A Review of “Frances and Bernard,” by Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer. Frances and Bernard (London: Vintage Books, 2014)

Frances and Bernard is an epistolary novel. Carlene Bauer delicately and vividly portrays the relationship between two writers, Bernard Eliot and Frances Reardon, who had met at a writers colony in 1957. It is Bernard who initiates the correspondence with Frances, and his intention is to start some intellectual exchange and hopefully a platonic friendship. They do become friends and then end up falling in love with each other. At various points during their relationship they seem to be confused about love, and then they try to either reject it, or are overpowered by it. Eventually, both of them realize that they are not meant for each other. Frances tries to be steadfast in her faith in God and, in the end, it’s what gets her through the toughest of times. Frances’s and Bernard’s relationship is realized through their correspondence which spans the time period from August 1957 to September 1968. We, as readers, are listening to their most intimate thoughts.


Certainly this epistolary is a philosophically imbued work. Dialogues between Frances and Bernard not only often focused on discussing each others’ writing work, but delved into matters of morality and faith. Their letter exchanges also dwelled on personal dilemmas: how should does one live their life (?), how does one cope with a relationship breakup (?), and how does one decide if doing the traditional thing like getting married is the right thing to do? Frances and Bernard came from diverse upbringings and ultimately this influenced their relationship. Frances was raised in a working-class Irish Catholic family in north Philadelphia and Bernard comes from a prominent middle-class Boston family. We see some class and gender role struggles: Frances resists being molded into the traditional life, and since she didn’t come from an affluent family and was also determined to be a serious writer, she needed to work to feel free. Bernard had his own issues to deal with: he struggled vigorously with himself, not only with his unpredictable erratic impulsiveness, but he desperately sought his own authentic voice in his poetry, which culminated in his ultimate rejection of the existence of God. As engaging prolific writers, they constantly tossed ideas back and forth—it sets the inspirational tone which Bauer achieved so well. Frances and Bern both loved philosophy and frequently, in order to bolster their egos and arguments, invoked the thinking of Augustine, Soeren Kierkegaard, Simone Weil and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I will highlight some of the philosophical elements I found in their letter exchanges: ‘grace’; the existence of God; and ‘free will’ and the ‘unconscious’ (112). The writing of each and every letter is the method through which Bauer develops not only each character but the philosophical elements that emerge when Frances and Bernard convey ideas to each other.

Before continuing, I’d like to emphasize something: While it seems religion plays a part in Frances’s character development, it certainly is not in any way the main theme. If anything, the letter exchanges between the two writers sets the stage for some very interesting philosophical arguments. Catholicism seems to be an important part of Frances’ life, but yet it doesn’t overwhelm her. Rather, Frances’ objective, more than anything else in her life, was to be an independent thinker and become a successful writer—for college-educated women such as herself in the 1950s and 60s, a traditional married life was the norm and this is what she wanted to avoid at all costs—in no way did she want to lose herself.

The epistolary begins with Frances writing a letter to her best friend Claire in late summer 1957, and is soon followed by Bernard’s first letter to Frances on September 20, 1957. He wastes no time in trying to get to know Frances and what makes her tick as a writer. Bernard ends his first letter—and this is when he hardly knows her—by simply asking Frances, and quite bluntly, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” (6). On September 30, 1957 Frances replies to Bernard: “I believe he is grace and wisdom” (7). And later Frances expounds on ‘grace’: “We should love him but without expecting his love in return. This way we know we are not loving him out of fear. Love then becomes a creative act, one in which each day we are responsible for moving forward into a more perfect practice of self-forgetting. He loves us by letting us take a very long time to make that practice perfect. […] and lets us in the freest free will, make mistakes and keep trying. The fact that I am still standing and have not yet been reduced to a smoking pile of ash is some proof that grace is his nature” (115). It is essential to understanding this epistolary: we see two people, who in their daily lives never seem to get it quite right when it comes to being the perfect person in a relationship. They keep trying, like we all do, and hope for the better.

Does God exist or not? This is a question that pops up every now and then because both characters seem to struggle with it especially where it concerns their own particular voices which permeate their respective professional writings. At various points during the letter exchange Frances and Bernard discuss the existence of God and what he intends to do for humanity and signs that could prove someone is actually listening. Bernard ultimately denies the existence of God in one of his later poetry books (191). On the other hand, Frances seems to wholeheartedly—except for some moments when she is in deep despair, in the hour of her greatest need for comfort—embrace faith in the almighty. Frances expounds on signs especially where it concerns “suffering,” and it is in this context where she invokes Simone Weil’s thinking: “I do believe with her [Simone Weil] that suffering is one way to hear God, or to know God. […] he emerges when we are ashamed of our nakedness, so to speak” (32). Frances seemed to be enraptured by God, but also allows herself at times to be completely baffled by the existence of God: ‘I’m the last person to want to describe God as a constantly available warm lap’ (31-2). In other words, she looks for signs that he has heard her and is responding to her. Yet she’s also not afraid to admit she is confused about Weil’s theology, especially when she tries to cope with difficult and sensitive issues in her own life as well as witnessing the misfortunes suffered by Bernard. Frances suffers terribly after losing Bernard. She seeks the advice of Sister Josephine (194); and the letter she writes is quite philosophical. Frances somehow thinks that she should put her suffering, that is, the energy that comes from it, into her writing: “I shouldn’t sully it with my wounded realizations. I think that great writers can write to compensate for the losses they endure in real life” (196). Then, quite unexpectedly, she receives a letter from their mutual friend Ted. And Ted is quite frank with her: don’t have any regrets, it was for the better. Ted even wrote how shocked he was about Bernard’s behavior of late. So, that letter she received from Ted was the sign she had hoped for. It gave Frances closure.

