Mary DUNN.  The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l’Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition.  New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.  Pp. 224.  $45.00.  ISBN: 978-0-8232-6721-7.  Reviewed by Marianne T. FITZGERALD, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.


The responsibility of raising a child must be daunting.  Even with guidebooks, manuals and “What to Expect” handbooks, I imagine there are still many moments when important choices need to be made and there is no clear way to determine which decision is best.  This book recounts the story of one woman, Marie Guyart, later known as Marie de l’Incarnation, and highlights the context in which she decided to abandon her 11-year old son Claude in order to join an Ursuline convent in 1631.  It also weaves together the narrative of another mother, the author, Mary Dunn, who has struggled with her own choices about raising her children, especially her daughter who was born with a “genetic difference” that requires extra time and care.  Throughout this book, Dunn shares insights that she has learned from her own experience of motherhood and offers a variety of different ways to understand Marie’s choice to leave her young son.

The book begins with a brief analysis of Marie’s life and her choice to enter the French convent. Although she joined the Ursuline sisters, Marie’s relationship with her son continued by way of various encounters and letters they exchanged as he grew up and discerned his own path.  This on-going connection leads Dunn to consider whether Marie did in fact abandon Claude.  Dunn examines general notions of abandonment in light of this particular example and she considers the historic context of Marie and the Catholic Church.

Various hagiographies also factor into this analysis as Dunn highlights other women who became saints and who also left their children in order to enter into religious life.  She compares Marie de l’Incarnation to figures like Perpetua and Birgitta of Sweden, and she examines the role of women in 17th century Europe.  Dunn invites the reader to reconsider what we think about motherhood in general and enter into the challenging situation of Catholic women.  She builds on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to discuss Marie’s agency as well as her participation in basic social practices.

One important point to consider throughout this book is whether Marie felt that she was voluntarily abandoning Claude or if she felt compelled by God to do what God was requiring of her.  In Marie’s own writing, through her letters to Claude, she describes how “pained” she was to be torn from Claude and how she suffered cruelly after she had entered the convent.  She goes on, however, to be a successful sister in New France and helps establish the first Ursuline school in Canada.  Claude, in his own right, becomes a priest and receives praise for his work and his writing.  Although Marie and Claude both suffered periods of anguish because of Marie’s abandonment, both were able to live successful lives, dedicated to God’s service.

This book uses the example of Marie de l’Incarnation to think more deeply about motherhood within the Christian tradition.  It explores the tension between the maternal desire to unconditionally love and care for children, the spiritual desire to serve God above all else, and the feminist desire to exert one’s own sense of agency over a sense of subordination.  It introduces a number of important and thought-provoking questions about the role of women and mothers within religious institutions.

I very much appreciated Dunn’s ability to share relevant anecdotes from her own journey in ways that were helpful and applicable to the questions that the book was raising.  Her modern struggles as a mother illuminated new ways of thinking about Marie’s challenge.  The book was a pleasure to read and it was refreshing in the way that it presented a variety of opinions about the challenges of motherhood without offering judgments one way or another.  Dunn succeeds both in outlining the example of Marie as one way to reconsider motherhood and in asking readers to think more deeply about women in the Christian tradition.