The Nun’s Story
by Kathryn Hulme
Can a discipline be strong enough to transcend the very rules that formed it? wonders the protagonist of Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 novel, The Nun’s Story. Because as protagonist Sister Luke struggles to remain faithful to the rule – make that Rule with a capital R – of her order, she begins to find that its discipline, bit by bit has strengthened her finally to disobey it.
|Hulme & Habets|
Last Friday’s Adventure classics post left Sister Luke as a nurse turned novice in a Belgian convent. The time in the story is 1927, and Sister Luke is meditating on the discipline of the order she has chosen, a discipline less of the body than of the mind and spirit. With her sister novices, she sits in the convent’s garden stringing beans for the communal meal.
“No one uttered a regret for not being allowed to stroll that day through the gardens. No one looked up from her aproned lap to the flowering chestnuts and the slow drift of summer clouds above them. . . ” and she wonders if being a nun really requires this much attention to duty. It’s a wonder that she will look back on when Nazi paratroopers descend onto the quiet Belgian countryside a little more than a decade later.
And afterward, when “some of these sisters who sat beside her would disappear in the holocaust, not to be heard from for years. . .(to) reappear with worn pictures of saints sewn into the hems of disguising lay clothes and rosaries hidden in their shoes, and the world, stirred by their stores of endurance, would stare at news photos of those blessed objects and wonder how those alone had got them through. Because that would be all that they, the phoenix sisters, would be able to tell about their calvaries. . . They would have forgotten how the steel had got under their scapulars. . . ”
And Sister Luke’s scapular, the sleeveless, belted outer garment whose folds form a handy pocket for hidden things, has acquired nearly two decades of steeliness before the hospital run by her nursing order is completely overrun by the German invaders.
Like her real-life alter ego, Marie Louise Habets (religious name, Sister Xaverine), Sister Luke is the daughter of a famous Belgian doctor who dreams of performing heroic deeds of healing in the Congo missions of her order. Besides entering the convent, she has earned a degree as a nurse, with special training in psychiatry. But instead of being sent directly to Africa, she is distressed to be assigned first to a psychiatric hospital in her home country of Belgium.
Just as she has become inured to the silence and order of a convent, she is confronted by the clamor and chaotic behavior of maniacs. Just as she has learned the discipline of keeping her eyes cast down, she must unlearn it, and learn instead to attend to every sound and movement around her. When at last Sister Luke reaches the Congo, her new superior asks her to take on additional hospital and surgical work in place of a nun who has fallen ill. And she again learns to disobey – with permission – the call of the convent’s liturgical bells lest she leave patient and surgeon in the middle of an operation.
(In the movie version of Hulme’s novel based on Habets’ experience, Sister Luke falls in love with the irascible surgeon. In the novel, Sister Luke assures her superior that there is no romantic involvement, although Hulme makes it appear that the surgeon at least would be willing to move his relationship with the nurse-nun to a more personal level. But perhaps Hulme found it hard to believe that people wouldn’t want to fall in love with Sister Luke, as she was with Marie Louise, who would go on to become, in the discreet language of Hulme’s obituary, her companion and lifelong business partner.)
All of these sometimes-contradictory forms of discipline will go into the making of the Sister Luke who, in May 1940, will steel herself for work with the Belgian underground.
“On the evening of the day Brussels fell, a middle-aged man dressing like a farmer . . . came in with a cartload of refugees. . .” And he has a request for Sister Luke that will set her on a road to greater disobedience – or is it truer obedience? – than she has ever known.
In a twist stranger than fiction, the close subsequent relationship between Hulme and Habets has now caused most of Hulme’s books to be out of print. However, used versions of The Nun’s Story are widely available, as is a paperback version scanned from the original. Or renew a love affair with the movie version, available online, starring Habets’ fellow Belgian war refugee Audrey Hepburn.
(This is the final post of Adventure classics, as this blog turns from reviewing classics to contemporary books in 2017. But maybe I’ll be able to sneak in an older friend from time to time. . . )