I read Madeleine L’Engle’s The Love Letters as part of Semicolon‘s Biblically Literate Book Club. This book was February’s selection, and I finished it last night – a few days late. The Love Letters took a while to grab me, but once it did, I was hooked and couldn’t put it down. In fact, I stayed up too late last night finishing it and am really wishing I hadn’t given up caffeine.
In The Love Letters, the stories of two women are told, the women very different, but both dealing with issues of fidelity and faithfulness, as well as grief and loss. Charlotte, a “modern” woman (the novel was written in the ’60s) has run away to Portugal, to her mother-in-law’s villa, to deal with questions concerning her marriage. Mariana Alcoforado, a 17th century Portugese nun, has fallen in love with a French soldier, and her actions have brought devastation upon the convent.
In Charlotte’s story, the action mostly takes place in Charlotte’s mind, as she remembers her childhood, her marriage to Patrick, and the devastating events that have been the cause of her running away from her husband. Through her reading of Mariana’s letters to her French lover, her conversations with her mother-in-law, Violet, and Violet’s doctor, Charlotte wrestles with the issue of vows. What do marriage vows mean? When, if ever, is it okay to abandon those vows? Who do the vows bind one to – one’s spouse, or God?
Mariana also wrestles with the burden of her vows, vows that as a second daughter with no dowry she had no choice but to make. Are her vows to God any less binding because she had no choice but to make them? As vows become more difficult to keep, do they become more necessary to keep?
L’Engle slowly unwraps each woman’s story, intertwining them in such a way that there were times at the beginning of the book when I was unsure which story was being told. I think this confusion at the beginning was part of the reason that it took a while for me to be drawn in. Don’t let that keep you from reading it, however; this book has much to say about the nature of love and fidelity.
4 out of 5 stars
For more reviews and links about this book, check out Sherry’s review.
A few passages I want to remember:
“…I must not forget that to think that chastity and sex are opposites is a blind mistake. A wife refusing her husband relations because she is angry or wants her own way about something is being just as unchaste as a prostitute, because she is equally prostituting the meaning of love. In the same way a prude rejecting sex as being vile is being unchaste. But this all must be seen in a Christian framework, Cotty. There are no new morals. There never has been. There never will be.” ~p. 170
“Were you lonely when – your wife was alive?”
A feeling of tension came into the room, but his voice, as always, was courteous, controlled. “It was easier to bear. That’s all.”
“Then – ” she said eagerly, “then maybe that’s what I mean. It’s – I can’t bear the loneliness right now. I’m torn in two by it.”
He covered her hand with his. The nails were ridged, a little horny, cut short, immaculately clean. The touch of skin felt warm and vital. “But nobody can bear it for you,” he told her. “Even when you love, and are loved, you have to bear it yourself.”
“But when you’re loved it’s easier. You said it yourself.”
“Charlotte. Dear Charlotte. Yes. In a sense you’re right. But easiness has never been a criterion of value.”
Now she could not restrain herself. She sat upright. “So, because it makes things easier, you’re devaluing love?”
He brought both hands down in a definite gesture on his knees. “Not in the least. Its value is so high that it cannot be estimated. And there is nothing easy about it.” ~ p. 171-172
“Love is a four-letter-word. And you, having been wrapped in the cotton wool of those damn convent schools all your life, know nothing about four-letter-words. Love is the wildest one of them all. We take it and we separate it and we are too cowardly to accept the violence of the union of all its parts. And a marriage that is a marriage has to accept this fusion. It has to be done, Charlotte. It cannot be evaded. I have been a coward all my life about love. You might as well face that about me. I do not like admitting it, but it is a fact. All I have been willing to accept in my relations with men is passion. Passion is part of a marriage, and a necessary part, but it does not endure unless it is sustained by a foundation of love that is – ”
“That is what?”
Violet sighed, deeply, sadly, took a long draught of wine. “Endurance, for one thing. Acceptance. All people are impossible to live with, don’t you know that? You are impossible – ”
“I know -”
“Hush. Patrick is impossible. So what a marriage is founded on is a commitment to this impossible. You make promises when you get married and you stand by them. You stand by them no matter what. You stand by them even if you have broken them. And you break them over and over again, in intention, if not in act. And it doesn’t matter. You still stand by them. ~ p. 253-254
“Sometimes we Christians tend to magnify men’s sins whereas we should magnify God’s forgiveness.” ~ p. 267