Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Adventure classics -- Nun-sense & sensibility

In This House of Brede

by Rumer Godden


I admit there was a time when I wept joyfully but in secret over Rumer Godden’s religious books. Wasn’t there something hopelessly sentimental about reveling in the tribulations of misunderstood innocents? That Reader’s Digest tended to issue them in its condensed versions, as if for beginning readers, further shamed me into keep my Godden addiction hidden.

It wasn’t until I reread the book some consider Godden’s masterpiece, In This House of Brede, that I’ve come out of the closet about my Godden addiction. In the same way another writer may maroon a character on an island to explore her psychology under pressure, Godden’s study of the unworldly isolation of cloistered nuns intensifies every aspect of their character.

Godden headed the chapter in her autobiography about Brede’s writing with a quotation from a real nun, Dame Felicitas Corrigan of Stanbrook Abbey, the prototype for the fictional Brede Abbey. “I wish,’ said Dame Felicitas, “that someone would write a book about nuns as they really are, not as the author wants them to be.”

Not that Godden was a novice at writing about nuns before publishing Brede in 1969. Her first bestseller of thirty years earlier, Black Narcissus, dealt with a group of European nuns in a convent in India. But although she knew the setting of the earlier novel, having grown up in India, she didn’t really know much about nuns. In gratitude for prayers she credited with helping her daughter through a difficult pregnancy, Godden determined to learn about the those who prayed.

Just one problem, though. The contemplative order’s cloister was closed to outsiders.

“I was given a plan of the Enclosure and soon seemed almost as familiar with it as if I had lived there,” Godden wrote in the second volume of her autobiography, A House with Four Rooms.

She was also allowed to talk privately to nuns. But because she pledged not to divulge anything about their personal lives in ways that would identify them, it’s impossible to guess whether the agony of protagonist Dame Philippa Talbot, entering the cloister as a middle-aged widow after an unhappy marriage and the death of her young son, mirrors the experience of any woman other than Godden herself.

It was no secret that Godden felt an out of wedlock pregnancy trapped her into marrying a man she had nothing in common with. The child died at four days old, a death that became “a piercing grief, a sadness I carry with me for the rest of my days,” Godden said, as the death of Philippa Talbot’s young son would haunt her, even in the cloister.

None of the other nuns are immune, either, to frustrations, betrayals, and heartbreaks as severe as any in the world outside their cloister. There’s only the motto “Pax,” with which the story opens: “but the word was set in a circle of thorns.”

The community of nuns Godden knew, founded by Sir Thomas More’s descendent Gertrude More, no longer live at the Victorian abbey where they had resided since the early nineteenth century. In 2009, they moved into a new abbey at Wass, in the North York Moors National Park. The former Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire is now operated as an events venue.

Many of Godden’s books, including the two volumes of her autobiography, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep; and A House with Four Rooms, are readily available.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics turns to a January of true-life drama, beginning with Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings. A list of books for the first quarter of 2013 is included on the 2013 preview page of this blog.)

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