Felicitas Maria Taylor was brought up in a cocoon, raised by five devoutly religious women. The death of her father while she was still a baby has caused her to seek out the extreme in men, and that is what she finds in Father Cyprian, a priest whom Felicitas visits during summers in upstate New York. The charismatic Cyprian fosters the young girl’s gifts and intelligence, but, no lover of worldly things, he demands a severe loyalty.
When Felicitas comes of age and begins her studies at Columbia, everything seems poised to change. At the university, she falls under the spell of another domineering man—a professor surrounded by young activist acolytes—and this time, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The Company of Women is a story of dangerous attachments and challenged faith—and of finding an endurable future.
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About the Author
With the The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father (1996), Gordon turned her attention to her own family, examining the mysterious and complicated life of her father, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who died when she was seven, leaving behind a web of lies and half-truths about his past.
Gordon is also the author of three novellas, collected in The Rest of Life; a book of short stories called Temporary Shelter (1987); and two collections of essays, Good Boys and Dead Girls (1992) and Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity (2003). In 2000, she published a biography of Joan of Arc.
She has received the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is also a three-time recipient of the O. Henry Award for best short story. The Company of Women was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1983.
Gordon currently teaches literature and writing at Barnard College.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:December 8, 1949
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:A.B., Barnard College, 1971; M.A., Syracuse University, 1973
Read an Excerpt
The Company of Women
By Mary Gordon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Mary Gordon
All rights reserved.
Felicitas Maria Taylor was called after the one virgin martyr whose name contained some hope for ordinary human happiness. This joke was made for the first time at Felicitas' baptism in May of 1949 by one of her three godmothers. There were three because Felicitas' mother could not decide among her friends. So great an honor did Charlotte Taylor consider it that she could not bear to deprive any of the three women she deeply loved of the privilege of being godmother to her child. The pastor would permit only one female sponsor's name on the baptismal certificate, so Charlotte made the women draw straws. Clare, who drew the longest straw, signed her name to the certificate. But Father Cyprian Leonard, who performed the actual ceremony, allowed Elizabeth and Mary Rose and Clare to stand together at the font with Charlotte's brother Jack and make the responses. Which was Cyp all over, Charlotte said.
It was because of Father Cyprian that Charlotte, Clare, Elizabeth and Mary Rose had met, in 1932, when he had inaugurated the first of his series of weekend retreats for working women. One Friday evening a month, these women came from their jobs to the silent convent of Our Lady of Sorrows to pray in silence, to be served by silent nuns and to listen to the sermons and confessional advice of Father Cyprian. Charlotte took the train from Brooklyn, where she worked as a secretary in the insurance firm of Tom O'Brien; Elizabeth, who had been genteelly raised in New Orleans, but whose husband had lost all his money because of drink, walked from whatever elementary school she was, at the time, teaching at: she could not bear buses or trains. Clare took a taxi from Madison Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, where she now managed what had been her father's store, one of the finest leather-goods establishments in New York City. Mary Rose took the Broadway bus; she was an usher at a movie theater on Broadway and Forty-third Street. And Muriel Fisher, who looked after her mother and took in typing, came down from Worcester, Massachusetts. She had met Father Cyprian when he preached a mission in her parish. She was never one of them.
They attended Father Cyprian's retreat every month from 1932 until the war, when Father Cyprian became a chaplain. After the war, the retreat movement seemed to fade. But the women saw one another often, even after Charlotte's marriage to Frank Taylor in June 1946, and they never lost touch with Father Cyprian. When he left the Paracletists and became a secular priest, they could, for four years, only write to him—out west or up in Canada. But in 1959, he settled in the western New York town of Orano, where he had been born. He lived in a furnished room and filled in for priests who were sick or on vacation. Then in June 1963, he bought the piece of land where his parents' home had been and began to build his own house on it.
Every summer since 1959, for the first three weeks of August, Charlotte, who had been widowed six months after her child's birth, took Felicitas and traveled to Orano with Elizabeth and Clare and Mary Rose. They stayed in a motel and visited Father Cyprian. Muriel, who had been on her own since her mother died in 1957, spent the warm part of the year—May through November—in Orano. She had a room in a tourist house where the landlady remembered Father Cyprian as a boy.
Each time she went to mass, Felicitas heard her name read during the part of the canon where the prayers of virgin martyrs were invoked: Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Cecilia, Anastasia. She was glad she had not been called Perpetua—it suggested a doggy patience; Agatha meant inevitable spinsterhood; and Cecilia was shanty Irish. She could have done something with Lucy, but it was the loss of Anastasia she most regretted. She thought of Ingrid Bergman. She thought of the Russian crown jewels. From the time she was twelve to the time she was fourteen, her favorite books were Jane Eyre and Ardeth Wilson, Flight Nurse. In both books, the women ended up with the men they had always loved, who, having begun by being fierce and resisting, ended up faithful, humbled, maimed.
