The Song of Bernadette is a 1942 novel that tells the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who, from February to July 1858 in Lourdes, France, reported eighteen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The novel was written by Franz Werfel and was published in 1942. It was extremely popular, spending more than a year on the New York Times Best Seller list and 13 weeks in first place.
Franz Werfel was a German-speaking Jew born in Prague in 1890. He became well known as a playwright. In the 1930s in Vienna, he began writing popular satirical plays lampooning the Nazi regime until the Anschluss, when the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Werfel and his wife Alma (Gustav Mahler’s widow), fled to Paris, until the Germans invaded France in 1940.
In his Personal Preface to The Song of Bernadette, Franz Werfel takes up the story:
Hunted by the Gestapo, the Werfels experienced anxiety for their hosts as well as themselves. A number of families took turns in giving them shelter. These people told the Werfels the story of Bernadette. Werfel vowed that, if he and his wife escaped, he would put off all tasks and write Bernadette's story into a novel.
When the Werfels reached the safety of America, Werfel kept his word. He died in 1945, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, having obtained the family’s permission, gave him a Christian burial. After the war, Franz Werfel was re-buried in Vienna.
The story of Bernadette Soubirous and Our Lady of Lourdes is told by Werfel with many embellishments, such as the chapter in which Bernadette is invited to board at the home of a rich woman who thinks Bernadette's visionary "lady" might be her deceased daughter. In side-stories and backstory, the history of the town of Lourdes, the contemporary political situation in France, and the responses of believers and detractors are delineated. Werfel describes Bernadette as a religious peasant girl who would have preferred to continue with an ordinary life, but takes the veil as a nun after she is told that because "Heaven chose her", she must choose Heaven. Bernadette's service as a sacristan, artist-embroiderer, and nurse in the convent are depicted, along with her spiritual growth. After her death, her body as well as her life are scrutinized for indications that she is a saint, and at last she is canonized.
The novel is laid out in five sections of ten chapters each, in a deliberate nod to the Catholic Rosary.
Unusually for a novel, the entire first part, which describes the events on the day that Bernadette first saw the Virgin Mary, is told in the present tense, as if it were happening at the moment. The rest of the novel is in the past tense.
Werfel presents Bernadette as a young girl of artless simplicity and sincere piety, regarded as stupid by those who don't know her well. He also depicts her as strong-willed and determined to carry out the wishes of the "Lady of Massabielle" she alone can see. Her fight to have the Lady's existence and requests acknowledged and fulfilled is played out against the larger canvas of French politics and the contemporary social climate. Explanatory digressions illustrate what Werfel perceives as an ongoing conflict between a human need to believe in the supernatural or in anomalous phenomena; a true religion, which should not address to such "popular" manifestations; and the ideas of the Enlightenment and of atheism.
Apparently, Werfel obtained accounts of Bernadette from Lourdes families whose older members had known her. It is possible that a great deal of folklore and legend had been added to the plain facts by the time Werfel heard the tale.
Lourdes pilgrims often want to know more about Bernadette and do not realize that far from being a simple-minded shepherdess, she was a strong-willed young woman who stood by her story in the face of tough church and government inquiry. Werfel was able to work this aspect of her personality into his narration.
However, Werfel was not above fictionalization to fill in details or romanticize her story. He included a number of characters who did not exist, embellished others, and concocted a potential romance for Bernadette as well as a highly dramatic and fictionalized death scene. However, in the preface, Werfel states that readers will justifiably ask "What is true and what is invented?" Werfel answers that the basic events of the story are all true, and that it was easy to verify them because roughly only eighty years had passed between the events and the writing of the book.
The book should not be regarded as a factual account but as an historical novel. It seems to have been inspired in part by Emile Zola's Lourdes, a blistering denunciation of the industry that sprang up in Lourdes around the allegedly miraculous spring. Apparently Werfel believed the book might serve as a counterpoint to Zola's best-selling vitriol. One of his characters, Hyacinthe de Lafite, a member of the freethinkers' club that hangs around the town cafe, is a thinly disguised portrayal of Zola himself, re-imagined as a failed journalist/author who smugly casts Bernadette's experience in terms of the pagan history of the area. By the end of the book Lafite, the lady's "proudest foe", believing himself to be dying of cancer, is "lying on his knees" before the image of Bernadette's lady in the grotto.
Werfel goes into great detail about the cures at the Lourdes Spring, and has Dr. Dozous, the town physician, show Hyacinthe through the wards of the hospital, particularly a dormitory of women with a particularly virulent form of Lupus vulgaris in which the face rots and falls off. Werfel provides medical details and claims that some such women have been completely cured after washing in water from the spring, and reports that many more healings take place during the Blessing of the Eucharist ceremony which is held daily at the grotto. Most of these details seem to have been paraphrased from Zola's novel or from the research he did to write it.