Saint Therese of Lisieux


Saint Thérèse of Lisieux shows us the pampered daughter of successful and deeply religious tradespeople who-through a personal appeal to the pope-entered a convent at the early age of fifteen. There, Thérèse embraced sacrifice and self-renunciation in a single-minded pursuit of the “nothingness” she felt would bring her closer to God. With feeling, Harrison shows us the sensitive four-year-old whose mother’s death haunted her forever and contributed to the ascetic spirituality that strengthened her to embrace even the deadly throes of tuberculosis. Tellingly placed in the context of late-nineteenth-century French social and religious practices, this is a powerful story of a life lived with enormous passion and a searing, triumphant voyage of the spirit.


“Readers may disagree with Harrison’s interpretations, but few could quibble with her writing style, which is simply gorgeous….[T]he biography reads like a particularly juicy novella.” Publishers Weekly

“An admirably even-tempered biography….[A] bright, sharp essay on the ever-difficult Thérèse.” Kirkus Reviews


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 canonized 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 fervor. 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 agonizing 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?’

By Michele Roberts, the author of Impossible Saints (Little, Brown)



By Carl Rollyson

Near the beginning of her biography of Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-97), Kathryn Harrison notes that there have been “countless biographies” of the young French woman who seems, even before her birth, to have been destined to re-invigorate the modern world with the idea of self-sacrifice and sainthood.

Why, then, another biography? Because it is Kathryn Harrison who wants to write it. Ms. Harrison is the author of a controversial memoir, “The Kiss,” a searing account of her own early passions and conflicts, a woman’s coming-of-age story that would prepare her – we are expected to infer – to write the life of another young woman who wrote a memoir of her life, as well as letters and poetry that were consciously designed to advance her renown. Ms. Harrison herself draws no parallels between her life and her subject’s; instead, she is the kind of biographer who bears down on her story with an intensity and flair that constitutes the only justifications a writer needs.

Ms. Harrison’s notes and bibliography show that she has done her homework, but it is the quality of her language that distinguishes her book. And this is surely the raison d’etre of the Penguin Lives series: choosing the right biographer to rejuvenate a shopworn subject – and in this case to fashion a surprisingly riveting story out of what might otherwise seem foreign and even repelling to the modern reader.

Ms. Harrison is quite aware that modern lives are inimical to the idea of hagiography. Thus Zelie, Therese’s mother, claimed that her daughter sang along with her while Therese was still in her womb. “If this is maternal fancy – and a contemporary audience does insist on psychology before marvels – still it betrays something important: even before Therese was born, Zelie was besotted with her last child.” Hagiography demands marvels; biography, psychology. Ms. Harrison, however, stands betwixt the two, refusing to choose. She does not say the contemporary audience is right, but she does not say it is wrong either.

When 6-year-old Therese has a vision of a man resembling her father, only bent over, she later interprets the apparition as God’s warning her of her father’s impending decline into mental confusion. “A prophecy understood only after its subject has come to pass might be more projection than prediction. But Therese’s fear of losing her King, the man on which she based her idea of God, was real,” the biographer adds. Each time Ms. Harrison senses the secular reader scoffing at the saint’s supernatural experiences, she concedes the point and at the same time shows how the supernatural and the psychological may be only different ways of explaining experiences that are authentic to the subject.

When it comes to sex, however, Ms. Harrison is thoroughly secular. She quotes the adolescent Therese’s statement that she “burned with the desire to snatch [sinners] from the eternal flames. “Therese’s chosen sinner is Henri Pranzini, a “tall and handsome adventurer” and also a killer of three women. Along with her sister, Therese prays for the condemned murderer in a fashion the biographer calls “a triumph of sexual repression.” This prayer campaign comes at a time when Therese judges herself to be entering “the most dangerous age for young girls,” a phrase the biographer takes as an “oblique reference to sexual awakening.” Certainly Therese’s efforts to starve herself and to deny all pleasures of the body support the biographer’s interpretation. But Ms. Harrison is careful not to translate all the language of religion into evidence of sexual repression. On the contrary, even the Pranzini episode is viewed as part of Therese’s “lifelong mission of substitutive suffering.”

Indeed, Therese’s appeal lies in the way she re-enacts the life of Christ in late 19th-century France, taking on the sins of the world, ministering to anyone no matter how disagreeable, and suppressing in her own behavior any urge to triumph over others. Her pride is in her humility; her commitment stems from the desire to be “incessantly consumed” by her faith in Christ as her personal savior. Sometimes the biographer becomes irritated with her subject, but she is never out of sympathy with her.

