The Secret Scripture
Sebastian Barry, 2008, Faber and Faber, 312 pages, ISBN 9780571215294
The ‘Irish Times’ called ‘The Secret Scripture’ “a great book” and Sebastian Barry “arguably, our greatest living novelist”. The novel begins in 1957. Roseanne is a wide-awake centenarian, longtime resident in Roscommon Mental Hospital. She has chosen silence as the least painful answer to a hard existence. However, she begins to write an account of her life to get a better picture and grasp of it. This “secret scripture” will be for herself alone. It begins with the avowal of the mistake she made.
“The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.”
We are immediately immersed in her delicate, old-fashioned Irish prose, all soft beauty and turns of speech from what pass for simpler times. Barry makes of Roseanne a consummate stylist. The novel’s second voice belongs to Doctor Grene, the psychiatrist in charge of the Roscommon Hospital. At sixty-five he has also suffered “the tricks of time,” though thirty-five years fewer than Roseanne. He keeps, his own secret scripture, a ‘Common Place’ book that we will read intercut with Roseanne’s.
Grene has to prepare the closing of the outmoded asylum in view of a move to a new building with smaller capacity. That entails assessing the inmates and sending those considered capable back into the outside world. Grene has talks with Roseanne to find out why she has been institutionalised. She reveals little, and relevant documents have been lost over the years. After each meeting with Grene, Roseanne, biro in hand, sets down her assessment of him in the memoir she is writing to herself.
No stereotypical psychiatrist, Grene is distrustful of the jargon of his profession and as alien to his times as Roseanne was to hers. Conscientious and humane, he regrets that there is nothing he can do for most patients but respect their humanity. He is severe with himself, feeling guilt toward his childless wife who died, unfulfilled, during his time spent probing Roseanne’s past.
Roseanne tells us that, still a teen, she saw her beautiful mother sink into mental illness and her beloved father commit suicide following reverses in his working life. Irish provincial life in the 1920s wasn’t the peaceful scene we might imagine. Roseanne couldn’t escape its perturbations. Violence and political turmoil erupted with the move to establish the Irish Free State. Civil war followed when Republicans rebelled against the agreement made with Great Britain.
Poverty and membership of a Presbyterian minority set Roseanne’s destiny. A beautiful girl, she married a Catholic who, though indifferent in matters of religion, was in thrall to a bigoted mother. An impropriety of Roseanne’s that offended local custom allowed her mother-in-law to bring about the annulment of her marriage. Years pass, and Roseanne, rejected and isolated, has a strange encounter that leaves her pregnant, which in the thinking of the time and place make her a social pariah. Her very existence becomes an embarrassment for her former husband’s well-placed family. They manage, with the help of a meddlesome priest, to label her a nymphomaniac and sequester her in what in those politically incorrect days was called a lunatic asylum.
Grene’s search for documents leads to a discovery that casts the account Roseanne is writing in a very different light. Her father had not committed suicide. He belonged to the police on the wrong side of the Civil War and was executed by the Republicans. Roseanne’s memory was inexact. The story she tells, grim though it be, is a wishful view, a version she has created to make herself less unhappy. Sebastian Barry has made us think about the nature of freedom, the difference between incarceration and life ‘outside'. He touches on the nature of memory and its relation to truth, how we all invent a secret scripture to see us through life. Roseanne herself confesses:
“It makes me a little dizzy to contemplate the possibility that everything I remember may not be—may not be real, I suppose. There was so much turmoil at that time that—that what? I took refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies? I don’t know.”
Dr Grene’s corrections to Roseanne’s story of her life are not offered in the rigorous spirit of science intent on calling fantasy to order. He knows his profession doesn’t cure the sick but only helps them bear the weight of living. Facts aren’t the whole truth. Wishful thinking, he also knows, is a means we use to keep our minds together. While Grene muses and Roseanne beautifies her sad story, we are given sharp glimpses into Irish history and a dark picture of its church-run institutions in years past. Not that ‘The Secret Scripture’ ends there. Its most surprising revelations await readers of a powerful, many-sided novel that the ‘Irish Times’ was right to call “great”.