In 1897, aged just 24, Therese Martin, an apparently unremarkable nun, died of tuberculosis in her ugly, unheated convent in Lisieux, northern France. Subsequently she became known worldwide as The Little Flower. Swiftly canonised by a pope eager to promote sexless and self-sacrificing ideals of womanhood, she herself provided all the hagiographical materials necessary with her posthumously published autobiography the Story of a Soul, plus a stream of poems, playlets, notes and letters.
Therese, named for her great precursor in Carmelite life, Teresa of Avila, became only the third female doctor of the Church. The Spanish nun, another doctor, wrote pithily, wittily and well. Not so the Martin girl, whose pious effusions are hopelessly saturated with the sentimental excesses of genteel bourgeois fervour. None the less, since Catholic female saints are not judged primarily on their prose styles, Therese remains tremendously popular. She may not appeal at first to atheists, heretics and feminists, for she concealed her toughness and will-power, in her writings at least, under a cloak of sugar-sweet childishness and repression. However, the gap between the carapace of goodness smothering the surface of her texts and the soft drumbeat of anger and desire pulsing underneath in images and slips, continues to fascinate post-Freudian readers. Her autobiographical writings are as shaped and novelistic as any case history.
Therese, silent for most of the day, in accordance with the Carmelite rule, invented her own talking cure for loneliness and suffering, pouring out on paper rhapsodic ejaculations addressed to her lover, Jesus, and finally marshalling the whole into a compulsively readable tale driving towards death, the moment of reunion with the invisible Beloved.
The revisionist process began with Monica Furlong's excellent biography in the now defunct Virago series of short lives. Kathryn Harrison's thoughtful, succinct and elegant study, inspired, I think, by that earlier work, helps us make new sense of Therese by stressing how her life was a story first of all told by her parents about their imagined object, and then with herself as dynamic subject. Her parents, Zelie and Louis, both wanted to enter the religious life. Instead, they married each other and after a period of abstinence, instigated by Louis, started having sex and eventually produced nine children, of whom five daughters survived. Zelie, ferociously devout, was told by her sister, a nun, that she would give birth to a great saint. While pregnant with her last child, Therese, she survived a supposed attack by the devil, and reported that the child in her womb sang along with her. Zelie "felt a transcendent bond with the little girl whom she would come to describe as remarkable in every way. Smarter, prettier, sweeter, more wilful than her other children, and already consecrated to God". Zelie wrote copious letters. Without her there would be no narrative tradition in the Martin family. She died of breast cancer when Therese was only four, but "her expressive and compelling voice remained . . . Her letters were treasured and read aloud to the younger girls, who listened and learned to speak their mother's language . . . Echoed by all of her daughters, written into their correspondence, quoted everywhere in Story of a Soul, Zelie's words . . . articulated the arrival of a saint". So Therese presents her early memories through the screen of "family reminiscences, handled and rehandled, scenes tumbling like stones through a stream of collective narrative". Therese began to have a self when she had her first autonomous memory: Zelie's agonising death suffered at home in front of her daughters and husband.
What chance did Therese have of an alternative life? Marriage, seen by the misogynistic, virgin-preferring church as second-rate, must have seemed unattractive, especially since, in her experience of witnessing her parents' tragedies (Louis had several breakdowns), she became frightened by human vulnerability. Her drive towards her vocation was fuelled by the need for transcendence to guard against further traumatic losses. First her adored wet nurse, then her mother, then her elder sisters, those devoted mother-substitutes - one by one, the Martin girls entered the local Carmel. Therese be-came clingy, weepy and insecure. With no chance of loving anyone outside her hothouse family, in love with her father, conflating him with a heavenly Spouse who could be worshipped in bad but sexy poetry, she was a prey to obsessive moral scruples and hysterical illnesses. Rage, ambition and desire were unmentionable, and had to be converted into longing for the safety of the convent and heroine-worship of the manipulative prioress.
Therese, embracing suffering as a route to love, eventually became a good guide to other beginners on what she called her Little Way (a child-like soul reaches God most easily). Harrison intriguingly wonders: "Was her determination to suffer all insults and privations in silence one she (unconsciously) imagined would be vindicated by the eventual publication of her written account?"
Michele Roberts is the author of Impossible Saints (Little, Brown)