Sunday, May 16, 2010

Henry Morton Robinson's THE CARDINAL

I just finished reading the sixty year old pot boiler The Cardinal.

In its day this book was extremely popular. According to the blog Abandoned Books, The Cardinal was the number one bestseller of 1950 and the number four bestseller of 1951. Director Otto Preminger made a movie of the same name based upon the novel starring actor Tom Tryon. Having now read the book and seen the movie, the novel is far superior to the film which changes and condenses plots and in some cases drops plots and characters altogether.

About the only facts which I could dig up about the author, Henry Morton Robinson, came from the "About the Author" blurb in back of the book and the short article on Wikepedia. Robinson was born in Boston, Mass. in 1898 and served in the navy during World War I. He taught English at Columbia University and was the author of a number of popular books. Robinson died in 1961 after taking a sedative and going to sleep in a bathtub.

The Cardinal is the story of the life and career of the title character, Stephen Fermoyle, who rises from being the son of poor Irish immigrants in Boston to be a Prince of the Church. It is reportedly very loosely based on Cardinal Spellman. Being the story of one man's life, the novel has no one single plot and can instead be considered a series of linked stories and plots which involve Fermoyle at various stages of his career.

The characters in The Cardinal are mostly caricatures and stereotypes. The book describes a Catholic Triumphalism which would not be possible in a contemporary novel. The novel also takes a very romanticised view of the Church and clerical life in general. It is full of cliches and characters whose only purpose is to evoke a romanticized piety in the reader.

For instance, Father Fermoyle's sister Ellen is a pious Carmelite nun who contracts tuberculosis. Obviously she is intended to evoke the memory of Saint Therese. When Fermoyle is feeling that his vocation is challenged by his love for a woman, he goes off to a Benedictine monastery and is assigned to work in the kitchen beside a simple lay brother who stays mystically close to God through his work. Obviously, this is supposed to evoke shades of Brother Lawrence of The Practice of the Presence of God fame.

The reader has to be taught a moral lesson, so when Father Fermoyle's little sister refuses to marry a nice Catholic boy like she ought to and runs off with a Hispanic dancer (who also turns out to be a notorious back alley abortionist), we know that things are not going to turn out well. After all, the wages of sin is death. Mona, who is pregnant in a flop house, goes to a church and prays before a statute of Saint Anthony to be found by her family. Mona's prayers are answered and she is rescued by her brothers. However, there is a complication in her pregnancy which requires Monsignor Fermoyle to decide to let the doctors abort the child or let Mona face certain death. Of course, Mona dies in child birth and Monsignor Fermoyle names his newborn niece Regina in honor of the Blessed Mother. (I was told by an older lady of my acquantance that Protestant girls of her generation hesitated before dating Catholic boys because of this very scene in this novel.)

I have to say that the book is very well written for the type of thing that it is which is what we today would probably call beach reading. (In fact, I read a whole bunch of The Cardinal at the beach week before last.)

The Cardinal is a cliched Catholic soap opera. In short, The Cardinal is wonderful and I had great fun reading it. It would be well worth the time and money for anyone who loves the Church to dig up a copy of this old pot boiler.


  1. A Catholic's faith is doubtless strengthened by this novel. It shows an unwavering degree of catholic identity that has gone lost today. The then priest's supreme objective was the salvation of souls. Today's priests rather preach God's mery for everyone. A Non-Catholic can hardly appreciate the novel.

  2. I read this when I was a non-Catholic teenager, Armin, and I loved the book and the film. I think that I did appreciate it.
    However, I had read a lot about Catholicism.