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In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden

I still haven’t gotten around to reading Ron Hansen’s Exiles, but I have done my pseudoscholarly duty towards nuns in fiction by reading Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, which, in a word, is excellent. I’d go so far as to claim it as on of the great unknown masterpieces of 20th century fiction. At least I’d never heard of it until a priest friend gave it to me – which indicates a real knowledge deficit in Catholic fiction on my part.

Anyway, House of Brede centers around the goings on of an English Benedictine Abbey in the late 1950s, and the story Godden unveils is chiefly concerned with one Philippa Talbot, a very capable career woman holding a very important position in a very important government agency. She is 42 years old, single, something of a cipher at the beginning of the book, and what we learn about Philippa’s past we learn in the course of her shedding that past to become a Benedictine nun. In other words, there is a kind of mystery surrounding this person – a mystery in the sense that what is portrayed here in fiction is the special provenance of the individual life. Especially, I have to say, the lives of individuals who are religious. By “religious” I don’t mean people who partake of this or that religion, or even people like me or (possibly) you, who go to church, living your faith somewhere between poorly and extremely well. By “religious”, I mean those for whom the word is perhaps more properly capitalized – “Religious”. “Religious”, because they have dedicated their lives to the stricter bindings of faith (religare, Latin, meaning “to bind”), which in this case means the Roman Catholic Church, which of course means celibacy.

Anyway, Philippa (or “Mrs. Talbot” – the “Mrs.” will prove important) enters “this House of Brede” sixteen pages into this 375 page novel, a structural choice which itself is a stroke of genius for the way it opens up a way of understanding the symbiotic relationship between secular and religious life that is important to so many developments in various plots within the story. Important as well, I might add, to “real life”, in light of the distinction named above.

House of Brede is given a sense of constancy that anyone who has visited a monastery should recognize:

The life of the great monastery flowed as steadily as a river, no matter what rocks and cross-currents there were; Philippa often thought of the river Rother that wound through the marshes of Kent and Sussex, oldest Christendom in England, watering the meadows whose grass fed the famous marsh sheep, then winding below the town to the estuary that flowed to the sea. Brede Abbey was like that, thought Philippa, coming from far sources to flow through days, weeks, years, towards eternity.

There isn’t anything especially complex about this description – if anything, the “days, weeks, years” borders on commonplace – but this is part of its beauty.

But not just that. Consider the sentence “watering the meadows whose grass fed the famous marsh sheep, then winding below the town to the estuary that flowed to the sea.” The alliteration is striking: consider the w’s, m’s , f’s, t’s and especially the “sh” in “marsh sheep”. This sort of thing takes work. See what you can find in the next paragraph:

In religion a different year revolves within the natural one, the seasons making a background for it. Philippa was now seeing the cycle for the fifth time; it began as autumn reddened the Abbey’s wild cherries and sent the yellow birch leaves spinning in the park, while the beeches in the avenue stood deep in fallen leaves; Dame Beatrice’s vases for the sanctuary were filled with Micaelmas daisies or sent the pungent smell of chrysanthemums into the choir. There was a crisis of apple picking; even choir practice had to be missed, and Sister Hannah, who had been a farmer’s daughter, took the honey off her bees, working all night with two volunteers to help her, one, this autumn, was Sister Hilary, turning the handle of the extractor and letting the trickles of liquid gold drain through the tap into the jars.

The greatness of Brede isn’t just a matter of beautifully descriptive passages. Godden has a way of effecting transitions that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Here is a short example:

“Prayer must be founded on common sense,” said Dame Agnes.

“Not necessarily so.” Dame Beatrice was quite unruffled. “It often seems against sense. I shall pray. We must all pray.”

“Like a child asking the bank manager for a bag of money to take home to Daddy?” In her worry, Dame Agnes’s sarcasm was biting, but, “Exactly. Exactly like that,” said Dame Beatrice.

Note the brevity, and how the last line of dialogue precedes any introduction or description of it, even though it marks the end, not just of the conversation, but an entire chapter. This is a quick turn that mimics the quick exchange of quick minds.