Felicitas lied to her friends about the way she spent her summers. She knew it was very odd. Nearly everything about her family was odd, but her friends didn't have to know it. She could keep the truth from them as she could keep them from her house. She could say to them, 'My mother works,' and they would understand that they couldn't come over. To have a working mother was slightly dangerous in 1963. None of Felicitas' friends' mothers worked, and Felicitas stressed the danger; she had made her friends afraid to see the inside of her house. She did not know what they imagined, but she knew that it was some horror. Charlotte never thought to ask Felicitas why she never brought her friends home. She never thought of Felicitas as having friends her own age. For Charlotte, her friends were her daughter's.
Every year in May, Felicitas began lying about the summer. When she was smaller, she did not have to lie because she spoke to no one. But now she had friends. And her friends would have thought it a very odd way to spend the summer. They would not have wanted to be her friends anymore.
She had thought of making a joke of it, saying, 'God, I'm trapped. I have to go away to this crazy place in the country with my mother's old-fart friends and this priest who's off his rocker.' She could have tapped her forehead as she spoke, indicating insanity. But she did not want to make fun of Father Cyprian, even to amuse her friends.
There was no one she could tell about Father Cyprian. It would have been death to her to go a year without seeing him. But how could she say to her friends that the deepest pleasure of her life was riding to the six o'clock mass alone with Father Cyprian in the front of his red pickup? The light then made her see the world as fragile and beautiful. And there was the other light that came through the windows—always of a different church, for Father Cyprian belonged to no one parish—the light she sat in, praying, with his back to her in his beautiful vestments—grass green for the feria, blue for feasts of Our Lady. She wanted always to be there kneeling, looking at his black shoes below the black cuffs of his trousers and the long white alb. They were serious and blessed and devotional. They were at the center of things. God was that: nothing not vital. She wanted Him to come to her. She wanted to take in God. 'Domine, non sum dignus.' She said the prayer but did not mean it. She believed she was worthy. Her soul she saw as glass filled with sky or water, as beautiful, as light, as silvery and as important. That was her soul, light let through some transparent thing, cool light refreshed by water. The side of God apart from punishment or care. The God that breathed, breathed over all. The thin, transparent God that barely left a shadow. She watched the feet of Father Cyprian as she opened her mouth. She prayed in her soul for light, a life of light, a life essential as those shoes, as serious.
How could she tell all that to her friends, who were interested that year in TV doctors?
She was always the one who rode in the pickup with Father Cyprian. This annoyed Muriel Fisher. As she climbed in, Felicitas could see Muriel's face. She was smiling that fake smile again.
Muriel smiled because you were supposed to smile at children if you didn't have any. But she had never liked Felicitas, not since she discovered that she was the only one of the women who had not been asked to be her godmother. She had not even been invited to the baptism. But she believed she had hidden her feelings. One had to in her position or risk being called sour. All those names for the spirit taken from food or drink: dryness, bitterness, sourness. And the sweetness that is God. Dry, bitter, sour, as if the soul were curds left out or vinegar. What was it that she lacked that she could not name but must pray for? In confession he warned her of it, and on their walks. Then she grew bitter when he warned her of bitterness: 'Sarah was called mocking.' She thought at such times of Sarah, wife to the patriarch, whose womb was barren but who conceived in her great age. 'It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women,' Muriel would think, watching him and the child drive away.
After the manner of women. It was blood they meant when they said women. She could imagine in her body a dry clot of blood, like the juice on the plate around meat that had been left out. Change of life. Her life had not changed. Dry, bitter, sour. But she, living with her mother, taking in typing for the priests at the college, was fired by love, brushed through with fire, violent. He said, 'I warn you of these things, these small imperfections, because I know you to be an extraordinary soul.' Where, then, was bitterness in her, and dryness, and the sourness that was the smell only of exhaustion? Her soul was brushed, clean, warm, sweet. A small house. His house. The house she would make for him. She would die for him. They would die together.
She did not love the child.
But he must not know that. The one time she had said anything—'It isn't good for her, all that attention. You spoil her. She'll expect that from life. I only say it for her own good. She's bound to be disappointed. No one will ever talk to her again like that, as you do'—he had simply replied, 'She is our only hope.'
She knew what he meant. She knew he was right to say it. They would die, and only one of them would leave a child. The coarsest of them, of all their souls the least extraordinary: Charlotte. A good soul, said Father. What was it a man wanted with her? White skin, teeth. Breasts for what? Big bolsters, pillows for some head. The man's head. But the man was dead, and there was only the child. Their only hope.
Muriel had never, in the long, rich catalog of her envies, envied the offspring of anyone until she had seen that the trick impressed him: the trick of a child, that child, who need do nothing to be loved, while she, Muriel, studied, thought, refined herself to a thin white slice of moon so that her love for him would be what he most admired: cold, the love of the spirit, knife-sharp, always on the verge of disappearing.
Charlotte thought privately that Muriel could be called scrupulous. Of all the girls, Muriel took the longest in confession. 'What the hell does she have to say that's so goddamn interesting?' said Charlotte to Elizabeth, itchy in her pew. 'What the hell does she do up there in Worcester?'
Between Charlotte and Muriel now there was enmity, for Charlotte, the only one of them who was a creature of instinct, perceived danger in Muriel's hatred for her child.
