Monday, January 22, 2007

Rumer Godden and In This House of Brede

Jean asked if I had written a review of In This House of Brede. Certainly I should have since it is one of my favorite books and has been since I was a teenager. It makes me smile to think of my atheist mother having that book in our library and me, a searching agnostic for most of my life, reading and rereading it ever since I was in high school. Godden is a truly gifted writer whose prose would make anyone appreciate her storytelling whether religious or not. However, her books are so infused with the search for meaning and holiness that it is difficult to imagine her not having an impact on those who read her works.

In my own particular case, not only was I enthralled with the details of life behind the walls of a cloistered convent, but Godden's many entwining plot strands and mysteries gradually revealed were a delight as well. I don't remember it having a direct impact on my except for the fact that I probably always was fascinated with Catholicism's many devotions ... the mysteries, if you will, of how they practiced their faith.

Godden had a definite talent for looking into the heart of what makes us truly human, both good and bad. She looks unflinchingly at the evil we are capable of and sometimes it hurts just as much as reading Flannery O'Connor although Godden is definitely a British writer to the core and there is nothing in her stories that one could call "grotesque." However, she also knows that one cannot examine the depths without revealing the heights as well and her stories all have light and redemption as the ultimate goal. Specifically here, I am also thinking of my other favorites: China Court: The Hours of a Country House, An Episode of Sparrows (New York Review Children's Collection), The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, and Thursday's Children.

Encountering Godden as I did, when fairly young, I read and reread the books that appealed to me and ignored the others, especially those that seemed to contain too much hurt, such as Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy which is about a prostitute who enters an order of nuns who work with the prostitutes themselves. That probably was a wise, if unknowing, protection at the time. However, now I look at all the literary treasure to be plundered and am excited at the possibilities. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is a book I am going to read for the Dante to Dead Man Walking list and just opening its pages and reading the first chapter brought me back to a familiar, well-loved writing style that made me feel at home again.

Most libraries have several if not many of Rumer Godden's books and I encourage you to seek them out.

I have done all this writing and haven't yet reviewed In This House of Brede. Others have already done all the heavy lifting for me so I am going to refer you to them.

Therese Z. at Exultet wrote a wonderful commentary about Godden and In This House of Brede. I am stealing most of it and posting it here.
When I was in seventh grade, I was required to read a book called "The River." In true student fashion, because I had to read it, I loathed it. (The same goes for "A Tale of Two Cities" and "David Copperfield;" I'll have to re-read my way through my high school bibliography again someday....)

The author of "The River" is Rumer Godden (1907-1998), whose books were often peopled with nuns and priests. Several were explicitly about Anglican or Catholic themes, but nearly all were flavored with a yearning towards God. I was surprised that the author of my hated assignment was also the author of some of my favorite light-reading books.

Ms. Godden was fascinated primarily by holiness: in people, in history and in places. She edges around the holiness, at least her child characters do, expressing their desire to know God by concentrating on one piece of religious life: lighting a candle (A Candle for St. Jude), building a garden within sight of a statue of Mary seen through the wall of a bombed-out church (An Episode of Sparrows), making an icon without the slightest idea of what the devotion means (one dear to me, The Kitchen Madonna). One and all the characters have no religious training or example until the story ensues, which I think was symptomatic of England then (and now, sadly), but they learn something of God from these little gifts. Haven't we all been drawn a little closer by a hymn, or a picture, or a movie? Her adult characters seem to move towards God knowing they won't necessarily like the journey, but must undertake it to live.

The first time you read her books, with their characteristic between-wars Englishness, you will be struck by her reverence for religious life. She combines that with a prim, earnest, serious style, with wit and intellect however muted, recalling Barbara Pym and Josephine Tey. All her women are well-bred, well-shod and are genteelly broke. They all are longing starkly for something, and in Ms. Godden's novels, it's love and God.

In her most explicitly religious novel, In This House of Brede, a grown woman finds a vocation to the cloistered religious life and becomes a Benedictine nun. It is a touching and probably quite accurate struggle of a woman, alone after widowhood, rising in business, comfortable in life, growing into the silence and humility and charity necessary to be in community with others seeking to know God. It took me many reads over many years to realize that, superb as her characterization is, and intense as her storyline is (a great deal is revealed about the personal lives of each of the nuns in the convent), what Ms. Godden never seemed to know anything about was the experience of prayer and of receiving the Eucharist. Maybe it's because the nuns in the story are Anglican, which fact startled me because it all sounded so Roman Catholic. This doesn't weaken the book, or any of her books, but when you put one down with a satisfied sigh, you realize only after reflection that she shows no desire to be close to Jesus in prayer and sacrament. I'd be willing to bet that Ms. Godden herself didn't attend church, or if she did, she remained aloof, proper, a little afraid of intensity, too polite to offer her life to the Lord and accept His Life and Love in return. I'm sorry for that: she had the right equipment to write deeply of a deepening faith.

Two other novels are about nuns: Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy and The Black Narcissus. The first is an intense telling of the life of nuns who work with prostitutes and the entry into the convent of one of the prostitutes. The second is about a convent built in India, to help the poor, and its failure (that's revealed in the opening pages, I'm not giving anything away). The second book was made into a medium-lousy movie, if you've seen it, read the book anyway. It's much better.

Ms. Godden, and her sister Jon, are not out of print, but are largely out of mind these days, along with their English sisters. But consider them as an addition to your library pile.
Brede's most vociferous supporter is The Anchoress. She also has some background information on Godden's sources during the writing of the book. I know from reading the forward to the Loyola Press new edition that Godden converted to Catholicism halfway through her two-year stay at those abbeys while research the book.

Also, Canticle of Chiara has a thoughtful and thorough review (in my browser one must scroll all the way to the bottom of the sidebar before the review shows up but it is there).


  1. I just re-read In This House of Brede, and the nuns in it are not Anglican, they are Roman Catholic.

  2. Yes indeedy, that was never a question in my mind. Though I see that Therese gave them the Anglican option as she wasn't sure. But no Anglicans would have been that interested in a papal election for one thing. :-)

  3. And the nuns in "Black Narcissus".
    were Anglican. Of course even in that book she showed her knowledge and fascination with the lives of women
    religious. Sidelight: I remember as
    a lad seeing in our paper that "Black Narcissus" was on the "C" or condemned list of the Legion of Decency." It was not so
    terrible a film and made Rumer some
    funds though she intensely disliked it. Dave V.

  4. Yes, absolutely - the nuns in 'In this house of Brede' are Catholic. It's a central point of the book, which makes me wonder whether the quoted reviewer actually read it.


  5. Just re-read 'Brede'. I am surprised at how Ms. Z. missed that these were Catholic nuns, and failed to check out Godden's background; she was a Catholic convert. I also think that Godden certainly had a great desire to be near to Jesus, and 'Brede' is full of the experience of prayer and the importance of the Eucharist. Can't see how she missed all that.