On the face of it, and with its cover photo of a wartime marriage, Before & After by Alison Wilson (Constable, £16.99) might suggest an elderly widow’s fond memoir of past years. This impression would be entirely wrong. Indeed, behind the straightforward eloquence of her prose style, Wilson’s story grows more extraordinary with the turning of the pages; not merely strange from a human perspective – though it is certainly that – but also from a Catholic and supernatural one. So compelling was her memoir that it was turned into a 3-part TV mini-series earlier this year. I am relieved I haven’t seen it; it could hardly dramatize the inner spiritual journey described in “After”.
In their loving foreword to their mother’s book, her two sons, Nigel and Gordon, explain that she gave them the first part, Before, to read in 1992, almost 30 years after the death of their father, Alexander (known as “Alec” in his life and referred to as “A” in the book) and 50 years after her wartime marriage in 1941 when she was aged 21. What she revealed came as a complete shock to them, now middle-aged men; they pay tribute to the love and security she gave them as children, “that came at enormous physical, emotional and mental cost to her.”
Alison Wilson herself provides the key to her book, which might easily be overlooked in the all-too-human drama: “All life, for all of us, no matter who we are, is a learning to love…This story of my life is, then, a love-story.” But not of the romantic kind – though it does have elements of this at the start. What Alison discovered after her husband’s sudden death from a heart-attack in 1963, was that her marriage (in a Catholic church as A was, nominally at least, a Catholic) to the man she describes as “likeable, kind, gentle, quiet, abstemious” was in fact a complete sham. He was a bigamist; he had three other marriages and many affairs, as well as several other children whom he had abandoned; and everything he had told her of his early life and career was fictitious.
Although she had harboured doubts over the years Alison chose not to pry into the past; she could not face what she might have learnt. Thus her “disillusionment was total.” She hid her newfound knowledge from her sons, then aged 19 and 21: “I could not destroy the love and respect [they] had for their father” she writes simply. Unable to share her anguish, her inner pain was enormous.
But then follows After, the second part of the memoir, that her sons found among their mother’s papers after her death in 2005. Alison had long wanted to become a Catholic, the faith in which her sons had been raised; so after some instruction, she joined the Church a few months after A’s death. This was the turning-point in her life. Embittered by his lies, she had also been tormented by the thought that A might have “died in sacrilege” and “unrepentant”. In a sentence worthy of the novelist Georges Bernanos, she writes, “I knew then that sin is the only real tragedy.”
But kneeling at the altar at her First Communion, Alison had a profound mystical experience, one that changed her life: it led her to join the Servite Secular Institute, to study for a theology degree at Heythrop College and to go on to develop a further education syllabus on writers in the Christian mystical tradition. The mystical experience itself deserves to be partly quoted, because this seemingly ordinary Surrey widow shares a testimony worth of St Teresa of Avila: “I felt Him come…he came with the priest, slowly approaching, drawing nearer, a radiance with no light. First I was aware of a strong fragrance…with it came a warmth like none on earth. It wrapped me round and touched my flesh; lighter than a feather, sweeter than any known sensation, it grew in intensity as He approached. It was a human touch, deified, conveying to my sense gentleness and tenderness of infinite divine origin, enrapturing them as they surrendered to the sweetness which held them in thrall. It was the touch of the Divine Lover…Jesus. I was wrapped and enfolded in Love.”
Alison found she was able to whisper the words “Jesus, forgive him” from her heart and to accept that “A was no longer my responsibility; he had gone from me into the mercy of that unfathomable love.” She also recognised with sorrow her own complicity in the past: “the inordinate love of a person to the exclusion of God.”
This memoir deserves to be read, not so much for the light it throws on the darker, more warped aspects of human nature but for the way in which the author, slowly and prayerfully over the next 40 years, comes to see how divine providence has led her through tribulation, deceit and despair in the first part of her life to an amazing glimpse of the glory of Trinitarian love in the second part.