Monday, January 31, 2011

Peace, but not the world's peace, or, Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede

{Photo by rocketlass.}

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about opening lines to novels, and I cited a couple of books that I think would have been better had their too-writerly opening lines been turned into epigraphs, or even cut entirely.

Had I read Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede (1969) when I wrote that post, I would have quoted its opening paragraph as one that strikes the perfect balance, obviously standing apart from the rest of the novel while just as clearly establishing its tone:
The motto was "Pax," but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undying, filled with joy and gratitude and love. "It is my own peace I give unto you." Not, notice, the world's peace.
It's enough to make you feel, instantly, that you're in the hands of a master. The balanced sentences feel so precise, so careful in their description, while the strong, authoritative, voice, markedly honest, is working toward the crescendo of that perfectly rendered closing line.

I knew from the moment I read that paragraph that I would love this novel--but I wouldn't ever have gotten that far were it not for Terry Teachout's praise for the book on his blog*. And I'm so grateful: In This House of Brede is a truly marvelous novel, one that, while focusing on a group of enclosed nuns in an English abbey at midcentury, manages to do what the best and most capacious novels do: make you feel like you're learning great truths about how people live.

The novel's protagonist is Philippa Talbot, a 42-year-old widow who, after making an unusually successful career for herself as a civil servant (unusually successful, that is, for a woman in her era), decides to throw it all up in order to enter the enclosed abbey of Brede. Her journey, from worldly career woman to contemplative, prayer-driven nun, forms the backbone of the book, but really her story is just a way into telling the story of the entire abbey. In the course of the novel, Godden introduces a couple of dozen nuns, some of which we come to know intimately, others more glancingly, but all of which are, by the end of the novel, distinct.

In her brief introduction to the Loyola Classics edition, Phyllis Tickle describes the convent of Brede:
Brede is a holy place inhabited by very human sinners called to a very particular form of service to God. The cloistered nuns have one single, overarching vocation. They are called to the life of prayer. Everything else is subsumed under that one duty: prayer. In choir and away from it, the nuns pray. They know that it is in this way only that the human world is changed.
In the novel, we encounter nuns and monks in service orders as well, who go out into the world doing works--they are the Marthas to the Brede sisters' Marys--and what is perhaps most striking about the novel is that Godden makes the calling of prayer understandable and sympathetic, even in that context, even to a lifelong nonbeliever like me. The nuns may or may not, depending on your belief, be effecting change in the world through their prayer, but there's no question that the atmosphere they create within Brede is different from the outside, different for its silences and its seclusion and its neverending wheel-of-the-years calendar and its relentless focus on contemplation, a place that changes those within. Watching a lark in the garden, Philippa reflects, "I never had time to watch larks before. Odd, one has to leave the world to discover it."

Godden was a recent convert to Catholicism when she wrote the novel, but it's not a novel that assumes or demands belief. As Tickle writes in her introduction, "Godden was a consummate artist long before she became a Christian, and she never betrays her craft, not even to make a doctrinal point." Instead, what we see are real people, with real flaws, trying each day to simply be better. Some succeed; some fail. Sometimes those are the same person. Of a particularly troublesome older nun who has just erupted in selfish anger, the Prioress says to the Abbess, "You know how sorry she will be," to which the Abbess replies, "Yes, I know. It gets a little wearying." And others are weary of the Abbess; that is how life, and human interaction, inherently imperfect, is.

Ultimately, for me, In This House of Brede ended up falling into one of my favorite categories: it's a novel about work, and about the ways that the structure and proximity and demands of work help and hinder us in forming real relationships with our coworkers. Godden's nuns are a mixed bag (old, young, progressive, conservative, down-to-earth, ethereal) but they're all stuck together, for life, in this place, and each in her own way must make the best of it--while also, if she is to be true to her calling, trying to help her fellow nuns make the best of things for themselves, as well. The abbey is contemplative, but it still must be made to function from day to day, and the work that requires--and the agonizing decisions required of its leader, the Abbess--is wonderfully drawn.

The debate among the nuns over Vatican II, which Godden--in her unusual, but effective narrative style of peppering scenes with dialogue from earlier or later discussions, as if overheard or remembered, as if the abbey is one large whispering gallery--stretches out over three or four pages, is a good example of the complexity of the convent's internal life. Conservative nuns fear that all they love is being stripped away; the more progressive nuns believe that more must be done. No consensus is reached, but, without taking a side, Godden notes--and we believe her, because now we know these nuns:
Pope John had announced, "We are going to shake off the dust that has collected on the throne of St. Peter since the time of Constantine and let in fresh air," and the chill of fresh air, blowing in a closed atmosphere, is always painful; new ideas, new thoughts, new changes were blowing through the monastery, not a fresh breeze as perhaps Pope John had intended, but in gusts, damaging storms.
Or take this account, particularly chilling to book lovers, of the enforcement of the order's vow of poverty:
On Ash Wednesday afternoon each nun had to give in her poverty bill, an exact amount of everything she had in her cell, and, if she had one, in her workroom. "We don't want to collect things," Dame Clare explained to her novitiate [class of incoming nuns]. No nun, from the least to the most important, escaped. Abbess Catherine was gentle, if inexorable--"and very thorough," said Dame Veronica feelingly. "Do youreally need all those books? Choose three." "One watch is all you can use," or, "Dear child, you seem to have enough pens for an army." "Everyone should have the same," was the hothead cry of some. "If you pause to think, you could not say that," said Mother Prioress in mildness. "Dame Agnes, for instance, may need twenty books. Dame Perpetua needs one, as she would tell you herself, or perhaps none."
These are the negotiations, the very human, emotional interactions, of a life dedicated to a rule.**

In a way, the world conjured up by In This House of Brede feels like the flip side of J. F. Powers's brilliant work: his priests are human, his church mostly secular--though affording the occasional moment of grace; Godden's nuns are also fully human, but even when they are petty and small, the reality of their community, and its power, when carefully managed, to create a different, more contemplative world within the world, shines through. And the novel, like few others--J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country comes to mind, as does Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It--manages to grace the reader with that world, however temporarily. You come out of this novel with your breathing slowed, your perceptions heightened, your patience with and attendance on the things of this world augmented.

It's a stunning novel, therefore, perfect for these wintry days when the promise of spring seems so unlikely, so far away.

PS Don't be scared off by the 600-plus pages of the pleasantly chunky, small-trim Loyola Classics edition; in the normal-trim library edition I read initially, the book only runs about 350 pages.


  1. This continues to be one of the most outstanding sites I read. I just finished your Casanova entries, and I just had to click on your BALL FOUR entry from 2006, as it is also one of my favorite books. ("Yeah, surrrrrrrrrrrrre...") Your Casanova entries convinced me to download the 4,000 pages to my computer from the Gutenburg Project. Anyway, really great writing, and outstanding reading choices on your part as well.

  2. That fantastic! realy! these website is way better then everything I ever saw.

  3. Jim Prentiss12:21 PM

    What I also enjoyed about this book was it contained some humorous writing. If you like this book you might try the novel, "The Edge of Sadness" by Edwin O'Connor. This is always from the Loyola Classics Series and is recommended by Terry Teachout.