Imagine an America rife with racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, religious profiling, fire-and-brimstone preachers and misogyny. Sound familiar? We’re talking about the 1850s, of course. You knew that. Even if you didn’t, that’s the context for Susan Storer Clark’s debut novel, “The Monk Woman’s Daughter.”
In the mid-19th century, it wasn’t the Muslims who were being picked on — it was the Catholics, Irish immigrant Catholics in particular. The potato famine in Ireland — the product of heartless austerity by the English ruling class — had forced the emigration of millions of Irish. Many ended up in the United States, and they were met by a virulent anti-Catholicism, including a movement (the “Know Nothings”) that sounds like a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan.
In the midst of this was published a best-selling autobiography — “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk” — which purported to expose appalling sexual practices of priests victimizing nuns and killing the resulting babies. The real Maria Monk may have been as much a victim of Protestant preachers as of the Catholic Church, but she did have a couple of children — daughters — out of wedlock in a U.S. where women had few rights and “bastard” girls even fewer. Clark has elected, as she puts it, to “give a life” to one of these girls, in the process painting a vivid picture of America in a period of major transition.
From the farms of Flatbush (now part of Brooklyn) to the haberdasheries of Manhattan, and south to the railroad yards of Baltimore and the mud streets of Washington City (D.C.), Clark portrays an America undergoing a rapid industrial change, and struggling to reconcile the stated ideals of the country with the facts of slavery, wage exploitation, strong class divisions, and relegation of women to a second-class status. Major issues were in play, including whether the U.S. was intended to be a Protestant country (some argued that Catholicism is incompatible with democracy) and, of course, the appalling practice of slavery. The issues weren’t just fought out in Congress or legislatures; gangs with opposing political views fought in the streets and mob violence often climaxed with murder and arson against oppressed groups.
Clark skillfully uses the details of place and dress, of speech and patterns of deference to give a sense of an America obsessed with religion, hierarchy and race. Clark’s character, Vera St. John, is a more aware observer than most, noticing, for example, how the guests’ slaves are kept in secured underground rooms in good hotels. The conclusions she draws leads her to a kind of liberalism that would seem anachronistic if it weren’t so well-motivated.
Vera has to find a way to live in a society that denies married women most employment, underpays unmarried women and offers few options other than prostitution for a woman to raise herself out of poverty. Through a combination of good luck, intelligence, good mentoring and hard work, she is able to make the transition from a street urchin (as she’s described at the beginning) to a skilled hat-maker, and then, because of a shortage of male workers during the Civil War, a federal government employee.
Vera also has several sexual adventures, though the novel isn’t steamy enough to really qualify as a romance novel. Fired after the war to make room for returning soldiers, she manages, through some fortuitous investments, to become independently wealthy. It’s an unlikely trajectory, but it does allow Clark to take her through a cross-section of America, including a visit to the racist whirlpool of post-Civil War Memphis.
In the course of this, Vera has to figure out who she is, beyond the context of her mother’s notoriety and the mystery about who her own father really was. She’s aided in this both by a marriage to an Irish street-fighter who is surprisingly gentle and supportive of her as a whole person and by her ability to move among the various classes of society, from the very wealthy to the poorest African-Americans, from bankers to high-paid prostitutes and entertainers. Her own ability to accept people at face value is apparently conditioned by her foster mother’s Universalism — the then-uncommon branch of Christianity that believed heaven was open to anyone, no matter what they had done, though this piece of her background could have been better developed.
“The Monk Woman’s Daughter” is an absorbing read, if sometimes a bit unbelievable. Could a woman like Vera really live through all that happens relatively emotionally and physically unscathed, including the tragic death of her husband, and with such ability to overcome the prejudices of class, race and gender preference? But it’s nice to think that it could be possible.