspective is not her perspective at all—but we’ll probably never know.
This makes Toibin’s attempt to ground her story in the full range of human emotion and historical possibility—rather than simply accepting the sanitized tradition—most intriguing, and has me looking forward to reading it.
Toibin’s The Testament of Mary releases tomorrow (November 13) by Scribner. Read Gordon’s full review at The New York Times.