She met Augustine in Carthage when she was seventeen. She was the poor daughter of a mosaic-layer; he was a promising student and heir to a fortune. His brilliance and passion intoxicated her, but his social class would be forever beyond her reach. She became his concubine, and by the time he was forced to leave her, she was thirty years old and the mother of his son. And his Confessions show us that he never forgot her. She was the only woman he ever loved.
In a society in which classes rarely mingle on equal terms, and an unwed mother can lose her son to the burgeoning career of her ambitious lover, this anonymous woman was a first-hand witness to Augustine’s anguished spiritual journey from secretive religious cultist to the celebrated Bishop of Hippo.
Giving voice to one of history’s most mysterious women, The Confessions of X tells the story of Augustine of Hippo’s nameless lover, their relationship before his famous conversion, and her life after his rise to fame. A tale of womanhood, faith, and class at the end of antiquity, The Confessions of X is more than historical fiction . . . it is a timeless story of love and loss in the shadow of a theological giant.
He flung down his pen, pulled me to him, and buried his face in my hair, his favorite position when we were alone and sitting side by side. I could feel his weariness in the tension of his body.
I read aloud a few sentences of what he had written.
” ‘ What then is beauty and in what does it consist? What is it that attracts us and makes us love it? Unless there be beauty and grace in those things, they would be powerless to win our hearts.’
“The yeast in the bread,” I murmured, almost to myself.
Augustine raised his head from my neck. “What did you just say?”
I repeated it.
He frowned. “Explain.”
I smiled inwardly, for I had heard him use the same tone when Nebridius said something that puzzled him but piqued his interest.
“I mean,” I said, “that the Manichees are wrong when they say the material form is a cage in which the soul is trapped like a bird beating its wings against the bars. Beauty or soul, it seems to me, is more like yeast in bread. When I bake bread I mix it into the flour and the dough rises, but if I cut the bread I can’t find the yeast like some lump in the middle. It’s mixed right through because it is the bread. Ergo . . .”
Augustine had taught me this term and I was quite proud of using it, especially when I saw him blink.
“Beauty and form,” I went on, “soul and flesh cannot be divided except perhaps by death. As you say, it is the form that draws our love but that form is indistinguishable from the beauty. Or rather, it is the beauty.”
I felt a little breathless after this speech and a little ridiculous. He was the teacher, after all. Touching his face, I felt the roughness of his unshaven jaw, smoothed my thumb over the dark circles under his eyes. “I do not love merely your body nor do I merely love your soul. I love them both but not as halves of one whole, but one whole itself, as yeast and bread are one loaf. Both are you. Both are Augustine.”
He was looking at me in a way I could not interpret and then he threw back his head and laughed, so long and so loudly I feared Adeodatus would waken in the next room.
“I don’t believe it,” he said at last, wiping tears from his eyes.
“It makes no sense?” I asked.
“On the contrary,” he said. “It makes perfect sense. Your analogies have taught me more than all the philosophers put together, including Cicero.”
“I think best in pictures,” I said.
This is one of the most stunningly beautiful novels I have ever had the privilege to read, and yet I also found it one of the most tragic. I read Augustine’s Confessions a few years ago so I was aware that he had a ‘mistress’, as she was referred to in my translation, however beyond that I knew little of their relationship. The moment I saw the cover of this book I wanted to read it, and my expectations were surpassed in every sense.
Straight up I must pay tribute to the poetry of Suzanne Wolfe’s writing. One of the reasons I have become an ebook reader is that I like to highlight passages that I want to remember – either for the purposes of my reviews, or simply because the writing speaks to me in some way. My copy is now riddled with highlights. For example: “Augustine carried my basket and we walked side by side, close but not touching, the space between us not so much a void than a drawing in of breath before words are spoken.” On the birth of her son, X becomes “drunk on looking, as if to stamp each nail, each eyelash, each perfect part so miniature, so complete, this masterpiece of flesh and bone and sinew, blood and pumping valve into my heart’s soft wax forever.” I was a little intoxicated myself!
As for the story, I had not realised that they were together for long or so deeply committed to one another, and so it was a pleasant surprise to find that approximately two-thirds of the novel dealt with this time in their lives. After an introductory chapter where X, as an elderly woman, reflects on her life (we are never given her name, although she is occasionally referred to by the monikers ‘naiad’ and ‘Little Bird’), we have a few chapters that give a general account of her childhood up until she meets Augustine. The two connect almost instantly, and although Augustine wishes to marry X he knows his family would never permit it. As a younger son he will inherit nothing and needs to make his own way in the world, and to do so successfully he is expected to marry – and marry well. X is merely the daughter of a mosaic artist. Nevertheless, he offers X his love and fidelity and she, in turn, would prefer to be his common-law wife rather than another man’s legally recognised wife. Their intentions stated before God, X accepts Augustine’s citizen ring, and they begin their life together.
Although life was not without its difficulties, there was such beauty in their love for one another and in the fullness of their experiences that I simply could not put the book down. By the time I reached the end my heart had broken for X and Augustine. I sobbed – puffy eyes, stuffed nose, the works! I will not share the details of how their story plays out here, despite the general outcome being a matter of historical knowledge, but I felt like railing against a world that, even now, continues to believe that civil authorities and churches can dictate the parameters and requirements for marriage.
I may be in the minority in my opinion, and we cannot know exactly what took place historically, but I did not see anything immoral in the relationship as it was presented in this novel. Their marriage may not have been recognized by either state or church, but that does not necessarily mean they were not married before God. Of course, this is where the greatest tragedy comes in, because even today their relationship is most often as described as illicit, immoral, etc, when perhaps it was merely lacking legality and social acceptance. And if that is the case, then what a travesty, that such a beautiful union was sacrificed on the altar of man’s requirements.
This novel will stay with me for a long time. I am even inspired to pull out Augustine’s Confessions again and learn to more of the historical basis for this story. This one’s definitely going ‘straight to the pool room‘.
I received a complimentary copy of this novel through BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.
Release date: 26 January 2016
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Author’s website: http://www.suzannemwolfe.com/