A House of Women

I have a thing for fiction about nuns, and a quiet admiration mixed with puzzlement. I can only imagine the shape of what drives a woman to devote her life to God.

A caveat before I wander off into convent sisterhood fiction: I know next to nothing about the catholic faith, except for what I have seen on television or read in books, and the brief period in which I sang in a catholic church choir. I’ve heard the tropes, jokes, and unfortunate exploitation of children of the faith. I was never a fan of The Flying Nun, but I did love Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary’s.

My favorite nun-portrayer is Deborah Kerr. As Sister Clodagh, the leading role in Black Narcissus, Kerr, lit by Michael Powell’s characteristic luminous lighting, perfectly expresses the sister’s struggle to understand the mystical world in which she finds herself. In Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison Kerr finds the courage to resist Robert Mitchum’s plea to marry him.

English writer Rumor Godden, raised in colonial India (what is now Bangladesh) wrote five nun novels; Black Narcissus and In This House of Brede are her best known. The Nun’s Story, written about the experiences of a Belgian friend and ex-nun, Kathryn Hulme celebrates the accomplishments of nuns in hospital and in war. Audrey Hepburn (also Belgian by birth) was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Sister Luke, even though she was the most graceful and gamine nun ever to wear a habit. In the most heart-wrenching scene in the film, ex-Sister Luke goes through the ritual of removing that habit and stepping into the clothing she wore when she entered the convent.

Nuns had it bad during wartime as enemy invaders raped them, murdered them, and took them prisoner. In fiction, their convents have been the stage for murder, the occult, and the unearthing of secret scandal. They have been portrayed as exerting psychological and physical torture on catholic school students. Kind of a bad rap.

Still, stories of their lives fascinate me.

As I write this, I have Lillies of the Field in the background. It’s a relief to see humorous nun fiction, something other than comediennes hiding in convents as nuns, or men disguising themselves as nuns to avoid danger, usually mafiosi trying to track down their stolen money.

Novels that I have not read abound. The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark, The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend, The Bell by Iris Murdock. There are a surprising number of mystery novels involving nuns and convents, and of course salacious tales of nuns committing sins—most of these written by men.

In the late 1950’s, actress Dolores Hart starred with Montgomery Clift, Robert Wagner and Elvis Presley, and many more. However, at the onset of the next decade, she exited Hollywood to join a Benedictine convent in Connecticut. Her autobiography, The Ear of the Heart, co-written with Richard DeNeut, is captivating.

I suppose I am drawn to the stories of women who chose—or are chosen—to enter the cloistered life because it’s such an alien act. Ritual, vows of silence, the barbs of sin, the pleasure of daily work and prayer; this is how we are shown the contemplative life in film and on the printed page. I guess it’s likely these scenes are not always real.

Nuns have day jobs. They may live in the convent but leave to work at publishing houses, clinics, schools. But the drama inherent in this valuable work is not what intrigues me. It is the mystery of convent life that intrigues me, the camaraderie of the female in a house of women, devoting their lives and time to a single purpose.

An interesting setting for a novel—no wonder there are so many of them.

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A House of Women — 7 Comments

  1. I loved IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE. Rumer Godden has an interesting prose style, hopping backwards and forwards in time in a way that no one else can.

  2. A kindred soul!

    I wasn’t raised Catholic (or anything else–religiously I was raised by wolves) but I too am fascinated by nuns and monastic communities. Part of it is the theatre: the ritual and the habit are fascinating. And part of it (for me–see, raised by wolves) is the idea of choosing to live a life like that–a life, as I perceive it, that is one part mystic and one part in touch with the most basic aspects of life. I’ve written at least two works which had characters or scenes set in convents, mostly, if truth be told, because it licensed an outside amount of research.

    You have watched Call the Midwife, yes? Midwives–half of them nuns in a nursing order–in a very poor section of London post WWII. It tends to tilt toward the civilian nurses, but I watch it for the nuns.

  3. Thanks, Jill! I went through an early phase of fascination with Catholicism and nuns, since I grew up in a largely Catholic neighborhood and was myself product of about the blandest and occasional Sunday-school Protestantism. I was envious of my friends, so went with them one day after school to catechism class with the nuns. My family had no idea where I was, and was calling around, wondering what kind of mischief I’d gotten into this time — or worse. Finally the school principal called them, laughing, and said I had run away to the Catholic church. The nuns were very sweet to me!

  4. So many wonderful tales of nuns and their lives. If you have never come across the period mystery (hippies and the mafia!)laced with whimsical humor called A NUN IN THE CLOSET by Dorothy Gilman, you might enjoy it.

  5. And an excellent series of convent mysteries are the Sister Frevisse books by Margaret Frazer, starting with THE NOVICE’S TALE.

  6. A second for the Gilman recommendation, and a heads-up for an obscure fantasy novel from the 1980s by Linda Haldeman called Star of the Sea. Convent in the American south, with an orphan and a bit of yellow brick road.