Father Dowling is a young Catholic priest in a city parish. One day he happens to meet two young women, prostitutes, and begins a sort of friendship with them. His love for them is strong – perhaps even Christ-like – but shockingly naive and his increasing single-mindedness and involvement in their lives becomes distorting and distracting in every other aspect of his life. Father Dowling’s love for Ronnie and Midge, though platonic, seems to push out all other considerations and duties until, inevitably, his life and his vocation are affected.
The girls alternate between taking advantage of the young priest and genuinely liking him. Brazen one minute, shy and embarrassed the next, they have no idea how to react to his presence in their lives. The reader doesn’t see far into their minds but we are given a sense of their conflict, as well as some background to explain how they ended up where they are. In this, the 1930s Depression-era setting is crucial. Father Dowling is desperate to get the women off the streets, not realizing how difficult it is to find decent employment.
The story is short on plot, comprising primarily of Father Dowling’s thoughts and feelings, his reflections on this strange love he has developed, interspersed with visits to the girls. These are contrasted with his increasingly brief interactions with the other priests, as well as a rich parishioner who he attempts to engage to help Ronnie and Midge. Father Dowling’s atheist friend, Charlie, acts as a sort of foil for the characters of the other priests and the church parishioners, being the person who Dowling can speak to most openly. Charlie’s relationship with his girlfriend (a Catholic woman) also seems to act as a subtle mirror to Father Dowling’s relationship with the young prositutes.
As someone who’s spent a lot of time in and around church ministry, I found this book stressful. Most men I know who work in the church make a great effort to avoid any semblance of sexual misconduct, some going as far as to ensure they are never alone with a woman. And so while Father Dowling’s desire to help is admirable, he puts himself in a position to be misunderstood by others, frequently visiting the girls in the hotel they live in, in the same rooms where they perform their job. As the novel progresses, he becomes increasingly convinced of his holy love and even more reckless in his behaviour. This alienates him further from the church and the reader has to wonder if by taking better precautions in the beginning, he might actually have been able to help Ronnie and Midge more.
Father Dowling seems meant to be a Jesus figure (though he’s too naive to quite fit the profile), including his ultimate end with the religious authorities. There’s a fascinating scene near the end of the novel with the Bishop (who might be the Pontius Pilate figure) as he struggle with inner conflict but ultimately washes his hands of the consequences.
Overall, the book feels dated and I’m not sure how much it would interest a modern reader without a religious background. The Catholic church has been through so many scandals since the 1930s that Father Dowling’s actions seem pretty mild. Such is My Beloved is an interesting glimpse at Canada in the 1930s though and so perhaps deserves its spot amongst 20th century Canadian literature.