The Nun’s Story
by Kathryn Hulme
It wasn’t until I read Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 fictionalized version of the life of her friend Marie Louise Habets, The Nun’s Story, immediately after Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, that I was struck by the similarities between the life in a religious order and life as a dedicated artist.
As depicted by Hulme, Habets (known as Sister Xaverine during her time as a nun) learns to lead a life of simplicity, indifference to physical comfort, and renunciation of natural family ties to follow her vocation. Maugham’s narrator relates such similar details in his 1919 novel based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin, you’d almost think he was following the rules of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, the order Habets joined in the decade following publication of Maugham’s novel.
The rules, that is, with more attention to attire, and considerably more to chastity.
“The bravest of the emotionally vulnerable were the sisters who stood up together . . . (and confess) having gone out of their way to be near to one another, or perhaps for having talked together in recreation in a way that excluded others. Their tormented but clearly spoken disclosures of a nascent affinity gave it the coup de grace which they themselves might not have been able to do, for the entire community would henceforth see to it that these two would be kept far apart. . . ”
Eerily, the emotional detachment demanded by the religious rule echoes that of Maugham’s protagonist from his lovers, a detachment, however, which didn’t prevent physical consummation in his case.
(After leaving her order, Habets would become the recognized partner of Hulme, although without publicly admitting to their possible sexual relationship. But that’s leaping very far ahead in her story, which begins in the late 1920’s, when she, and her fictionalized alter-ego Sister Luke, first enter religious life.)
“It was odd to be thinking about Lourdes,” Sister Luke reminisces as she first dons the garments of her new life. She had been a nursing student – the only lay student chosen from her training school to escort a group of patients from Belgium to the shrine where an apparition of the Virgin Mary had appeared in the mid-19th century near the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. The site soon acquired a reputation for miraculous healings.
There were some physical cures, a skeptical Gabrielle Van Der Mal (the nascent Sister Luke) admitted, but what surprises her most is the happiness of the patients after their return.
“That is the real cure,” says her nun-supervisor, Sister William.
“And then Sister William had given her sleeve a little tug in the discreet manner of the vowed, who. . . must never lay hands one upon the others," Sister Luke remembers. "The pull at her sleeve had been more unusual than Sister William’s teasing words, for it was the attention-drawing language of nun to nun, than of nun to lay person. As if I were one of them. . . And now she was one of them.”
But she still has far to go, often finding herself straining against the order’s toughening rules.
“It is almost an exaggerated thing, she thought, this discipline. It is surely more than any of us could ever need in the safe communities where we shall be. . . She could not know then, on that summer day in 1927, that in little more than a decade their ordered world would rock and twist like the epicenter of an earthquake and that the walls she imaged would always protect them would crack in many places and fall in heaps of rubble to the ground.”
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a December of adventures of the spirit with Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story.)