In her pew, Charlotte told Elizabeth all the Philadelphia jokes she could remember, substituting the name Worcester. 'Two guys were in a boxing match. The winner got a week in Worcester. The loser got two weeks in Worcester.'
Elizabeth loved jokes but could never remember them. She shook with laughter, kneeling, preparing for the sacrament. Of all women, she loved Charlotte best; of all loves, her love for Charlotte was the least frail. Charlotte, oldest of thirteen children, brooked no nonsense from the world. She paid all Elizabeth's bills; Elizabeth had only to sign the checks. Once during the Depression, Charlotte was at Elizabeth's house, having breakfast in her nightgown. A bill collector came to the door. Elizabeth, the daughter of a lady and a gentleman, dressed before breakfast in a suit, stockings and high heels, could not speak for shame at the man who chomped his cigar in her living room and would not remove his hat.
'Take off your hat. You're in the presence of ladies,' said Charlotte, five ten in her slippers.
'This lady is up to her neck in debt,' said the bill collector, taking off his hat.
'Talk to me about it. I represent her attorney,' said Charlotte.
It turned out that Elizabeth had not paid her bills because she could not. Elizabeth's husband had left her. In the twenties, when he had money, he had given her perfumed cigarettes, stockings with her name embroidered at the top. In the thirties, broke, he drank and wept and left her with a little boy of five who everyone could tell would die young. Taking nothing, he had left a note on the table, which said, 'My dear, it is simply better this way.'
'What the hell is better about it?' said Charlotte, whom Elizabeth had called and asked to come along. 'You'll stay up nights wondering. And God knows you need your sleep, you of all people. And I know you, you'll stop eating.'
She had not been able to pay her bills not only because they were for more money than she had but also because she did not know how to. When Charlotte had made the bill collector leave, she said to Elizabeth, 'Let's see 'em.'
Meaning the bills.
Elizabeth turned, silent and ashamed, to her mother's dresser, where she kept the bills in a locked drawer. She gave them to Charlotte, unopened.
'Why didn't you open them?' asked Charlotte, chewing on her pen. Her energy made Elizabeth weep, for she knew she was all wrong, purely wrong. Her husband had left her, her child was dying and she could not open her bills.
'Why didn't you open them?' repeated Charlotte.
'I didn't know what to do with them.'
Elizabeth began to sob, for the pure, infantile shame of it. Charlotte was opening the envelopes with a fruit knife. She looked up, pushing her glasses onto the top of her head.
'Don't act like a goddamn fool. You're a schoolteacher.'
Even now, Elizabeth did not know why that sentence had stopped her fear. Perhaps it was that the sight of Charlotte adding numbers in columns was the visible sign of her faith, taking chaos, taking fear and shaping them with fingers that did not taper, did not curve. It was the perfect simplicity of the one round number that Charlotte created out of the slime of those bills that was a miracle to her. She could have knelt before her friend. She could believe her capable of cures. And her signature on the loan, co-signer, was the promise of salvation: the round, open vowels of the name that promised ruin would not cover her, she would not drown.
They all took care of their mothers and did not know about men, thought Elizabeth, laughing at old jokes in gratitude for her friend's rescue thirty years ago. Charlotte did and she did, which made them different, which set them apart. Not that they ever spoke of it, not that it ever interested them, all that, as Charlotte would have called it. Still, it was something they knew that the rest of them did not.
Muriel had tried to win Elizabeth, knowing her love of quiet, for which Charlotte had no gift. She would suggest walks, for which Charlotte had no gift. She stayed for months with Father Cyprian, and Elizabeth understood Muriel's look when all of them drove up, Charlotte and Clare and Mary Rose and the child (the child that Elizabeth loved as she had loved her own dead boy). It was the look of the victim of a robbery—all she treasured was exposed, divided, her great stone cut. But Elizabeth could also feel the bitterness, the styptic heart of Muriel that contracted at the sight of the child.
It was strange where life took you, thought Elizabeth, watching Felicitas and Father Cyprian drive away in the red pickup. She thought of herself at Felicitas' age, a Catholic girl in New Orleans. She understood what Felicitas felt driving in the truck with Cyprian: the extreme honor, the hard, durable pride of such company. That she had had with her father, walking along the streets with him, the Southern streets of Catholic New Orleans, where her father tipped his beautiful hat, his perfect straw hat, to ladies. That was the seat of all her romance: to be so deeply honored by the proximity of such a man, a hero, a gentleman.
'Gentlemen bear burdens ladies do not know,' her mother had said. And yet her mother had hated her father, had driven him to the high room he lived in, in the boardinghouse run by the woman who was not a lady, whom he did not wish Elizabeth to see. Only once did she see that room, and then she saw what would be to her always the image of male loneliness: her father's two military brushes on his bare deal dresser. That was grand, that was honorable, that solitariness. There was something in men one could not touch, despite the attempts that women made with their clean, warm houses, their protecting furniture, their beds and open bodies. In a man who was a gentleman there was still a solitariness they could not touch. And Elizabeth saw what Muriel did not see: she could not comfort Cyprian, because Cyprian was a gentleman.
Excerpted from The Company of Women by Mary Gordon. Copyright © 1980 Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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