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Catalina: A romance by W. Somerset Maugham

Catalina: A romance (original 1948; edition 1948)

by W. Somerset Maugham (Author)

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365451,094 (3.53)1
Crippled sixteen-year-old Catalina is the one person unable to join in the festivities of the Feast of the Assumption. But then she has a vision of the Virgin, and is miraculously cured. In the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition, such a claim to blessedness has serious consequences, especially when Catalina seems more inclined to obey her heart than the demands of the Church. The last of Maugham's novels, Catalina is a romantic celebration of Spain and a delightfully mischievous satire on absolutism.… (more)
Title:Catalina: A romance
Authors:W. Somerset Maugham (Author)
Info:Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday & Cop., c1948.
Collections:Your library
Tags:Drama--Action, Spanish Inquisition

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Catalina by W. Somerset Maugham (1948)

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    Don Fernando by W. Somerset Maugham (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: If Catalina is Maugham's best tribute to his beloved Spain in fiction, then Don Fernando, a curious blend of travel book, historical study and collection of essays, is his finest non-fiction tribute to Spain and, above all, Spaniards.

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Catalina is a young woman who grows up after having a miracle cure from her leg being unusable. The downfall of this book is that it concentrates too much on the life of the Pope-type guy instead of on her life later as an actress. Too much setting , not enough plot. ( )
  niquetteb | May 19, 2020 |
Catalina is a 15 year old Spanish girl living in the time of the Inquisition. One day she is laying on the steps of the cathedral, crying because she cannot walk- one of her legs is permanently injured- to see the triumphant entry into the city of two of its favored sons. Of Don Juan de Valero’s three sons, two are famous- one a bishop, the other a warrior in the pay of the king. The third is a humble baker, who stayed to take care of his parents, raise a loving family, and help the poor. Suddenly a woman appears behind her, who asks her what is wrong. Catalina expresses her woe over her leg, including the fact that her inability to walk has caused her beloved to dump her in favor of another girl, one capable of the demanding physical labor of surviving and raising a family in those times. The woman tells her that she can be healed by the son of Don Juan de Valero who has served God the best, and vanishes. Obviously, the woman has to have been the Virgin Mary.

A good section of the book is devoted to describing the lives of the three sons, especially the Bishop. He has lived a life of extreme devotion, wearing a hair shirt and whipping himself for his sins. He is obviously the first choice for healing Catalina. After Catalina is healed, the head of the convent in town wants her to become a nun, feeling that the presence of a living miracle will add fame to the convent- and money in its coffers as pilgrims arrive. But Catalina has other ideas…

And here the story falls apart to me. The first part is a satire of the institutions of the medieval church and caste system, and I enjoyed it. But after Catalina is cured, we leave that frame of mind and end up in “Don Quixote”! Literally- Catalina and her small band of entertainers run into a group of actors from somewhere in Cervantes novel and spend a good bit of time with them. Now, that section of “Don Quixote” was pretty senseless to me, and it doesn’t improve in “Catalina”. So, the first half or more of this novel is witty and good; the last part just seems to fill up space (when I read “Don Quixote”, I wondered if Cervantes had been paid by the word). Three and a half stars. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Dec 31, 2017 |
W. Somerset Maugham

Catalina: A Romance

The Reprint Society, Hardback, 1949.

12mo. 253 pp.

First published by Heinemann, 19 August 1948.


I am notoriously fond of Somerset Maugham. I would rather read his lesser books than many “classics”. This is one of them. This is a book for Maugham fans. If you are not one of them, you have no business reading it. But if you are, you cannot afford to miss it. For this is a very special book for a number of reasons.

First of all, Catalina was the last work of fiction Maugham ever published. Unusually for him, it is dated – “25th January, 1947”. This was, of course, Maugham’s 73rd birthday. Therefore, it was probably written in 1946 at the age of 72. It is much more difficult to say how long it matured in Maugham’s head.

