I would have been about twenty the first time I read Rumer Godden’s novel (actual quote from a friend: “You want to be a nun, and you haven’t read In This House of Brede?”), and at first I found it hard going. For one thing, there are a lot of characters. It’s easier the second time around, once you know that there are three main characters (Philippa, Cecily and Abbess Catherine) and three important secondary characters (Dames Veronica, Agnes and Maura), and that all the others are well-drawn but incidental to the story.
The main reason I struggled to read Brede, though, was that the things I was reading kept striking home too sharply, as the characters’ doubts and trials became a mirror for my own. There’s a scene partway through the novel in which one of the sisters is told by the abbess that – after her future in the abbey had been hanging in the balance – she will be permitted to make temporary vows. And this character, normally so efficient, cold and practical, feels the relief so deeply that she collapses in a faint. I knew that one day, I too would wait while the Council met to decide whether or not to admit me to profession: I, who desired the religious life with my whole being, could easily imagine collapsing with relief when accepted. Or trying to hold on to a vocation in the face of the same internal and external pressures faced by another sister throughout her novitiate. Rumer Godden writes her characters intensely and unsparingly, and just as in real life, their virtues can easily tip over the edge and become flaws. Philippa Talbot is a widow who gave up a high-powered government career to enter the religious life in her forties, and her drive and acute intelligence isolate her from the other novices. Cecily Scallon is a brilliant but fragile young musician whose family opposed her entrance into religious life, and her determination sometimes hovers at the edge of selfishness. But if virtues can become flaws then the reverse is also true, and the book’s most rewarding and beautiful moments come when, by the grace of God, a character is able to turn around and gain a true victory over self.
In This House of Brede is largely, as you will have gathered from my description above, a character-driven book, but character development is intricately woven through its layers of plots and sub-plots. In a nutshell, it is the story of an English Benedictine monastery in the early 1960s. The old abbess dies suddenly of a stroke, and her successor Abbess Catherine inherits a catastrophic financial situation that casts doubt on the future of the monastery, as well as a religious landscape that is changing beyond recognition with the opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome. One of the main differences between the novel and its 1975 film adaptation starring Diana Rigg is that the latter chose to leave out these aspects of the novel, and to focus on the relationships between the nuns instead. The film is quite pleasant in itself and I’ve watched it a number of times, but the source material is so complex that, by simplifying it and stripping out the sub-plots, a lot of the most profound (and dramatic!) moments of the book were lost: the tense medical emergency that threatens to shatter the lives of several characters; the slow crafting of a new chapel that mirrors the nuns’ own growth in faith; and also the scene I had most looked forward to seeing on screen, in which the abbey’s most treasured possession gives up a secret it had held for over a century. Brede really deserves an adaptation into a television series, I think, to follow the author’s carefully balanced and layered plotlines fully, and most of all to do justice to the varied, struggling, loving and movingly human women who live within the walls of the abbey a life devoted to God.
Godden was a Benedictine Oblate who wrote no fewer than three novels about nuns: Black Narcissus, written in thirty years before her conversion to Catholicism, examines the psyches of troubled missionary sisters from a cold and critical distance and was, I thought, very much an outsider’s view of the religious life, while Brede, written in 1969, has more balanced and mature characters, and shows a deeper, internalised understanding of the monastic vocation. The last, 1979’s Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy, is a much darker book (the heroine, Lise, enters the convent straight out of prison), and certainly not for the fainthearted, but it too reveals the dignity and sacrifice of the religious life and those who live it. Black Narcissus is probably the most famous of the three to a secular audience, but it is the quiet and complex Brede that has won most admiration from the religious sisters I have known. If there is any book that can lay claim to being the novel about the contemplative religious life, it is surely In This House of Brede.