Audio recording of this post:
Welcome to our group reading of The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello, by Father William Bonniwell, OP! This is the first of twelve discussion posts in which I will share some of my thoughts about our reading for the week, pose some questions for all of you, and invite you to share your thoughts in the “Comment” sections at the bottom of these pages. I am confident that our discussions will be fruitful and beneficial to all as we read this book together. I am less confident about the speed or consistency of this website. Your comments may be delayed in appearing. Please let me know if you experience difficulties of that kind and I will do my best to address them. Let’s also try to be patient with our technical limitations as well as our personal limitations, relying on the prayers of Saint Margaret of Castello, whose indomitable patience we will come more and more to appreciate during our reading of this book,
I refer to “Saint Margaret of Castello” though our book is called The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello. As many of you may know, Saint Margaret of Castello was canonized just this year, on April 24th. Her canonization was solemnly celebrated in Citta di Castello in Italy on September 19th. These were most happy events, the fruit of many prayers, and the inspiration for our discussion of this book. They also explain any confusion we might have had between the use of the titles “Blessed” (pre canonization) and “Saint” (post canonization.)
This first discussion post about the introduction of this book is necessarily different from the rest of our discussion posts. Our future discussion posts, of course, will not include the kinds of introductory paragraphs you just read. This discussion post is also different from the rest because the Introduction is different from the rest of the book. Obviously, that is true of every book. But I think it is especially true of this book, as I will try to explain.
In Father Bonniwell’s short Introduction, he gives us a detailed description of his medieval source material: biographies, manuscripts, and old documents. He also refers to “the many persons in Citta di Castello” who assisted “in my researches every time I visited their city,” adding that “the eager cooperation given me resulted in unearthing valuable data not given by the medieval biographers.” He concludes, “to all my Italian ‘assistants’–my deepest and warmest thanks!” (page xiv). Earlier in his Introduction, Father Bonniwell says:
Any biographer of Margaret of Castello works under a handicap, for Margaret meets none of these requirements: she committed no crimes; she was not witty; and certainly she was not beautiful. She composed no sublime poem, painted no famous picture, and she occupied no outstanding position in politics.Page xii
Father Bonniwell implies that he is a “biographer.” That might seem obvious considering that his book is called The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello. This self-designation is also consistent with his detailed attention to historical sources in the rest of the Introduction. But, as we will see when we start reading the book itself, it reads less like a biography and more like a work of historical fiction. To explain this seeming contradiction, I would like to give a brief account of how Father Bonniwell went about writing and publishing this book. I hope that will help us understand the kind of book that we are reading.
The story of Father Bonniwell’s authorship of this book is recounted in another book: Blessed Margaret of Castello: Servant of the Sick and the Outcast, by Mary Elizabeth O’Brien, OP, published in 2017. In Chapter 1 of her book, Ms. O’Brien refers to “Bonniwell’s extensive research conducted in Rome, Paris, Metola, Margaret’s birthplace, and Citta di Castello, the setting of Blessed Margaret’s ministry to the sick and the outcast” (page 6). She quotes a letter from Father Bonniwell in which he relates his difficulties getting his book published, saying that the latest would-be-publisher “said ‘the same thing all the publishers say: “no one has ever heard of Margaret of Metola” and “The biography is too factual.”‘ Bonniwell added: “They want it fictionalized; that is the rage in biographies just now.” Within yet another two months, on June 1, 1951, he wrote ‘I finally got the “popularized” version of my book typed'” (page 10).
Due to the demands of publishers, Father Bonniwell has “popularized” this book by casting it in the mode of historical fiction. Nevertheless, this book is extensively researched, relating the events of Saint Margaret’s life in the mode of historical fiction but with the historical accuracy of a “factual” biography.
In the passage I quoted above, Father Bonniwell remarks upon the biographical “handicap” of Saint Margaret of Castello’s apparent historical insignificance. “And yet,” he says,
We are confronted with an astonishing fact: during the course of six hundred years more than twoscore writers–nearly every one of them men of unusual education–chancing upon some manuscript that contained an account of Margaret’s life, thought it well worth their while to publish the story of this obscure girl.Page xii
Margaret’s story inspired more than 40 publications and still she remained “obscure” to the extent that “no one has ever heard of Margaret of Metola.” Astonishing. Makes you want to read her story, doesn’t it?
- I only quoted a few short passages from Father Bonniwell’s Introduction to The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello. Is there anything else in the Introduction that stood out to you?
- What are your expectations as you begin reading this book, whether you are getting to know Saint Margaret of Castello for the first time or have long been familiar with her life? What do you hope to gain from our reading and discussion of this book?
- My reflections on the Introduction of our book were largely about the genre or kind of book we are reading: biography / historical fiction. Do you have any initial thoughts about the pluses and minuses of those ways of telling Saint Margaret’s story?
Please share your thoughts in the “Comment” section below. Feel free to respond to the questions I posed above or to reflect upon anything else in this week’s reading, my reflections on this weeks reading, and/or comments that other people have posted.