|The Real Mary Shepherd|
The critically acclaimed "Lady in the Trailer" is a film ("that's mostly true") set in a the up and coming Camden Town on the northbound tube just outside of the bustle of London. It was originally a piece for the New York Times Literary Supplement, a book and then an autobiographical play by Alan Bennett (b. 1934). It covers a time period approximately from 1970 to 1986, and involves a difficult but increasingly close relationship between a van driving, homeless ex-nun and local eccentric, Mary Shepherd, who ekes out a living on the margins of the community, on the charity of the town's more liberal-minded inhabitants, and the aforementioned aberrosexual playwright, Bennett. More out of annoyance than out of real concern, vexed at his feelings of compassion, Bennett allowed the scrofulous, scatological elderly woman, to park her van in his driveway, despite his obvious hatred for everything she believes and holds dear, which he only dimly and bemusedly understands.
As we come to learn of the personality of this difficult woman and her plight, we discover that she had been, tragically, a very talented pianist who was told to abandon the piano by her religious confessor as an act of obedience to her religious order. It was this she did. It is this, we suppose, that led to her destitute condition, her attempt to live out her religious convictions to their most severe and perilously remote end. Is it a fine religious emotion lived out imperfectly, but triumphantly, or a dangerous delusion which destroyed a promising artist's life and marred her irreparably? We expect this is what Bennett meant, in between feeling the sorrow of it all without embracing her own religious sentiments. For all of this, Bennett begrudgingly admires her, she was after all this heroic figure during the London Blitz, who drove an ambulance during the blackout. With these religious and secular aspirations, her obvious patriotism, it was her thwarted musical gift which led her to profound poverty and mental distress, coupled with the guilt of fleeing the scene where she killed a reckless cyclist on the motorway which put her on the wrong side of the law. In a Godless secular world, all we see is that wreckage and the human dimension. This is the view of many NeoCatholics, tragically.
In a very real sense, she is that traditionalist so many people love to despise, even if they have the admirable qualities as Bennett admitted of Mary Shepherd. And for all of her infirmities, her pseudonymous surname possesses symbolic value, even if it's a name she called herself. She entered and was thrown out of two religious communities, so she must have had a sincere missionary impulse, and despite rejection by her own religious superiors, she persisted in the faith. These aspirations to be useful took on various forms, whether the contemplative praying for the soul of the young man she killed and going to Mass every year on the day of his death, she sits in the street and sells religious tracts, while using the sidewalk as a chalkboard and campaigns for the Fidelis party (Not sure it exists, but we guess that it's a UK version of Belgium's Rexist party, or the Polish? Anyway, it sounds like OUR kind of party!). She prays for hours, even shouting at God, returning to the site where she struck her errant cyclist. She defers to the Mother of God in various and sundry decisions of daily life, even if it is to put those who accost her off balance. She is a religious Mass-goer, on all days of holy obligation, perhaps even daily, receiving Holy Communion on her knees. But she's ungrateful, so ungrateful, bigoted and rude to her posh leftist neighbors, who, driven by guilt, perhaps as much as they were really deep down, decent people, begrudgingly attempt to do her good turns. This is just the sort of "traditional" Catholic against whom the media repeatedly levels its malice, even if they argue that one is only a victim, as Miss Shepherd evidently was, of the "evil" Catholic Church. That is the image which so many modern Catholics, even of a more conservative, if not traditional, bent, want to avoid at all costs, even if they are, as is the case of our friends at places like the Register, possessed of more unpopular positions like opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. It really is a challenge to be a hermit in this day and age!
Religious life, and the history of Catholicism is full of these sorts of apparent failures at life, though, as Alan Bennett states, "her life was far more interesting than mine." Bennett's obvious affection for the cantankerous and "bigoted" old Catholic in his driveway, is not one in which she gives quarter, yet he does what he can to help her, while her own religious order, for which she sacrificed her musical gift, and presumably the Church, leaves her in the cold at the margins. Shepherd remarks at one point just as she is about to die, that even though her religious superiors didn't appreciate her, "they didn't know what they had with Saint Bernadette either!" But in the end, she speculates hopefully, if fancifully, considering her enormous sacrifices and poverty in life, that her holiness will lead to the house and van location in North London becoming a place of pilgrimage.
Despite her saintly aspirations, it's the local constabulary, the social services, a gentle Subcontinental doctor, Bahamian nurse's aide, posh liberals and a humble, but "saintly" gay man, who are the real saints in this portrayal, according to the gay man himself. His own appeals to the local religious community, who don't wear habits any longer, the local priest, her own family, leave her to be the responsibility of those people we're not supposed to believe do good works: like black social worker, socialist aberrosexual playwright, self-satisfied lefties and a policeman. Maybe his incomprehension is that God has left most religious communities, or at least, they have left Him. The BBC/NPR crowd. Thus, it doesn't matter with all of the good the Catholic Church does for the poor, even the official parts of it that have all but given up on God, particularly in London, even at London Oratory (which is always being accused of not being charitable by evil lefties), the most charitable thing we can expect from an aberrosexual playwright and the BBC is a slap in the face.
For his part, Bennett ends the film starting up a more permanent relationship with one of his gentleman callers. Apparently it's an illicit one, which we are to suppose that the fanciful Shepherd would approve, as she catches him ogling one of the attractive funeral directors at her internment before she is whisked off to heaven to the arms of God the Father. It's a subtly blasphemous treatment and we don't recommend you see the film for yourself. You'd be better off reading the life of Saint Bernadette itself than this.