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Caroline Gordon: The Malefactors

This was to be Caroline Gordon’s final novel and a rather sad one at that. Gordon was very proud of it and Allen Tate was full of praise for it but it seems to me to be sad for, in it, she is suggesting that she needs to submit both to the Church and to the male-dominated society. The opening quote, by Jacques Maritain, reads It is for Adam to interpret the voices that Eve hears, a sad a quote as I have ever read. The novel is also a roman à clef. The hero, Tom Claiborne, is clearly her husband Allen Tate, while Gordon herself is Vera (though it has been suggested that she is only partially Vera and partially some of the other characters too, while others have suggested that Vera is who she would have wanted to be rather than who she actually was). Claiborne’s friend, the poet Horne Watts is clearly Hart Crane, while Catherine Pollard is Dorothy Day.

The story is rather sad. It is seen primarily through the eyes of Tom Claiborne, a poet who does not seem to have written much recently and who is living off his wife’s money. He neglects his aged aunt (who is living with them) and is generally anti-social. Two women visit the farm – Catherine Pollard who has become more saintly in her old age and his wife’s young cousin, Cynthia, with whom he starts an affair. He leaves his wife for Cynthia but is forced to get a job, which he manages to do with consummate ease. In the meantime, Vera, his wife, goes off to a sort of religious commune and finds God. All this is accompanied by flashbacks to their earlier life, particularly in Paris, with the poet Horne Watts. Though Vera and Tom do not get back together, Tom is told both by the whisky priest and Catherine that a wife is subject to her husband, as the Church is subject to Christ. Poor Caroline Gordon!

Not only because of these now old-fashioned ideas, this novel does not entirely work. Tom is too smug and things seem to work for him too well, despite his impatience and self-centredness, to make him a satisfying central character. Catherine, as Dorothy Day, is a convincing character but we see little of Vera after her conversion and then primarily through the eyes of others. Gordon may have considered this her”big” novel but posterity will not share that point of view.

Publishing history

First published 1956 by Harcourt, Brace and Company