Early in 1944, one day after his 70th birthday in fact, he mentioned “a miracle story set in sixteenth-century Spain” which he once intended to write but now thought it unlikely that he ever would.[1] More tantalisingly, in an “Author’s Note” (1950) to Don Fernando (1935, rev. 1950), his greatest tribute to Spain, he said that “these essays on various aspects of Spanish life during the reign of Philip III were composed out of material I had collected in order to write a novel, but which for certain reasons I never wrote.” One critic, Raymond Mortimer, thought all this moonshine, but Maugham claimed it was “the plain truth”. The only proof he could give for that was that “many years later I wrote, certainly not the novel I had purposed, but another dealing with the same period in which I was able to use much of the material I had collected.” This seems to rule out Catalina as a long-term project.

One other, rather more fanciful, theory may suggest the opposite. Raymond Toole Stott, Maugham’s most conscientious bibliographer, claims that Catalina is “probably the cleanest and neatest manuscript that Maugham ever wrote.”[2] Mr Stott examined most of Maugham’s manuscripts and his comments on them, unlike those on the finished works, can be trusted. Maugham revised heavily everything he wrote, changing words and phrases on each and every page, sometimes rewriting whole paragraphs, before publication in book form. If the manuscript of Catalina does contain relatively few corrections, this may suggest that Maugham wrote quickly something that was already complete in his head, either because he got faster and more careless in his old age than ever before or because he had played with it mentally for many years.

Catalina was Maugham’s twentieth novel[3], but only the third historical one. The previous two were The Making of a Saint (1898) and Then and Now (1946). He has explained this gap of 48 years himself. In 1898, aged only 24, he was presumably misled by an article of Andrew Lang that young writers should write only historical novels because they know nothing of their own times. So Maugham set his second novel in Renaissance Italy. In his old age, he knew that Lang’s advice was nonsense because historical novels call for an effort of the imagination, not to mention thorough knowledge of the period, which can hardly be expected in the young, “for imagination grows by exercise and contrary to common belief is more powerful in the mature than in the young”. He claimed a writer should turn to the historical novel only in the end of his career.[4] He followed his own advice and his last two novels were historical.

Maugham’s lifelong love affair with Spain I have discussed elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that the historical background in Catalina is more extensive and better integrated than the one in Then and Now. The reason is obvious. Maugham knew Golden Age Spain far better than Renaissance Italy. He makes passing references to El Greco and Lope de Vega, he makes Saint Teresa (“the turbulent nun of Avila”) prominent element in the plot (although the action takes place years after her death in 1582), and he even makes Don Quixote appear as a character (Chapters 31 & 32)[5]. He knows something about manners, customs, convents, churches and theatre.

These are merely external details, rather obvious and not really that important. There is a wealth of wider and deeper historical context which paints vividly an age almost unimaginably different than our own. It was an age, above all, of rampant religious superstition and constant wars. The church and the army were the only ways to advance in this world if you had little money; appropriately, one of the main characters is a saintly bishop, another is an eminent soldier. Even women could attain eminence and influence by entering the religious life; appropriately, one of the main characters is a prioress.

The Catholic Church, especially in a fanatically religious country like Spain, was more powerful than the King. Nobody has shown this better than Verdi in the tremendous scene between Philip II and the Great Inquisitor from Don Carlo. But Maugham is no slouch, either. He has a good deal to say about the religious prejudice against, and persecution of, Jews and Moors, resulting, among other things, in genealogical hocus-pocus to prove so many generations de sangre limpia (untainted blood). He is meticulous about the Orwellian Inquisition, engaged in denouncing, convicting and often burning people for trifle transgressions of Catholic orthodoxy. There are chilling descriptions, all the more terrifying because of Maugham’s typical restraint, of public spectacles like auto-de-fé and private horror shows like scourging. Such were the standards of piety in sixteenth-century Spain!

All this goes a long way to explain much that would otherwise seem incredible, for example the craze for miracles. Except for The Magician (1908), an early exercise in black magic unjustly remembered today, Catalina is the only novel in which Maugham used fantasy elements.[6] Even more telling is the subtitle, “A Romance”, unique in Maugham’s works. A romance in the sense of love story there is, but it’s far from being a major element. I surmise Maugham meant romance as an exciting and adventurous story set in the past, or a “strange, almost incredible, but edifying narrative” as he jokes in the last sentence.

