THE WAR BETWEEN body and soul has been fought so many times as to strew the field of literature with fallen angels. Now comes Felice, the story of an orphan grappling with her awakening sexuality and her spiritual longings at a convent school in Nova Scotia in the 1920s.
Felice recounts the dreams and doubts of an observant, imaginative 13-year-old girl with a tendency to romanticize her feelings and experiences into stories she tells to her friends and herself. These include her plans to convert three males through the example of her saintly beauty: the fiercely moody uncle who beats her (and then fondles her behind); a mysterious, tongueless invalid found on the beach and recuperating in the convent infirmary; and the orphaned Micmac Indian boy who has a crush on her.
In addition, she is the prot,eg,e of the aging and eccentric Sister Agatha, obsessed with persecution, sexuality, and sainthood, frequently removed from meals and chapel for outbursts on male anatomy or her role as the bride of Christ. Felice and her friends form the Sister Agatha Liberation and Protection League, whose meetings provide the opportunity for more storytelling, including titillating, giggle- and-shiver-provoking speculations on the tongueless man. And Felice describes the daily life of the convent school, lessons and endless meals of fish and potatoes, confessions, communions, and walks on the beach, culminating in a disastrous visit from the Bishop at Easter.
Davis-Gardner certainly does justice to this story line. All the elements one could expect from a novel about high-spirited adolescents in a high-spirited convent school are there in abundance. Felice's best friend, "the irrepressible Celeste Rouget," is mischievous and provocative. Soukie, the cook, easily alarmed and full of gossip, provides the "downstairs" humor. Mother Superior and the Abb,e play out a kind of domestic comedy as they decorously battle for control. When the Abb,e argues for "Hermas" as the baptismal name of the tongueless man, "Mother Superior, one of whose most effective weapons was her use of well-timed silences, merely raised one eyebrow, causing the Abb,e to splutter on, 'After all, Sister, I will be doing the baptism. I am his spiritual guardian.' " All the girls who want to be nuns are dull and priggish, except Felice, who turns out to be both pretty and enormously talented as a pianist.
The central dilemma of the story is whether Felice will, as the book jacket curiously puts it, "become an ordinary nun, perhaps a saint--or a woman." The conflicting feelings of adolescence, the tension between a newly developing body and strong emotions, are reflected in the strains of Catholicism, both spiritual and sensuous, an attractive, romantic discipline to a sensitive girl like Felice. She transforms her sexual longings into mildly provocative fantasies, consummated by miracles instead of touches, and plays out her confused desires by trying to convert the tongueless man through songs, readings, and prayer. "There was a deeply pleasurable tension between the spiritual and the sensual that Felice was vaguely conscious of as she sat on the edge of her chair, letting the rosary beads fall one by one through her fingers, making her voice mellifluous, glancing up occasionally at the man's eyes smoldering at her from the pallor of his face and the pillow."
The recognition that the parts of Catholicism which encourage devotion, fervor, and passion can also attract the passion of adolescents is one of the interesting parts of Felice. Another novel which explores this theme is Frost in May, by Englishwoman Antonia White, about a young girl at a London convent school before World War I. Frost in May narrows the war between body and soul to a finer, fiercer conflict between its heroine's strong will and the demands of an impersonal, authoritarian, otherworldly doctrine beautiful in its way. But Felice rarely touches the austere, demanding aspects of Catholicism, or the corresponding toughness in the maturation of a young woman. Felice's conflicts are more diffuse and ingenuous, her reckonings relatively painless, except as the embarrassments and foibles of adolescence are painfully large in one's own mind.
Despite the doubts and setbacks Felice suffers, an atmosphere of unrelenting cheer pervades the book. Preparing for the Bishop's visit, "Mother Superior directed the cleaning with more than customary vernal zeal, and she enlisted sisters and girls in scrubbing the building from top to bottom. On sunny mornings coverlets were hung out of every upstairs window like lolling tongues." Davis-Gardner creates in vivid detail this too-good-to-be-true place where no one interrupts the after-hours sessions of girls, where Felice and her friends roam freely outdoors and engage in gossip sessions with Soukie the cook, where nuns rarely discover the kids' revelings in mildly illicit fantasy and almost never scold them harshly.
Some lyrical descriptions contribute to this atmosphere, such as one of a candlelit procession: "Felice stepped outdoors, into a night that seemed charged with importance. A mixed incense of balsam and salt perfumed the frigid air . . . The light from the girls' candles illuminated hands and patches of cheeks and forehead, and sculpted dramatic hollows of shadow." But the pages are so densely textured with adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors, there are often clumsy passages such as, "Felice bent her head, studying the reverential sandwich of her hands."
Although Felice is a sincere, earnest effort to explore adolescence and recreate a period, it is too often predictable and precious. There are worse sins an author can commit, including slickness and pretension. But there are also more interesting sins than Felice commits or dreams of-- sins of the mind, as well as the body--that could have developed her into a more complex character, and challenged the reader.