If someone had asked me, I would not have guessed that I would fall in love with a book that was written in 1969, about nuns, and set in a cloistered Benedictine monastery. I would, however, have been wrong about this, because I did fall in love with this book. It took me a week to read, but not because it dragged. I parceled it out in bits, so that I could savor and extend my experience at Brede Abbey.
I was raised in the Lutheran faith, but haven’t been a believer for many years. And I live in the U.S., a place where, today, reformed theology and the Bible-based mega-church reign supreme with an approach that, to me, strips all of the mystery from God, treating him like a slot machine/mildly abusive father who is supposed to dispense treats to the favored faithful on command, while rightfully mistreating all of the correct (in other words, different, unfavored, out-group) people. Like Donald Trump, but with fewer porn stars on the payroll.
However, I will say that I can definitely see the appeal of the liturgical church and the traditions of a contemplative life, even if I absolutely don’t get the appeal of modern mega churches with charismatic internet preachers and weird Christian rock bands with fog machines in the narthex. If I were going to be religious, I would definitely want to be surrounded by medieval beauty and religious services that can trace their roots back centuries. Preferably in Latin.
This book has no sex. No violence. No blood. No gore. It should have been boring, and yet, for me, it was absolutely gripping.
The book begins with Philippa Talbot, successful British professional woman, deciding that she will join the Benedictine order of nuns at Brede Abbey. It follows her journey as she completes her novitiate and takes her vows, although she is by no means the only character. Each woman depicted is an individual, deeply characterized. There is conflict among the nuns – they don’t all like each other, and they struggle with their vocations.
There is conflict within the Abbey itself, as poor, or even selfish, decisions made by other nuns come to fruition and create tensions and crises. Some of the nuns – Dame Veronica, I’m looking at you – are petty and annoying. Some of the nuns – Dame Cecily – overtly struggle with the decision to leave behind the possibility of husband and children. All of them have rich interior lives, strong faith, and are committed to their work. All of them struggle: with their faith, with their commitment, with their selfishness. I feel like they were real; and that I know each of them personally.
I bought this for my kindle when it went on sale in November, 2020 and I’m so glad I did. I also have China Court, The Greengage Summer and Black Narcissus, which I acquired over the years. I think it’s likely that I will reread this one from time to time, so I’m glad I own it. It was a hugely satisfying read, and I’m curious to dive further into Godden’s backlist.