Novels are what we read when we should be reading something else—or are they? Currently I should be reading Henri Nouwen’s “modern spiritual classic,” The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but in fact I have just finished Rumer Godden’s novel, In This House of Brede. And I feel no embarrassment in saying that the laywoman’s novel taught me far more about the way of the heart than the priest’s meditations. After decades of preaching the virtues of a low fat diet, nutritionists now tell us our dietary culprit isn’t fat. Apparently we have always needed good fat in our diet. Godden’s novel runs with rich oils; Nouwen’s book strikes me as sugary.
I first heard of In This House of Brede when I went to the Solemn Profession of a young nun to the Abbey of Saint Cecilia at Ryde on England’s Isle of Wight. Saint Cecilia’s, I was told, was one of the models for Rumer Godden’s fictional Brede. As my visit to the abbey was one of the most edifying trips of my life, showing me how beautiful enclosed life can be, I resolved to read this book.
I did so on Kindle, and having finished the book this morning, I can say with almost all my heart that if every Catholic girl was given In This House of Brede as a Confirmation present, vocations to contemplative life would skyrocket. I say “almost” for I have one reservation. There is one little shadow of doubt, a shadow which falls two-thirds through the book.
In This House of Brede, published in 1969, begins with the astonishing decision of an unusually talented and successful English civil servant to enter an enclosed Benedictine convent after the close of the Second World War. Philippa Talbot is a war widow with every almost every worldly blessing: an excellent education; an interesting career; the respect of her seniors, her peers and her staff; a housekeeper; a beloved cat; a tasteful home; a handsome and distinguished suitor. She eats delicious food, drinks the best wines, and goes not a waking hour without lighting a cigarette. Yet all this is not enough, and to the shock of everyone except a friend inclined towards Buddhism, Mrs. Talbot gives it all up for the Abbey of Brede.
But Philippa’s story is not the only story at Brede. When Mrs. Talbot enters, the abbey is home to ninety sisters, and new postulants—usually much younger than Philippa—arrive regularly. Thus there are many stories, and many conflicts to be resolved as the sisters work out their salvation in the haven of the 130 year old foundation, living according to the 1500-year-old Rule of Saint Benedict. A new abbess weeps with terror and loneliness after she is elected. Senior nuns come to grips with their late abbess’s financial dishonesty. A young postulant struggles to grow up and to resist a young man’s demands that she marry him. A nun who writes popular doggerel gives into envy for a scholar. An older nun needs a drastic solution to her crush on a younger nun—oh yes, Rumer Godden does not avoid that age-old problem. The quiet abbey, with its ancient cycle of prayer and work, the liturgical calendar and the English seasons, is a virtual battlefield. Philippa downs three whiskeys before she dares to go in.
Godden’s research was thorough, and there is not an ounce of propaganda or sentimental nonsense in the whole book. Her characters are real women—indeed, they are based on real women—living according to a real way of life, a beautiful way of life, a carefully structured way of life until the winds of change sweep through it. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, “the papal flag flew at half mast from the tower; Pope Pius XII, venerable and holy, had died.”
What then follows may be difficult for readers who have fallen in love with the beautiful life of Brede. The threat to it has been growing: some of the older nuns have been made worried by the attitudes of new young nuns, epitomized by the boisterous and uncouth Sister Polycarp. Readers may find the following passage a humorous relief from dread, helping them face the inevitable:
The younger nuns hopes for a progressive Pope, the older ones were silent, remembering Pope Pius. ‘We shan’t see his like again,’ said Dame Perpetua. Then the excited voice proclaimed the eleventh smoke, a spiral of white, strawless, and they heard the cry [over the radio] that went up from the crowd, thousands strong, in St Peter’s Square: ‘We have a Pope! We have a Pope!’ The voices were of acclamation but in Brede’s large parlour, depression filled the room. ‘Cardinal Roncalli?’ asked the nuns disbelievingly. ‘Roncalli?’
Godden could not know, in 1969, as we now know, how the Sister Polycarps would all but destroy the Bredes’ way of life, sending thousands of nuns into the world and leaving a generation of potential contemplatives—my generation—ignorant of places to try our vocations. Therefore, the reader should not be quick to find falsity in the appearance of bossy Mr. Konishi, the Abbey’s sudden new interest in the Far East, their tradition-denying accommodation of Japanese postulants, and the visit from Buddhists. (I will admit that I quickly skimmed the Buddhist bit.) Godden shows, not extols, the enthusiasms of the 1960s, and she quite honestly depicts the new struggles—not against sin, this time, but with the challenges of change. For example, she describes why the new habit of the women religious who pay the Brede nuns visits is actually inconvenient and ill-suited to the weather. (The Benedictines of Brede, struggling to find a middle way, keep their old habit but give up their many layers of underclothing with thanks.)
The story of Brede stretches back to the French Revolution; we are treated to almost twenty years. They are spellbinding; Godden was a genius. The reader will be completely immersed in the life of a English Benedictine Abbey as it was lived before 1969, and I imagine many readers will long to return, either to the book or to “the real thing”. And that will lead to the question, perhaps an anguished question, from young women, “Does the real thing still exist?” And to this I would reply, “Go to Ryde and see.”