Here is a longer example; notice how people, conversations, and different locations are brought together in a few paragraphs:

The small train drew in and, still in this new dimension, thought Philippa, she found a compartment and put her shabby small case up on the rack. She had changed cases with Maggie. “What! Me take your beautiful little air case and give you that cheap thing!” “It’s what I need,” Philippa had said, and “I shall not be going anywhere again.” Yes, this is almost the last step, she thought, as the train began to move and all at once she wanted to cry, “Those inexorable steps!”

“My life was so beautifully arranged,” she was to say over and over again: her flat in London overlooking a garden square, its room so finished and exquisite, with Persian rugs, furniture, pictures; Maggie, Griffon; her work, outstanding in her department – “I was becoming a personality”- her colleagues, McTurk and the others; her galaxy of friends – and Richard; and then this came like dynamite, thought Philippa, and blew it all to bits.

“Why suddenly?” Richard had asked bewildered.

“It wasn’t sudden, it was slow,” Philippa had said, “unforgivably slow,” though she knew now that she had been seeking – freethinker and renegade as she was – seeking, until, ten years ago, a shole decade, thought Philippa, she had gone one lunchtime into Westminster Cathedral, with its mysterious depths, the bleakness of its unclothed heights, the glimmer of its mosaics, the theatrical yellow arch behind the high altar, the scattered points of glowing gold from the candlestands. She had thought the cathedral dark, vast, and ugly compared with the patina and beauty of Westminster Abbey; then she had sensed the atmosphere of prayer; there was a coming and going; many people come to pray, not looking for history or beauty but prayer. “I didn’t know what I was doing there,” Philippa told Dame Beatrice Sheridan, sacristan at Brede, to whom in her early days she often talked. “I was ignorant of the meaning of anything. I knew though that in churches one knelt down, so I went to a line of chairs and knelt.”

“Being the lunch hour, the cathedral was busy and there was a queue of people, standing in line, I didn’t know for what. I suppose I must have been looking towards them, perhaps looking lost or troubled, because suddenly an old man beckoned to me. He was a tramp.”

“Was he a tramp?” Unlike most nuns who were more wary, Dame Beatrice often, quite calmly, found supernatural explanations for things.

The location changes from a train to her London flat to work to Westminster Cathedral to Brede Abbey. These changes in location alternate with a change of characters: three different interlocutors in Maggie, Richard, and Dame Beatrice, with a mysterious tramp for good measure. These alternations occur rapidly but smoothly, and neither at the prompting of the other, which would seem more “natural”. As I read this, I sense the back-and-forth of memory very well rendered. Note how well the characterization of Beatrice here coheres with the description of her conversation about prayer in the other passage. It is also significant, I think, that it isn’t just a memory, since the point of view for the novel is third person omniscient. In other words, this isn’t simply something on Philippa’s mind; the narration has no specified place or time except that which is directly concerned with the story. Stylistically, this contributes to the richness of the telling, but what about the story?

The most significant plot in the novel revolves around a mystery outlined in the first fifty pages, regarding the death of the Abbess, Dame Hester. She is much exercised on her death bed; she can hardly speak, and what she whispers signals something very wrong:

In the early hours of the morning, those hours of low ebb when so many souls slip quietly away as if all resistance were gone, the “want” gave way to “sor-ry.” “Sorry.” The prioress knew the Abess’s every shade and tone – she would have believed she knew her every thought – and her quick ear had fathomed that this “sorry” was not only regret; there was contrition, deep contrition. “… it is something Mother has done, for which she cannot forgive herself.”

The problem subsequently faced by the entire Abbey, as well as different solutions proposed by different nuns, makes for a portrait of a community at work that is something to behold. In the end, is the chosen solution the right solution? Or would another proposal have been better? By what standards can any decision be judged, when everything is accountable to second guessing? What, in the end, does second guessing matter when life goes on as it must go on, not one way or another, but one way only, which must be accepted as good. Because it is good. Because – mirabile dictu – it is a mystery too marvelous to say.

Comments

  1. I’ve had this book on my “to read” list for a while now, and on the strength of this discussion I think I’ll move it closer to the top. Thanks very much.

    (I heard about the book from Amy Welborn.)

  2. I am assuming then you haven’t seen the movie either?

    It stars the amazing Diana Rigg as Sr Phillipa. It was very well done I thought for the times (1975) and worth a spot on your netflix queue.

    I actually prefer Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy as a Nun story better than In This House of Brede, but I suppose that is because it has a more interesting story to tell in the long run.

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