Catalina is the title character, but she is not the main character. A charming and lovable girl of sixteen, remarkably intelligent if rather ingenuous, she has the plot revolving around her but is rightly overshadowed by other characters. Chief among them are her uncle Domingo Perez, his childhood friend Don Blasco de Valero, now Bishop of Segovia, and Doña Beatriz, the Prioress of the Carmelite convent. None of these people is simple or forgettable. Domingo is a drunkard and ne’er-do-well, but also an educated and highly intelligent man of the world. The Prioress is a formidable figure of aristocratic haughtiness and manipulative authority, not unlike the Principessa from Puccini’s Suor Angelica, but under certain circumstances she is also vulnerably human. The Bishop is a man of forbidding austerity and sickening piety, but far from stupid and certainly far less inhuman than you would expect from somebody who had been Inquisitor of the Holy Office in Valencia.

Intensely dramatic scenes abound. The two contrasting miracles – one performed in semi-private conditions, the other in the blaze of vulgar publicity – are described with all of Maugham’s skill for brisk and tense story-telling. He never misses to make his subtle points, be they about a character’s ulterior motives, the passion of men (and women) to gossip, or the general stupidity of the human race (when the real miracle does happen, the crowd entirely misses the point). Possibly my favourite scene is the last one between Catalina and the Prioress (Chapter 29). I find it difficult to think of a more palpable description of sexual desire on paper. It is almost scary to read.

She put a hand to each breast and sensuality poured from her in a flame so fierce that the Prioress shrank back. It was like the heat of a furnace and she put up her hands as though to shield herself from it. She looked at the girl’s face and shuddered. It was strangely changed, pale, and one might have thought the features were swollen; it was a mask of desire. She was breathless with lust for the male. She was like one possessed. There was something not quite human about her, something even slightly horrible, but so powerful that it was terrifying. It was sex, nothing but sex, violent and irresistible, sex in its awful nakedness. Suddenly the Prioress’s face was contorted in a grimace, a grimace of unendurable agony, and tears poured down her cheeks. Catalina gave a cry of dismay.

For the most part the narrative and the characters are intense, but the final chapters (30-37) are something of an exception. They resemble a picaresque novel and even contain several set pieces of comedy, but they follow naturally the rest and finally bring a very well-crafted story to a most satisfying conclusion. It was a pleasure to meet the pompous Knight of the Rueful Countenance and his earthly squire. I suppose Cervantes made them more interesting, but I am not sure they can bear hundreds of pages without becoming crashing bores. The relatively light-hearted tone on those final chapters is somewhat deceptive, though. It doesn’t prevent Maugham from being seriously funny about anything from the power of art to transform people to the absurd value conferred upon marriage and virginity by the Church.

There is a good deal of humour throughout the whole novel, usually placed at strategic points to relieve the general grimness. Two of my favourite examples concern Father Antonio, a very minor character and something of a writer, and a quarrel between the Prioress and one archpriest about a precious holy relic. This is vintage Maugham. The first time he pokes fun at purple patch, something he had little patience with[7], the second time he is amused at the power politics and ad hominem behind the walls of churches and convents:

He was an erudite and an elegant writer and none of the artifices of rhetoric was unfamiliar to him. His style was rich in simile and metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and catachresis. He never let a noun go by without an escort of two stalwart adjectives. Images sprang to his mind as profuse and fat as mushrooms after rain, and being well read in the Scriptures, the works of the fathers and the Latin moralists, he was never at a loss for a recondite allusion. He was learned in sentence structure, simple, complex, compound and compound-complex, and could not only compose a period, with clauses and subclauses, of the most choice elaboration, but bring it to a conclusion with a triumphant clang that had all the effect of a door slammed in your face.

Upon this an exchange of letters passed between the two from which by degrees all expressions of politeness and esteem for one another's virtue and piety were banished. The Prioress grew more and more peremptory, the archpriest more and more stubborn. Various persons took sides and what one said was repeated to the other. The Prioress described the archpriest as an insolent donkey, riddled with concupiscence, and the archpriest described the Prioress as an interfering old hag whose administration of her convent was a scandal to Christendom.

