There's a good chance you've never heard of Taylor Caldwell. She was a popular author once upon a time, but then just “disappeared.” If you're a regular at book sales or used bookstores, you've probably come across her books before, but likely didn't pay them much attention. Before I get around to my review of Great Lion of God, I'd like to introduce Ms. Caldwell, and spend a few minutes discussing what became of her work.
Who was Taylor Caldwell?
Taylor Caldwell was an English-born American author born in 1900. She began writing as a child, finishing her first novel at the age of twelve. Throughout her life, she published nearly fifty novels and supposedly wrote more than a hundred others. Several of her novels were bestsellers; her most known works include Captains and the Kings, Dynasty of Death, Dear and Glorious Physician, and This Side of Innocence. Most of her works were historical in nature. Her name remained relevant throughout her career into the 1980s. In 1979, she signed a book deal for $3.9 million dollars (that's $12.5 million dollars in the world of 2013)! She was a respected and well-liked author, a multi-millionare; yet you've probably not heard of her. By the time I discovered her ten years ago, all her books were out of print. The Internet was largely silent on her. Few libraries owned her books. Multi-volume encyclopedias of significant world authors failed to mention her. It was as if she had been erased. My interest had been piqued.
What happened to Taylor Caldwell?
I don't mean the person herself (she died of heart failure in 1985), but her work. Why was Caldwell wiped from the annals of literary history, a victim of the fifty cent bin at bookstores from coast to coast? Who knows? But I have a few theories.
Perhaps she was a tad too late
Caldwell wrote exceptionally well for the time when she began her career. Influenced by the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Balzac, and the Brontes, Caldwell's early novels were cutting edge in the time when Gone with the Wind was immensely popular. With large, meandering historical works that dipped into romance occasionally and were filled cover-to-cover with the purplest of prose, it is no wonder Caldwell became a superstar. When the style became more minimalistic, however, Caldwell remained true to her earlier writing style. As everything shifted toward postmodernism, Caldwell stayed a favorite of her original readers, the parents and grandparents of Generation X.
Perhaps Caldwell's work died with her fan base. Perhaps she just became irrelevant. Perhaps that style was not meant to last the test of time. Or...
Perhaps she was just too controversial
Caldwell was somewhat of a dichotomy. She was very outspoken about her views and she had many of them. And, because her views were often on opposite ends of what is considered the normal spectrum, Caldwell was all-inclusive in being offensive. See if you can piece all these things together: Caldwell was a very outspoken conservative; she hated welfare; she was Catholic; she believed in reincarnation; she was pro-abortion; she was a conspiracy theorist (more on this later); she believed all religion led to the same god; she hated feminist—was disgusted by women in general; she was an environmentalist; she was anti-Semitic.
Caldwell herself couldn't make up her mind about some of these issues (mostly dealing with reincarnation and religion), but that didn't keep her from being vocal as she flip-flopped from side to side. How vocal was Caldwell? Well, let's look at some of her own words about women taken from various interviews:
There’s no doubt about it—women are the inferior sex, in every way. There’s never been any woman genius—never. With all the opportunity in the world—all the leisure in the world, all the shelter—if women had any genius, it would’ve come out. It never did. There’s been no woman Michelangelo, or Beethoven, or Mozart.
It's a woman's place to serve a man.
Women shouldn't have the right to vote. In ancient Rome, women had the right to vote and became active in government. That was the end of Rome. The one good thing Mussolini did was to take away the right of women to vote.
Oh, and her thoughts on children struck me as very interesting as well:
“My children never dared enter a room where their father was without permission. And I don't believe they should be allowed to eat with their parents until they're 21.”
Wow, what child would want to eat with their parents after twenty years of being ignored?
Needless to say, it's easy to see why Caldwell could be offensive. And, as the recent debacle concerning Orson Scott Card has shown, a writer's views can alienate readers regardless of the work.
Perhaps she was erased for what she knew
Caldwell was a huge conspiracy theorist. She strongly believed in an international group of bankers who ran the world. She blamed every tragic event that happened around the world on them, giving pretty damning (or coincidental) evidence for the assassination of every American president. She bluntly called out her Syndicate-like group in Captains and the Kings and, not surprisingly, was very vocal about the extent of their reach.
Perhaps Caldwell was on to something. Perhaps these all powerful men (because they were all men, of course), reached back in time and erased Caldwell from history. They forced the publishers to shut down the presses on Caldwell's novels and steered the writer's legacy to the worst possible fate for a writer: obscurity.
Perhaps you don't care
So I've rambled for quite some time about Caldwell, but I think it's all relevant. Personally, I enjoy dynamic personalities like hers regardless of her views. I think she may have been brilliant in some areas, but I also think she was very confused and ignorant in others. What an interesting person. And that's why I read Taylor Caldwell. That's why I've continued to fish her books out of those fifty cent bins and add them to my to-read shelf. She can ramble on sometimes and bore me, but damn if she's not interesting.
On to the review...
I didn't love this one. Great Lion of God is the story of Saul of Tarsus (otherwise known as Paul, Saint Paul, Apostle Paul, That Jerk That Confused Christianity). The novel's 620 pages tell the whole life of Saul, most of which is, of course, speculative.
Of Caldwell's many books, I'm not sure why I chose the one about the life of Saul? I'm not a fan of the historical figure. His words (told in thirteen New Testament books of the Bible) have confused Christianity more than any others of the time—perhaps ever. Those words that most clearly advocate government and admonish homosexuality come from Saul's pen. No other New Testament author touches these subjects the same way. And yet, there is confusion in these scriptures of Saul, so that everyone claims they know what Saul meant, but no one is really sure. Boo, Saul!
What I liked about Great Lion of God is that it provided much historical context to this time. It offered speculation as to why Saul kissed the ass of the Roman government, and it made complete sense. Maybe Saul wasn't a complete douche bag, but a very confused man with too much time to write down his thoughts for history before he really had a chance to ruminate on them. (Much like Caldwell herself.)
Overall, Great Lion of God was guilty of Caldwell's diarrhea of the pen, that is to say, Purple Prose abounds. Many of the early years of Saul's life could've been cut, as could much of the philosophical discourse between characters. Aside from this overwriting, the story of the zealous Jew who became Christianity's greatest convert is interesting. Saul's confrontation with the father of Stephen was the highlight of the novel; also fascinating were the many scenes depicting the confusion within Judaism and Christianity in the first century A.D.
Caldwell's writing is not for everyone, especially in today's fast-paced society. Some may not be able to get past her controversial views. It's understandable and I do not look down on anyone who will not give the author a minute of their time. But, if you interested in dynamic personalities like I am, and don't mind spending hours in the vast and verdant rolling hills of a garden floating in a golden mist where flowers glitter with silvery dew and where sonorous voices come from rosy lips, then give Caldwell a try. As long as the International Bankers haven't gotten to your local used bookstore yet, you should be able to find her novels in the discount bin.