Are we really in control of everything that we do? Both writers struggle with the ‘unconscious’ and ‘free will’, however, it is Bernard who ultimately must come to terms with his erratic way of life and whether he can overcome his impulses which ultimately lead to nearly ruining his life, including driving away the woman he loves. Frances in a letter to Bernard on August 5, 1959 poses questions, “If you say you are suffering from a wish to be a hero, and that wish has corrupted your faith, I don’t see how this system will disabuse you of that wish. It seems to me that it will keep putting you front and center of your own myth. Why is the unconscious any better than free will? What does it serve serve us to imagine ourselves enslaved to impulses? […] why imagine that we are enslaved to drives and paralyzed by frustrations that we had no hand in making? This seems like nihilism” (112-13). She is asking these questions because she deeply cares for Bernard, but yet is so afraid. In order to stop himself from ruining his life, Bernard has to face his illness—at the verge of insanity—and conquer it: stop blaming his family and his ancestors. In the end, it’s all about his will. After his breakdown (the first one that Frances witnessed), whilst recovering at his parents’ home, he ends one of his letters with, “Don’t feel sorry for me, or afraid of me. Please remain my friend” (107).

Frances and Bernard: A long-term relationship that was never meant to be—though passionate in its highest moments—sheer disappointment when it veered off the road. We the reader are disappointed that this relationship cannot go on—we don’t want to see Francis unhappy and skeptical,we don’t want to see Bernard getting stressed out, we wish he would get a grip on himself, but he doesn’t.

Carlene Bauer’s forte is articulating the ‘intimacy’ between Frances and Bernard and creating their reality so we can know and understand them. Intimacy is highly valued: it is about trust more than anything else, and knowing you can be your true self when writing to your friend(s). Being genuine is something to cherish. Friends wrote to each other for all sorts of reasons: advice, comforting, to retell events, get opinions, express secrets, even white lies, manipulate people, express love and disdain, scolding, chastising, constructive criticism and unconditional support, and love. Intimacy is to be understood not as a physical intimacy, rather it is something shared through private thoughts and feelings between people. One of my favorite parts is where Bernard expresses (January 1958) his admiration for Frances: “’What I have observed is that you have respect for tradition while not being weighed down by it. You know what you like and who you’ll follow, and when and why and where you’ll part ways. Most of the writers I admire possess this combination of reverence and courage’ (17).

Bauer is brilliant at developing her characters through intimacy. The author shows the reader—via the letter exchanges—how people of Frances’s and Bernard’s generation actually took the time to sit down and write out their private thoughts. It is a way of writing we are not really too familiar with anymore: our current generation communicates by email and text messaging. Human communication has evolved into another state of being, hasn’t it?

For Frances and Bernard, Carlene Bauer has achieved to answer these questions: Do we know who we are? Do we know what we really want out of our lives? Are we strong enough? We are witness to Frances and Bernard’s letters of lively prose: humor, skepticism, fear and angst. The two writers discussed their works in progress always honest with each other. We see Francis developing into the great writer that she finally becomes—her stoic exterior, or as Bernard puts it, cool and distant. Frances’s stoic exterior entombed a warm heart—she just was not always in touch with her real self—later she regretted it. As her friend Ted told her, she should have no regrets. We, like the characters in the story, are the ‘human condition’ because their daily lives are in so many ways similar to our own despite the story taking place in another era. Emotions are so vividly portrayed and, at times, quite poignant. Bernard in his seemingly unending quest to persuade Frances of his enduring love, and yet so honest of his shortcomings. Bernard rejects his faith in God, but also he does not celebrate it either—he seems to suffer with it, at least that is how Frances experienced it. And we see Frances hanging on to her faith for all the reasons she should and shouldn’t. Since we, the readers of this epistolary, did not actually read any of Frances’s books or any of Bernard’s poetry books, we will never completely understand. And this is the mysterious side—the food for thought that we might never see—which continuously motivates one to read this exquisite work by Bauer.

Humor comes at all the right moments. Frances is witty, elegant, true to herself and yet never afraid to add some vinegar to the conversation if it requires it. Bernard is charming, flamboyant, passionate, witty and provocative. Frances may at times have seemed so serious and rigid about her Catholic faith, but actually she always maintained a healthy skepticism. Frances can also laugh very loudly: the reader is always left wanting when she expounds with gusto. Frances and Bernard despite being immersed in their own writer worlds, exude spicy, sarcastic humor and thought provoking exchanges. And Carlene Bauer articulates and energizes it all so very well.

I’ve never read a book like this before, and once I started to read it I just could not put it down!

Review by: Karin Susan Fester (c) 2016

Disclaimer: The book was borrowed from the West Swindon Library, Swindon, Wiltshire. England. Book cover image courtesy of the publisher.


The 3rd Advent …

Ich wünsche Euch allen ein schönes Wochenende zum 3.


Freude ist unsäglich mehr als Glück,
Glück bricht über die Menschen herein, Glück ist Schicksal –
Freude bringen sie in sich zum Blühen,
Freude ist einfach eine gute Jahreszeit über dem Herzen;
Freude ist das Äußerste, was die Menschen in ihrer Macht haben.

— Rainer Maria Rilke