by Vida D. Scudder. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. (An Atlantic Monthly Press Publication.) 1927. ]2mo. xii + 334 pp. $2.50.
PRESS seventh centenary of Saint Francis has been marked by a realization of how contemporary the Little Poor Man really is. Into a world bored like ours he came with a solution to life’s problems startlingly simple, with a new-old key to joy. Within the near past there have appeared some excellent new interpretations of the Little Brother. Many people have hoped that Miss Scudder, whose mind and heart have long been given to Franciscan research and meditation, would at this time share the results of her study. In Brother John she has dealt, not with the Saint himself, but with the equally interesting subject of what to do with him once he had lived and laughed and learned on La Verna that love means crucifixion.
Through the eyes of John of England, called, as was Francis himself, from luxury and position to wed Lady Poverty, we see the early Franciscans struggling to reconcile the Religion with the world as it is; endangered on the one hand by fanatic mendicancy and on the other by such surrender to order and communal possession as threatened to destroy libertà francescana. After long struggle John himself espouses the cause of the Spirituals or Strict Observers, undoubtedly what Francis himself intended; but he has sympathy enough to understand the arguments of those who would surrender something of the freedom of absolute poverty for the pursuit of learning, like Bonaventure and Roger Bacon, and of those who, like Pope Gregory, sought by regularizing the Order to make it more immediately serve the Church. The author presents to us a large gallery of thirteenth-century people. They are strongly pictured; no mere names. We see them as real men. Oddly only John himself seems colorless, scarcely more than a mirror for other portraits and a mouthpiece of ideas. Nor, despite the fact that she knows her Umbria, has Miss Scudder made her pictured places very vivid.
However, it is not with characterization or description that the author is chiefly concerned, but with spiritual conflicts. In presenting these she is peculiarly successful. Here we have no romance less than that of souls in basic travail, something hard to write about without either sentimentality or dullness. Avoiding both, she has told a story so interesting that even one used only to more obvious problems will find himself loath to put the book by. This is due not merely to the writer’s skill but also to the immediacy of the conflict. How to reconcile the service of God with possession and power, how to be free to love and yet constrained in love — these are dilemmas every man’s to face. In these early Franciscan days they constitute vivid drama.
Miss Scudder’s style is appropriate: direct, honest, and, if one may venture to say so, unfeminine. One feels that she understands Francis better than she might comprehend Sister Clare.
It is not often that American novelists have dared to deal with basic spiritual problems. This book is for those who welcome a realism of the soul.