The Maiden of All Our Desires, by Peter Manseau, takes place in a remote convent in northern England, twenty-odd years after the Black Death burned through Europe. I deliberately pulled this book out of my to-read pile this weekend because I wanted to see two back-to-back depictions of monastic life, in two different religious traditions, after reading When I’m Gone, Look For Me in the East. I wanted to see what was similar and what was different. It was fascinating, even if neither author was aware of my serendipitous experiment.
In medieval Europe, women had few choices in life and, in the opening chapters of The Maiden of All Our Desires, we see some of those few choices taken away from some of our female protagonists. One is forced into marriage before she manages to wrangle herself into the convent. Some are pushed into the convent because of their bad behavior. One is born in the convent and doesn’t see any other future for herself. Men don’t have much choice either, especially when they get on the wrong side of the bishop.
The novel circles around three characters. Mother John is the elderly head of the convent and is heading pretty firmly into feminist, mystical, heretical territory. Father Francis is the convent’s confessor and is in permanent exile from civilization. And there’s Sister Magdalene, who was born at the convent, seems perfectly content with her life. The descriptions of The Maiden of All Our Desires say that the plot plays out over one day during a blizzard, but there are frequent flashbacks that explain how everyone ended up where they are.
What interested me most about this book—and this might be because I just read When I’m Gone, Look For Me in the East—was how each character viewed their faith. Father Francis only ended up a priest because he was good at numbers and because he didn’t quite have his family’s knack for lifelike woodcarving. Mother John is a true believer, although she seems to have more faith in the former abbess and founder of the convent. Magdalene is somewhere in between. On the one hand, she’s never had a chance to live any other life. On the other, she seems to find real comfort in the daily offices and prayers. Doubt is not so much the issue in this book, as it was in Barry’s. Instead, the issue seems to be orthodoxy versus heterodoxy, in a world where there’s no room for anything other than following orders.
The Maiden of All Our Desires was an engaging read, full of great characters and the kind of intertwining plots and subplots I enjoy. I really enjoyed this original take on religious (and not-so-religious) life in the wake of the Black Death.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.