Book Review: The She-Apostle

The She-Apostle  - The Extraordinary Life and Death of Luisa de Carvajal By Glyn Redworth

The life of Luisa de Carvajal was defined by her faith, courage and determination. In Glyn Redworth’s biography 'The She-Apostle', we read that Luisa’s aristocratic status, together with her personal qualities, could easily have secured her a comfortable life in her country of birth, Spain. There she could have practiced her Catholic faith in safety and in comfort. However, the depth of her devotion to God, her commitment to the Catholic Church, and possibly the early influence of her guardian uncle, drove her far from the path of convention. She was to become known as the first modern day female missionary and risked life and limb to protect the practice of Catholicism in Protestant England.

During her 40 years, her faith would give Luisa undeniable clarity of purpose and the courage to break from conventional expectation. She engineered (smuggled by the Jesuits), her move from Spain to England, where Catholics were being imprisoned, tortured and executed for practicing their faith. Here she became entwined in the politics and religious direction of a powerful nation, while living a life of chosen poverty, amongst London’s abandoned poor.

Choosing to practice her faith without the restraints of joining a religious order, Luisa set up small communities for lay women, and pledged a series of oaths that set out the goals of her life. These included chastity, perfection (free of venial and mortal sin) and eventually the readiness for martyrdom. She harboured Catholic priests and organized the collection of relics of martyred Catholics. All of which placed her in extreme danger that she perceived as part of God’s will for her.

There is much in the book that is thought provoking and disturbing. We hear how as a child Luisa underwent varying extremes of imposed penance and devotion under the guardianship of her Uncle and his female servants. He instructed flagellation and mortification of the flesh that regularly accompanied fasting and prayer. These were supposed to be means of expressing and achieving closeness to God.

With empathy that is both unsettling to read, and challenging to appreciate, Redworth analyses the psychological disposition that enabled Luisa to willingly submit to the abuse she received. Her devotion to her Uncle, and her unfailing belief that he was acting in her best interests, led her to comply with the suffering he made her undergo as a child.

The diaries and letters that feature in the biography, allow the reader to enter into Luisa’s thinking and witness her response to her experiences. Her personal commitment to the processes and rituals that she was subjected to,  is key to Redworth’s interpretation of Luisa’s character. Such compliance with her uncle’s instruction, is seen as part of Luisa’s determination to shape and take ownership of her life and destiny. Her wilful and purpose driven character is not broken by the abuse she receives as a child, and this in turn enables her to deal with threats of persecution when she carries out her work in England later in life.

Luisa operated in a largely patriarchal society, where women - especially those of noble birth - were rarely permitted to shape their own lives.  However, through insight, determination and circumstance Luisa achieves that which she sets out to do in life. Whether she achieves the death she longs for is for the reader to discover.

Combining daily life with accounts of the political and religious developments of the period, Redworth’s biography provides a fascinating character portrayal of an incredibly strong woman. Through thoughtful analysis of Luisa’s letters and poetry, the psychological element of the book enables the modern reader to go someway in understanding the mindset behind this woman of outstanding courage.

The She-Apostle is an excellent read. It can be recommended to anyone wanting to gain an insight into 16th Century England, and inspiration from the life of a woman who lived at that time. Redworth’s biography encapsulates universal themes such as courage and perseverance, within the context of religion and politics. It is also the fascinating tale of an individual’s bravery and adventure.

The She-Apostle by Glyn Redworth is published by Oxford University Press, and priced £16.99.

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