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Archive for the ‘Convents’ Category


Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy
by Rumer Godden
Viking Press, 1979

The best book I read in 2011 was Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden.   At the beginning the novel seems sensational rather than metaphysical even though the title refers to the fifteen decades of the Roman Catholic rosary.  And the culminating crisis in the novel is a little melodramatic but by then as a reader I didn’t care.  Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is such an engrossing novel that all I knew was that I couldn’t stop reading.  And I left the novel filled with a sense of peace and beauty that doesn’t usual come in a novel of prostitutes, poverty, prison, and murder.    The basic plot entails the story of a French Madame and manager of a whore house who kills her lover and goes to prison for ten years and then becomes a nun in the order of Dominicans, the Sisters of Béthanie.  The main character Elizabeth Fanshawe becomes Madame Ambard, also known by the name of La Balafrée (The Branded One), and eventually Sister Marie Lise of the Rosary.  Falling into a novel and being consumed by it is an experience that I, as an academic librarian who reads for a living, don’t often have anymore. But the worlds of the story are so beautifully created that it’s impossible not to.  Although the entire novel takes place in the years following World War II, the whore house sections feel like the 19th century French nightlife represented by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec while the convent scenes transport the reader to a mysterious medieval world, and the prison scenes could have taken place during pre-revolutionary France.  Not until the very end of the novel does it strike the reader that the story is taking place in the modern 1970’s.  This sense of timelessness and time are because Sr. Maria Lise of the Rosary gives her self up completely – and eventually to God.  God does not live within time – all time is one to Him.  Our lives, like that of Sr. Marie Lise of the Rosary, move seamlessly from joy to sorrow to joy again, and within the joy there is always sorrow and within the sorrow is joy.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark
J.P. Lippincott, 1962

A visitor to Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, formerly Sandy Stranger and now a cloistered nun renowned for the publication of her work in psychology “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,” asks her “What were the main influences of your school days, Sister Helena?  Were they literary or political or personal?  Was it Calvinism?”  Her response?  “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”

Miss Jean Brodie often tells her students “give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”  This may explain why Sister Helena, even years after Miss Brodie’s death, still attributes all of who she is to that one influential teacher.

Most people could probably name a Miss Jean Brodie from their past.  The teacher that expanded their minds and frightened them out of their wits.  The teacher who gave them the greatest gifts of imagination, creativity, independence, individualism, intellectual rigor, and who also tried to crush these very qualities out of them.  The teacher one never forgets and whom one never looks back on sentimentally or without a confusion of emotions. 

Miss Brodie is a bundle of paradoxes.  She is a free spirit, a progressive educator, an artistic, sensitive woman who is fascinated by the fascism of  Mussolini and Hitler, mainly because of its ability to organize and regulate.  Miss Brodie is able to cast off all societal conventions because she is in her prime, but she creates a set of incomprehensible rules for her girls such as one does not leave a window open more than six inches, for six inches is plenty and more is vulgar. 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie takes place in the 1930’s in Edinburgh, Scotland but was published in 1962. The setting of Calvinist Edinburgh mirrors the dark, dingy, depressing atmosphere of post-war England.  Although the moral conventions of the thirty’s are present in the plot, the open attitude toward sex of the sixty’s is prominent in the narration.  That is not to say that the book advocates the sexual freedoms of the last half of the last century, although the authorial voice does not condemn them.  But like most ideas addressed in the novel, sexual indiscretion is neither all good nor all bad.  Good comes out of immoral acts, even the most immoral intentions.  So does evil.  Perhaps only fascism is judged as completely evil, but those who are attracted to fascism are not. 

Sandy, now Sister Helena, says that “the influences of one’s teens are very important” even if “they provide something to react against.”  Sandy was not raised Catholic, nor was she raised Calvinist, nor with any particular religious convictions at all.  Miss Brodie exposed her young students to all kinds of spiritual views but disdained Catholicism for Catholics, she said, cannot and do not think for themselves.  Yet, Sandy’s acceptance of Catholicism is a conscious and deliberate act, more so than Miss Brodie’s rejection of it.  And it continues a conscious and deliberate decision, for although Sandy finds her true self in Catholicism, and the ability to discipline her insights about people into an influential book on morality and psychology,  she does not find peace and comfort, nor is she freed from the influences of Miss Brodie.[1]   

The narrator of Jean Brodie seems to be an omniscient one, yet at the same time the story is filtered through the eyes of Sandy, the student most like Miss Brodie, the student most misunderstood by Miss Brodie, the student who, as Miss Brodie predicted several times, did indeed go too far one day.  The narrative is not straightforward either but jumbled flashbacks and repetitive phrases piece the story and the characters together.  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short book and easy to read and follow, but it is not a comfortable book.  It’s as confusing and disturbing as memories of that teacher – you know the one – your Miss Jean Brodie.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is available at Doherty Library.