When Therese is inducted into the Carmelite convent at the extraordinarily early age of 15 (she and her father traveled to Rome, where she personally petitioned the pope for this unprecedented privilege), Ms. Harrison notes, the young woman laughed in delight when snow began to fall during the ceremony:

“What thoughtfulness on the part of Jesus!” she exclaimed of the “little miracle,” devoting paragraphs of her notebooks to this “incomprehensible condescension” from Jesus, in a voice at once girlishly naive and infuriatingly self-important. Therese does give her readers ample occasion to note the inescapable – the divisive and yet potentially transcendent – subjectivity of human experience. “The monastery garden was white like me!” Therese marveled. She received the snow as a gift from her Bridegroom, and so for her it was.

The reference to Therese’s “readers” becomes an important theme in the second half of the biography, for the saint consciously shaped her life and her long dying from tuberculosis into an exemplary story that her whole family worked long and hard to help her realize. Even as she experienced excruciating agony on her deathbed, Therese went over the details of her autobiography with her sister (also a nun) and gave permission for her book to be edited after her death. Another sister, a devotee of the new art of photography, took pictures of the dying Therese. Later, pieces of her bed and other possessions would be splintered into relics sent to the faithful all over the world. The campaign for sainthood truly began almost from the day she was born, with three of her sisters joining her in the same monastery – and joining in her ambitions.

Called the Little Flower, Therese has a shrine in Royal Oak, Mich., which is where Ms. Harrison fittingly ends her biography: On November 4, 1999, 50,000 people filed past Therese’s ornate casket there. This display of her remains was the first stop on an eight-year, worldwide tour. Part of this saint’s appeal is that she made her suffering so accessible to the multitudes. It is odd to say so, but Therese was very modern – and also very medieval – in creating so many souvenirs of her suffering.



Why rewrite the autobiography of a saint as a “particularly juicy novella” – in the misguided phrase employed in the press release for this book? If my critical hackles rose, this was not from any particular affection for St Therese – the Carmelite nun who entered the convent at Lisieux at 15, and died in 1897 of tuberculosis, aged only 24.

Indeed, the self-styled “little flower of Lisieux”, who expounded her “little way of love” in L’Histoire d’une ame, strikes me as the Madeline Bassett of saints: if Bertie Wooster spent several novels in flight from a would-be fiancee who likes to think of the stars as God’s daisy chain, I feel distinctly Woosterish about a saint who describes herself as a “little white flower” in the sheaves of God’s harvest, a toy ball in the hands of an infant Jesus, a “tiny little paintbrush” in the hands of our Lord, or a “poor little dove” with a “tiny olive branch”.

Can this drippy egomaniac be made “juicy”? Is it possible to make even mildly interesting a life so cloistered that, nearing death, the saint was “forced to rake through childhood memories” to find a “sin committed through the senses” – eventually recalling that she had once used a bottle of eau de cologne, “with pleasure”, when she was 14?

The answer, much to my surprise, is yes. Kathryn Harrison has written a biography which is neither hagiography nor hatchet-job. In her reading, St Therese is a damaged soul, but almost because of that, a truly great one. The impulses which impelled her to her life of constant, trivial self-sacrifice are shown, indeed, to be akin to those of an anorexic or self-mutilating teenager, desperately seeking minute control over her body in a world she finds alien; but these “rents in her psyche” are not used to explain away her faith: indeed, her faith shines through them.

Her life was warped by the loss of her mother. Therese Martin was born in 1873, into a deeply devout bourgeois family. Both her father, Louis, a jeweller and watch-maker, and her mother, Zelie, a lace-maker, had considered entering the devotional life. Therese was the petted baby of the family – the last-born of nine children, of whom four other girls survived. All five were to take the veil.

But Zelie Martin was already dying, slowly, of breast-cancer. She could not feed the new-born Therese. The baby before Therese had starved to death under a negligent local nurse: Zelie tried at first to keep this one at home, feeding her on toast and milk-and-water. Therese grew rapidly weaker, and at two-and-a-half months, her doting mother was forced to send her away to a wet-nurse in a neighbouring village – the first traumatic separation.

The next would come a year later, when she was torn from her foster-mother and brought home. Even when she had transferred her love back to her real mother, she remained desperately clingy, unable to be left alone for a moment.

In 1877 Zelie died, after prolonged torment. Four-year-old Therese and her seven-year-old sister Celine flung themselves into the arms of their elder sisters: Celine chose the eldest, Marie (“you’ve got to be Mamma”); Therese the next-born, Pauline.

Both sisters proved devoted surrogates. Both, too, abandoned their charges for God. In 1882, Pauline entered the Carmel convent: Therese only discovered her intention by accidental eavesdropping. Her feelings of betrayal were acute.

Grief made her ill. “Deep loneliness”, according to a family maid, brought on her fits of weeping, trembling and hallucinations. And loneliness seems to have been Therese’s lot. This clever, pretty child was a misfit at school. She was no good at joining in the games of others, preferring to conduct funerals for dead birds in the corner of the playground. Only once did she make a friend, who soon, school-girl fashion, “dropped” her. Therese’s bitterness is still raw, years later: “Well, there was no affection there. I wasn’t prepared to go about asking for affection where there was no disposition to give it.”

