Morley Callaghan’s fourth novel, Such Is My Beloved, was published in 1934, and it’s the first of the books in the canon that feels modern. There’s a Chinese restaurant, a completely un-CanLit lack of foliage, and it’s urban; the setting is Toronto during the Depression.
The book isn’t unlike the setting. It’s hard-edged, forsakes ornamentation, and is gritty.
The story of Such Is My Beloved is simple. It follows the trials of young Father Dowling as he tries to convince two women who live near his church to leave the life of sex work and become good Catholics.
The women, Ronnie from Detroit and Midge from Montreal, are fast-talking and street smart, and they take what they can get from Father Dowling and defend their life choices through much of the book.
As Midge says, “You have a good time talking about praying for us, don’t you, but prayers won’t pay for our room, prayers won’t help me get my hair curled. You can’t eat prayers. How do you think we’re going to live? Did you ever stop to figure that out?”
And Ronnie, speaking of a woman in Father Dowling’s parish who married into money: “We’re whores and we know we’re whores, but she’s a different kind of whore.”
These are not women looking to be saved, but Father Dowling falls in love with them, or with the challenge of rehabilitating them, knowing that they’re as worthy of help as any of his other parishioners.
“I know many respectable women in the parish enjoying marriages of convenience and I know they’re just as low in the scale as these girls. I mean when you think of the girls hunting around the streets here and the young men and the married men going to them because of their secret passion and their lust, it looks almost as if the girls, even here in my own parish, were in a way doing some good—in a way, had a spiritual value.”
Father Dowling turns to the richest Catholic in the area, Mr. Robison, and asks for money and jobs for Ronnie and Midge, but Mr. Robison fears tarnishing his name by getting mixed up in the affairs of prostitutes. The bishop, when he finds out about Father Dowling’s project, gets the police to arrest Ronnie and Midge in the hopes of avoiding the scandal of having a priest cavorting with prostitutes.
Father Dowling’s attempts to help Ronnie and Midge end up getting all of them in trouble, but it’s the rich and powerful, who care more about saving face than helping others, that frame his attempts to help as scandalous and unbecoming.
The book is about the hypocrisy of the church and the harshness of modern life, and it’s truly a great Canadian read, despite the lack of foliage.