A book about nuns of a Benedictine monastery doesn’t sound thrilling. Go on and say it, you think it might be boring. Won’t it be all pious and sweet?
I assure you, no realistic portrait of 96 women could be a gentle and darling thing. Rumer Godden’s penetrating, lyrical work lulls you in with a restraint that is quintessentially British. Then, with your guard down, she strikes at your heart. The personalities, secrets, and piercing truth make In This House of Brede my favorite work of Catholic fiction.
How are nuns really?
If that sounds like a trick question, it is! Nuns are like Catholics; they’re everybody. As the main character, Philippa Talbot says, “One of the good things about a Catholic church is that it isn’t respectable. You can find anyone in it, from duchesses to whores, from tramps to kings.”
The fictional Brede Abbey borrows liberally from the real-life Stanbrook Abbey. As a requirement for the privilege of entering their enclosure, Godden had to submit her book to the same nuns for fact-checking. Like most authors, some characters are composites of women Godden knew.
Though the book begins in the 60s, Philippa’s story is eminently modern. A glass-ceiling crasher, the last thing she expected was to “get religion,” much less become a woman religious. When God calls her, she avoids the call for years. Promotions, travel, affairs, and artwork distract for a while. But in the end, Philippa’s mission is clear: to try her vocation in this house of Brede.
Philippa’s journey is expectedly fraught with uncertainty. Ninety-six women cannot live together without friction. There are near miracles, petty jealousies, and betrayal. There’s also laughter with novice hijinks, and the cloistered nuns’ reactions (both positive and negative) to the Second Vatican Council.
One even worries Philippa’s dark secret will prevent her taking solemn vows. Godden quickly keys the reader on to the existence of Philippa’s tragic past. Amid the beauty and labor, the prayer and work of the Benedictines, an unspoken horror haunts Philippa. This alone would make it a masterful psychological thriller. Mere tension isn’t enough though. Not satisfied with gimmick, Godden deftly weaves tension into truth.
Though the nuns’ greatest work, their opus dei, the liturgy of the hours strips away self, in many ways the great personalities make this book.
Why this book?
Rumer Godden was a prolific British novelist. When she published a popular psychological thriller about missionary sisters in India, she was criticized from an unexpected quarter: women religious themselves.
To her chagrin, they asked if she had ever even met a single nun?
Most of us might tuck tail and run away from this embarrassment, but not Godden. Via correspondence and conversation through the grille, she nurtured rich friendships with the cloistered Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. Their prayers supported Godden’s daughter and granddaughter through a tumultuous pregnancy & birth. The nuns even played a crucial role in Godden’s own conversion to Christianity.
In This House of Brede is an answer to one of her enclosed friend’s wishes: a book about nuns as they really are, not as the author wishes them to be.
What do we choose?
Though some of the nuns are quite authoritative, like all good books, Godden leaves us with a great number of questions to think about. Chiefly, what do we choose?
In the prologue, Godden quotes a little pamphlet from the real-world Stanbrook Abbey:
We have chosen a stillness more powerful than all activity.
A detachment more fulfilling than all possession,
A wisdom exceeding all knowledge
And a love beyond all.
This, she says, “said for me in a few words, what I had taken a whole book to try and express!”
Again and again we see nuns of every age, ability, and background make this choice. Each woman grasps after it differently, fails differently, and repents often. So many variations on the theme only clarifies it. What do we choose?
Who is this for?
I recommend In This House of Brede to multiple groups of readers. The lovers of liturgical living will lean into the tidal ebb and flow of each church year. The historical fiction fans will delight in the immersive feeling of a lost time. Those questioning their own vocation might love this most of all.
As a young-ish mom with little silence, I might’ve envied the nuns their vocation. Why wouldn’t I? Because Godden’s nuns embody the truth. One truth. The truth of God’s own calling in our lives. As the novel’s Dame Ursula says, “A vocation is a gift. If it has been truly given to you, you will find the strength.”