In her memoir, Paper Houses, Michèle Roberts speaks of being “damaged by Catholicism.” Her 1984 novel The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene, originally published as The Wild Girl, was her attempt to explore the damage done to herself and to other women.
Told in the first person, the book recounts the life of Mary Magdalene, traveller, whore and lover of Jesus Christ. The Christ that Mary Magdalene knows however, is different from the Christ depicted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Mary’s Christ calls women to be his disciples, preaches about the Father and the Mother, and believes in marriage in the body as well as in the soul.
Through Mary’s eyes, Roberts paints Jesus as human, in weakness and in strength. Her interpretation of Jesus’ teaching is intelligent and refreshing and Mary’s accounts of the ‘miracles’ are witty: of the loaves and the fishes she says, “People called it a miracle afterwards. I called it good housewifery. I daresay we meant the same thing.” Lazarus was not raised from the dead but pulled out of a deep depression by the return of his friend Jesus, for whom he had been pining. Even the virgin birth is satisfactorily explained: “When she was betrothed to Joseph but not yet married, a virgin according to our Hebrew way of naming, [Mary] was discovered to be pregnant.”
Sometimes I found the book quite heavy reading and had difficulty interpreting Jesus’ speeches and Mary’s dream sequences. I understood the message of the book much better after reading Paper Houses and learning of the conflicts Roberts’ Catholic upbringing had stirred in her.