“Abandonment to divine love”, according to Harrison, was the only way she knew to defend against “human abandonment”. She insisted upon entering the convent herself, aged only 15.

Within its walls, she was able to glory in rising above merely human affections. This often seems repellent. When her father, deserted by his dearest daughter, suffered strokes and delusions, covering his face as if taking the veil himself, Therese sweetly thanked God for inflicting him with “three years of cruel torments”, since they were “of great spiritual profit to his family”.

Other human beings, indeed, are seen purely as a means to her own spiritual self-advancement. One cannot help but wonder what the other nuns thought when they learnt posthumously that she had made friends only with those who particularly repelled her – the nun who clicked her teeth with her fingernails, the one who splashed her with dirty water when washing handkerchiefs . . .

Harrison is fully alive to the ambivalence of these episodes. As a result, I at any rate was better able to appreciate the courage, steadfastness, vision and indeed faith that sustained St Therese through illness and despair, and transformed a neurotic into a saint.

Her death retains its power to move. On Holy Thursday, 1896, within minutes of extinguishing the light in her cell and lying down on her pallet, she felt a “bubbling stream mounting to [her] lips”. To rekindle the lamp would have been self-indulgence: she lay until the light of dawn confirmed that her sticky handkerchief was indeed soaked with haemorrhaging blood.

Therese lasted until September: the tuberculosis attacked her intestines, which turned gangrenous. Worse even than the pain, she was tormented by despair, yet never let slip a word of fear or complaint.

She died on September 30. Her autobiography, written under orders from her superiors, was published exactly a year later, and touched the hearts of millions. Her sheets, bedclothes, articles of clothing, slats of her bed and floorboards of her cell were shredded and splintered to feed the demand for relics.

“From 1897 to 1925 the output reached the incredible figure of 30,500,000 pictures and 17,500,000 relics”: “incredible indeed”, as Kathryn Harrison drily notes – “either her cell was atomised, or the fragments multiplied miraculously”. And on May 17, 1925, Sister Therese was beatified – the fastest canonization to date in the history of the Catholic Church.

A relaxed Kathryn Harrison addresses the discomfort about her taboo subjects


By Jerome Weeks

Kathryn Harrison said Sunday evening that she was taken aback by some of the harsh responses that The Kiss, her 1997 memoir of incest, provoked among reviewers. Partly, she told the audience for the Writers Studio series, the fact that she appears relatively normal – “I was not marked,” she said – threatened people because she’s just like the rest of us. Partly, the book couldn’t be easily dismissed as trash. It was too well written. But there are two other reasons she didn’t mention: timing and style. The Kiss came out after several popular and celebrated memoirs had kick-started the old genre. With books by Tobias Wolff, Frank McCourt and Mary Karr among others, we’d already had dysfunctional families, impoverished families, families with secrets. An incestuous family seemed too much like a way to cash in on the memoir craze by topping all other possible troubled families. But regardless of whether adult incest seems intriguing or icky to you, The Kiss was a chilly reading experience. Ms. Harrison’s writing is always well-crafted, but here it was bare to the bone. And she herself described her character in the memoir as “shell-shocked.” Zombified is more like it; the reader felt almost as numb. In fact, almost all of Ms. Harrison’s books, fiction and non-fiction, are about taboo or obsessional relationships: Poison – sex with a priest, Thicker Than Water – sex with a father. The Binding Chair seemed to pile it on: foot-binding, sodomy and sadistic dentistry. Yet this hothouse material is often treated with elegant ice tongs. This could be admirable: Ms. Harrison is not indulging in cheap effects. But even as the relationships she explores are extreme, they are also oddly limited. And her beautiful prose only seems to emphasize what a peculiar range of human experience she works with. Yes, a mild surprise in seeing Ms. Harrison in person is how thoughtful, unaffected – how normal – she seems. Hoarse-voiced and a little subdued, Ms. Harrison may somewhat resemble an older sister of Ann Coulter, the conservative ber-scold. But she was very un-Coulter-like in her often amusing responses and her courageous openness to all questions. Her little revelations about her family were also interesting to anyone who’s read her works. The two grandparents who raised her, for example, provided some of the inspiration for both The Seal Wife and The Binding Chair. The other mild surprise came in learning that Ms. Harrison first “loathed” St.Therese of Lisieux – the subject of her new biography. A young woman who loses her mother, whose life is one of extreme self-denial (she entered a convent at 15), whose life intertwined mysticism with tuberculosis: Ms. Harrison laughingly admitted that only belatedly did she see the connections to her own life.