Taylor Caldwell's "Testimony of Two Men," 1st Published by Doubleday, 1968
Michael D. Fried, PhD
"Testimony ..." takes place at the turn of the 20th Century in a small Pennsylvania town close to Philadelphia. The most dynamic characters are a mother and son, Marjorie and Jon Ferrier. Yet, this story presents many others, spirited and well-conceived. Those with whom we might side are here struggling to understand why we so often regard certain public characters, who readily plays games with evil motives, as the epitome of virtue.
The key target of those evil-doers, Jonathan Ferrier, has exposed their apparent virtues as a cover for heinous ambition and selfishness. Taylor Caldwell also presents readers with some incomprehensibly evil personalities. Even after their identities appear, we remain puzzled, as do many in Hambledon, PA.
The occupation of physician is front and center. As a truly Catholic writer, Taylor Caldwell can't resist tying its highest goals to the priesthood. She wants us to know that the ancient practice of medicine wasn't so primitive as we might think. She gives us evidence that skills of the most talented – though unknown to us – physicians then would be recognized today.
Still, the novel ends at the time of the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 in Buffalo, Caldwell's then home. Instead of a warning of the meanness of small time life, Caldwell pictures a small town well connected to growing political desire for America's Manifest Destiny.
The stubborn hero, Jonathan Ferrier, lamented at 14 "What's the matter with people?" He is generous to his home town and many individuals within it. Yet, he often erupts in fits against those who had, or he thought had, wronged others or behaved execrably. His mother, one of Taylor Caldwell's two heroines, recognizes that Jon's brilliance is coupled with intransigent insistence on his own, at times, terribly faulty judgement.
There are hacks among the doctors. Surely their variety is as one would expect in our own times. Caldwell's ability to keep those characters straight and memorable is one of her sterling virtues. Jon's ability to evaluate the gamut of doctors shades from perspicacity on their technical skills, to imaginative misunderstandings of their all too human motivations.
His problems start and end with a marriage to Mavis, a local enchantress. This is a woman for whom he is totally unsuited, and around whose murder the plot revolves. Caldwell leaves us puzzled long into the novel as to how the murder could have occurred. She drives the plot through the desire of others, who fear Jon's recognition of their sinister motives, to punish him.
Those who have heard of Caldwell as a staunch conservative, will still have reason to engage her themes. For one, her conservativeness has no easy characterization. The author, often through the pronouncements of Jon, articulates many wrongs perpetrated by the darlings of that age.
Still, no one-one correlation with the conservative-liberal spectrum of her time interprets (at the novel's publication in 1968), that same spectrum today. Surely not in her telling how those themes worked at the turn of the 19th Century into the 20th.
Those relevant themes include: our duties to each other; our right to the control of our own lives; and the vexing question of whether human nature is immutable. Even more simply, but not simplistically, she considers: What makes a good man or woman? Caldwell's strongest characters doubt Freud. They see his philosophy at best as limited in what it tells us of the plots we hatch against each other, those driven by a heavy dose of jealousy over the love of another, as well as our pernicious ambitions.
She suggests that many illnesses arise when we cannot find sufficient courage to face life; when we have too little respect for Judeo-Christian morality. Yet, even her hero Jon struggles with both, brandishing confrontational bravery instead of courage to deal with reality.
This being Taylor Caldwell, the greatest of evils, embodied in a Congressional Senator's (Kenton Campion) warmongering. While some of our best modern perspectives would sometimes disagree with her, say, on what drove the Civil War, Caldwell cleverly characterizes some major world events through the actions of local individuals. Yes, this war-mongering sickens Jon! Yet, it is Jon's lobbying for child labor laws – matching his sincerity toward professional expertise – that has drawn the greatest ire from Campion and his national cronies in the Senate.
Many testify toward Jon's guilt or innocence in the killing of Mavis. They especially include his intemperance and intolerance, balanced against his generosity and desire to enhance the medical profession. That is, he is tried in the hearts of the whole town, as expected, based often on irrelevancies. A college class working on this novel would valuably consider who are the "Two Men" of the title.
No one reading this will ever confuse Taylor Caldwell with Ayn Rand in reading of her so-flawed hero. Nor will they deny her feminist instincts once they reckon with the breadth and charm of Jon's mother Marjorie Ferrier. Surely, they will marvel at Caldwell's ability to find redeeming qualities in many of those she characterizes without waxing enthusiastic on their charisma or flamboyance. Rather she touts their willingness to see things differently than once they did.
Finally, Caldwell is a master of plot. She ties together her conclusions based on genuine relations between people, to convince us that good people will recognize that flawed Jon still is a key element to the character they value in their town. No one in this novel is omniscient. No one is so certain that they can forego evidence. Yet, evidence arrives in natural course.
The most evil politician in the novel will escape punishment so that Jon can continue his life in the town. By contrast, Jon's defenders have stopped the most evil doctor, albeit without proper due for his dastardliness.
Here is one last word from Caldwell – placed in Jon's mouth – near the end of the novel. "The motives of man never change. Only religion has sometimes breached that stubborn fortress of cruelty and poetry, of war and greed, of childlike belief in progress and [wonder working], of pacification of evil gods and visions of eternal peace and brotherhood [though it had] always sunken back, defeated. [Nor did just laws and government change man.] These did not touch the primal essence that only religion could reach."
That might not please you. Still, this intricate thoughtful tale provides us a rare chance to consider a fully developed version of the topic with Taylor Caldwell's aid.
Michael D. Fried, PhD - Descendant of Taylor Caldwell, 09/23/16