[1]Benilde Montgomery, “Spark and Newman: Jean Brodie Reconsidered,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 43, Spring 1997, pp. 94-106. Reprinted in Novels for Students, Vol. 22.

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In This House of Brede
by Rumer Godden
The Viking Press, 1969

In This House of Brede was published in 1969, and the story begins about fifteen years before that in 1954.  As the outside world (including the Church) becomes more volatile, even the enclosed world of the Benedictine nuns in Brede Abbey feels these fluctuations.  The sisters must use central heating because there aren’t enough novices to chop the amount of wood needed to heat the entire convent (as there has been in previous years).  Novices who have lived in the world and enjoyed prestigious careers are entering the enclosure.  Friends outside the convent face issues of abortion and emotional abuse.  And a young priest who visits the Abbey suggests that the time is coming soon when nuns will wear modern dress rather than complicated habits so that they may work more efficiently.

The nuns of Brede Abby aren’t interested in novelty however.  Their lives have been too much marked by change.  They don’t wish to give up their habits for modern garb for they only recently have been allowed to adopt their distinctive clothing.  As a Roman Catholic order in England, they were compelled to hide in secret and eventually to flee to France during the Reformation.  Only tenuously settled in France, they fled back to England during the oppression of religious orders by the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.  England was still virulently anti-catholic, and they could only wander until a noblewoman took pity on them and gave them property they were forbidden by law to purchase.  Even though they had found a home, it was years before they were allowed to build an enclosure and wear habits.

And the nuns’ daily lives have enough change for them as well.  As the story opens, the abbess of the order who has ruled for thirty two years dies, leaving the convent with a strange sense of disorder as much as loss.  The sisters soon discover that Lady Abbess’s first assistant is also dying.  The new leadership must soon deal with a case of fiscal irresponsibility that threatens the convent with great harm.  The nuns’ day to day living, moving in sameness and with a minutia of detail, gives them the peace to weather the chaos.  These are women with strong and very different personalities all trying to manage to live together (and be holy together).  In general, they do it very successfully.   

It is interesting to note how much the culture of England affects this other-worldly life of Brede.  A class system of choir nuns, who pray and study, and claustral nuns, who work and labor, exists even here.  Occasionally a member of the upper class will choose the life of a claustral nun, but in general educated, genteel women become choir nuns while working class women become claustral nuns.  It is the claustral nuns who can tell just by looking at a postulant if she will have to stamina to stay at Brede.

The style of the novel is an odd combination of a third-person omniscient narrator and stream of consciousness narrative.  Various details, particularly the back-story of the main character Dame Philippa Talbot, are revealed slowly and randomly. 

In This House of Brede was made into a made-for-tv movie starring Diana Rigg in 1975, back during the glory days of made-for-tv movies before they degenerated into saccharine portrayals of the disease of the week or studies of women in peril threatened by ill-chosen men.  Although its 105 minute running time means that it leaves out much of the glorious detail of the 369 page book, and certain plot points must be changed to accommodate that, it is still one of the best movie adaptations of a book I have ever seen.  Doherty Library has both the book and the movie available.

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The Song at the Scaffold
by Gertrud von le Fort
originally titled: Die Letzte am Schafott
translated from the German by Olga Marx
Sheed and Ward, 1933 

Despite its gruesome historical context of the French Revolution, The Song at the Scaffold by Gertrud von le Fort is a exquisite little gem of a book.  It’s only 110 pages so even the busiest reader can pick it up.  Reading it is almost like going on retreat at a cloister – a charming break from the every day routine and grind. 

Le Fort based her story on the historical martyrdom of sixteen Carmelite nuns in the last days of the Reign of Terror.  She, however, invented the main character of Blanche de la Force whom she admitted was based in some ways on her own experiences, especially of the horrors of war.  Blanche is a fearful, timid, anxious child not altogether suited to the difficult, ascetic life of Carmel.  She joins the cloister partially because she believes it is a place where she will find peace.  But distress follows her, for the Revolution begins soon after she enters, and with it persecution of clergy and religious in France.  Blanche has a crisis of vocation and abandons the convent before it is raided and the other Carmelite sisters arrested, tried and sentenced to the guillotine.  Blanche secretly attends the execution and while the nuns ascend the scaffold, a miracle happens.  As the introduction to the English translation states “The Divine purpose, we seem to understand, could not have been achieved without the service of the weakness of fear.  A timid girl seeks refuge in flight, and out of that running away come victory and unforgettable beauty.”

The Song at the Scaffold was turned into the play Dialogues of the Carmelites by Georges Bernanos, and this dramatization became the hauntingly beautiful opera Dialogues des Carmélites composed by Francis Poulenc.  The Song at the Scaffold and Dialogues of the Carmelites are available at Doherty Library.

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