Tuesday, October 19, 2004

There are other Catholic novels out there

besides those by G.K. Chesteron, Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh.

When I was in seventh grade, I was required to read a book called "The River." In true student fashion, because I had to read it, I loathed it. (The same goes for "A Tale of Two Cities" and "David Copperfield;" I'll have to re-read my way through my high school bibliography again someday....)

The author of "The River" is Rumer Godden (1907-1998), whose books were often peopled with nuns and priests. Several were explicitly about Anglican or Catholic themes, but nearly all were flavored with a yearning towards God. I was surprised that the author of my hated assignment was also the author of some of my favorite light-reading books.

Ms. Godden was fascinated primarily by holiness: in people, in history and in places. She edges around the holiness, at least her child characters do, expressing their desire to know God by concentrating on one piece of religious life: lighting a candle (A Candle for St. Jude), building a garden within sight of a statue of Mary seen through the wall of a bombed-out church (An Episode of Sparrows), making an icon without the slightest idea of what the devotion means (one dear to me, The Kitchen Madonna). One and all the characters have no religious training or example until the story ensues, which I think was symptomatic of England then (and now, sadly), but they learn something of God from these little gifts. Haven't we all been drawn a little closer by a hymn, or a picture, or a movie? Her adult characters seem to move towards God knowing they won't necessarily like the journey, but must undertake it to live.

The first time you read her books, with their characteristic between-wars Englishness, you will be struck by her reverence for religious life. She combines that with a prim, earnest, serious style, with wit and intellect however muted, recalling Barbara Pym and Josephine Tey. All her women are well-bred, well-shod and are genteelly broke. They all are longing starkly for something, and in Ms. Godden's novels, it's love and God.

In her most explicitly religious novel, In This House of Brede, a grown woman finds a vocation to the cloistered religious life and becomes a Benedictine nun. It is a touching and probably quite accurate struggle of a woman, alone after widowhood, rising in business, comfortable in life, growing into the silence and humility and charity necessary to be in community with others seeking to know God. It took me many reads over many years to realize that, superb as her characterization is, and intense as her storyline is (a great deal is revealed about the personal lives of each of the nuns in the convent), what Ms. Godden never seemed to know anything about was the experience of prayer and of receiving the Eucharist. Maybe it's because the nuns in the story are Anglican, which fact startled me because it all sounded so Roman Catholic. This doesn't weaken the book, or any of her books, but when you put one down with a satisfied sigh, you realize only after reflection that she shows no desire to be close to Jesus in prayer and sacrament. I'd be willing to bet that Ms. Godden herself didn't attend church, or if she did, she remained aloof, proper, a little afraid of intensity, too polite to offer her life to the Lord and accept His Life and Love in return. I'm sorry for that: she had the right equipment to write deeply of a deepening faith.

Two other novels are about nuns: Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy and The Black Narcissus. The first is an intense telling of the life of nuns who work with prostitutes and the entry into the convent of one of the prostitutes. The second is about a convent built in India, to help the poor, and its failure (that's revealed in the opening pages, I'm not giving anything away). The second book was made into a medium-lousy movie, if you've seen it, read the book anyway. It's much better.

Ms. Godden, and her sister Jon, are not out of print, but are largely out of mind these days, along with their English sisters. But consider them as an addition to your library pile.

I'll blog next on some of my other favorites: Grandmother and the Priests, by Taylor Caldwell, a book of joyful fables of Irish priests and their heroism in great matters and small, and Theophilus North, by Thornton Wilder, a book not at all about church or nuns or priests, but is a mesmerizing tale of a man who learns the sacredness of life, and the God-given dignity of every man, and the honor due to each person's walk on earth.

Can you suggest any neglected others?


Roz said...

Therese, I was so surprised to find someone else who knows and loves House of Brede. They were Anglican? I'm surprised. I can't wait to get hold of more of Godden. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Brede Abbey is definitely not Anglican. In the novel, the history of the abbey is briefly described and it is very clearly and explicitly Catholic. Also, in the foreword to the edition I own, Rumer Godden explains the extensive help she had from the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey.

Therese Z said...

But when you read the glossary of terms at the end of the book, I believe there is a mention of the fact that the convent is Anglican.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to take a look at the glossary, but what I remember are the comments about how when the community came back to England (after having been an English community in exile in France), that they had to purchase the land for the abbey very discreetly, since at that time Brede town was not tolerant of Catholics. And there's the whole section near the end about the election of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Philippa's account of her conversion begins with her wandering into Westminster Cathedral (and I think she actually draws a contrast with hom the place looks compared to Westminster Abbey), where a tramp gives her his place in the line for confession.

Therese Z said...

I googled Stanbrook Abbey and it just didn't get definitive about its Anglo/Catholicism until I got into the history of Dame More and then there was a mention of sending names of prospective Abbesses to Rome.

So I have a feeling that Anonymous is right, that it is Catholic, but there is a curious emptiness in the description (no standard orthodox claim of faithfulness to the Magisterium or to Rome).

I have a copy of the book on its way to me (my original got lost over the years), thanks to my sister blogger, and I will page through it to find what is ticking in the corner of my memory.

The other books about convents are more resoundingly Catholic, complete with anti-Catholic bias by outsiders, etc.

Thanks for naming the Abbey. It has a website you can look at.

Henry Dieterich said...

It's been over thirty years since I read In This House of Brede, but I seem to recall that there was some discussion of the sisters' reaction to the changes in the liturgy after Vatican II. I wouldn't think this would be an issue unless the convent were Roman.

Anonymous said...

"brede" is based on Stanbrook Abbey and is as Catholic as can be. In fact Godden became a Catholic as a result of living at Stanbrook and researching for her book. Many of those stories are true. Not the main story line but the little ones.
It's a great book as all of Godden's are!

Who has read "Man on a Donkey"?
Also, I'd place Kristen Lavernsdatter in the "Catholic" category

Anonymous said...

re Catholic Novels;

check out the books of Michael O'brien, a Canadian,
Catholic writer and painter. You can check out his books at his studiobrien website. He is well reviewed by the likes of Peter Kreeft from the U.S. MY personal
favourite is "Father Elijah". his bokks are available
through Ignatius Press or Amazon.
Peace be with you

March Hare said...

Hi Therese--thanks for reminding me of "The Kitchen Madonna." I read it years ago and it made me cry!



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