There is a good deal of theological discussion in this book. It’s not shouted in your face in the style of Anthony Burgess, nor rammed down your throat à la Aldous Huxley. It is less intrusive and less annoying than that. But it’s there all right, and to my mind it is just as thought-provoking as more extensive and more pretentious discourses. The conversations between the Bishop and Domingo are particularly rich:

“Then this must be my answer: We know that the attributes of God are infinite and it has always seemed strange to me that men have never given Him credit for common sense. It is hard to believe that He would have created so beautiful a world if He had not desired men to enjoy it. Would He have given the stars their glory, the birds their sweet song and the flowers their fragrance if He had not wished us to delight in them? I have sinned before men and men have condemned me. God made me a man with the passions of a man, and did He give them to me only that I should suppress them? He gave me my adventurous spirit and my love of life. I have a humble hope that when I am face to face with my Maker He will condone my imperfections and I shall find mercy in His sight.”

“Do you remember that on the occasion to which you just referred I told you how surprising it seemed to me that among the infinite attributes that men ascribe to God they have never thought of including common sense? But there is another that has even more completely escaped their attention, and yet, if a creature may venture to judge of these things, it is of even greater value. Omniscience would be incomplete without it and compassion repellent. A sense of humour.”
“Do I shock you, brother?” Domingo asked seriously, but with a faint twinkle in his eyes. “Laughter is not the least precious of the gifts that God has granted us. It lightens our burdens in this hard world and enables us to bear many of our troubles with fortitude. Why should we deny a sense of humour to God? Is it irreverent to suppose that He laughs lightly within Himself when He speaks in riddles so that men, deceive in their interpretation, may learn a salutary lesson?”

Good or bad, right or wrong, these passages are unique. Only Maugham could have written them. In the Preface to The Partial View (Heinemann, 1954), an omnibus of his two most personal books, he expressed the same sentiments in almost the same words:

Spinoza, that God intoxicated man, said that God has infinite attributes. Surely among them must be humour and common sense. If God exists and he concerns himself with the affairs of humanity, then surely he will take a lenient view, as lenient a view as a sensible man takes, of the weakness of human beings.

The concept of God with infinite attributes is the one expounded by Spinoza in his Ethics (1677). It is a little anachronistic for the reign of Philip III (1598–1621), but it’s not irrelevant or undramatic. The Bishop is rightly baffled. The concept is not necessarily Christian. Christianity merely says that God is all-powerful and, presumably, all-good – not the same thing at all.

If Catalina shows any failing in Maugham’s powers of story-telling and characterisation, I am certainly not aware of it. This was my third reading and, if anything, I found the book even more absorbing than before. It is not Cakes and Ale (1930) or The Razor’s Edge (1944), but there is no reason to suppose it was ever intended to be. It is “a romance”, a labour of love, a tribute to Spain from the Golden Age, a multifarious historical adventure, a rich dish with food for thought. Above all, it is a darn good way to end 50 years career as a fiction writer.

[1] A Writer’s Notebook (1949), “1944”.
[2] А Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, Kaye & Ward, 1973, p. 290. According to Mr Stott, the manuscript is dated 28 January 1947. Printed versions of the novel end with “25th January 1947”.
[3] Considering Up at the Villa (1941) as a novel.
[4] The Summing Up (1938), Chapter 43.
[5] By his own admission (Ten Novels and Their Authors, Heinemann, 1954, p. 4), Maugham read Don Quixote five times, twice in English and thrice in Spanish, from cover to cover. In Chapter 6 of Don Fernando, he calls the Knight of the Rueful Countenance “the most human, the most lovable character that the wit of man has devised.”
[6] He wrote only one fantasy short story, “The Judgement Seat” from the collection Cosmopolitans (1936).
[7] Cf. The Summing Up (1938), Chapter 12. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Oct 26, 2017 |
I would not have thought that an inquisitor could be a sympathetic character, but he is. Not by any means flawless, but human. Catalina herself, though, is fairly two dimensional. The bishop and the prioress are the meat of this book. ( )
  thesmellofbooks | Jan 16, 2011 |
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Crippled sixteen-year-old Catalina is the one person unable to join in the festivities of the Feast of the Assumption. But then she has a vision of the Virgin, and is miraculously cured. In the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition, such a claim to blessedness has serious consequences, especially when Catalina seems more inclined to obey her heart than the demands of the Church. The last of Maugham's novels, Catalina is a romantic celebration of Spain and a delightfully mischievous satire on absolutism.

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"It was the Blessed Virgin" she cried...

Spain at the time of the dread Inquisition.

Catalina, a destitute cripple, has been promised a miraculous cure but she becomes the centre of a storm of religious and political intrigue...
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