In This House of Brede
(Loyola Classics, 2005) 
Novels about the cloistered religious life are not very common. There have been books enough written with a cloistered setting — Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and the whole of the Brother Cadfael series come to mind immediately — but these are not really about religious life, not about the spiritual ethos of monasticism. The only other example that I can think of — other than In This House of Brede — is Fernand Pouillon’s novel about the building of a medieval Cistercian monastery, The Stones of the Abbey, which is a fine book, though not well known. Are there others?
In This House of Brede is about a community of Benedictine nuns in the English countryside, and it has the very considerable merit of taking the Benedictine way of life seriously on its own terms, with no need for sensational drama thrown in. The substance of the story is drawn from the day to day life of prayer, work, and song that these women have chosen. The religious life, like any life, has drama enough, if one pays attention.
Godden has written a remarkably down to earth story. Were I to set pen to paper on a novel about religious life I would be tempted to turn out a novel of ideas, a clash of orthodoxies pitting the contemplative and Catholic against the worldly and weary, a cross between The Magic Mountain and The Temptation of St. Anthony. Rumer Godden has taken the opposite tack. Her women are quite ordinary, with ordinary concerns about their responsibilities to the community, worries about their health and families, and gratitude for friendship. Their religious life is woven into the fabric of each day, taken almost for granted as something so basic as not to require a great deal of attention. Even here, in the lives of those living the hidden life, the life of grace lies hidden deeper still. But it is there, and one of the chief pleasures of the book is seeing how grace illuminates and transforms the lives of those — not all, but some — who give themselves up to it.
Rumer Godden lived for several years in the gatehouse of a Benedictine abbey before she wrote this book, and I imagine that the frank, unromantic view of the religious life that she presents reflects what she observed at that time. The novel was published in 1969, which means that it was written while Vatican II was in session. The sisters in the story betray no knowledge of the Council, but they do from time to time discuss amongst themselves matters about which the Council deliberated. Godden is even-handed, almost to a fault: each perspective gets a voice thrown into the mix, and none is allowed to conquer the others.
If there is one point on which the psychological and spiritual realism of the book must be challenged, it is this: one has the impression, throughout, that the religious life itself — the Rule and the way of life built upon it — is stable and steady, like a quiet river that will flow forever. There are women in this story who are outside the cloister and want in, but there is no-one who is inside and wants out. Yet we know that in the wake of the Council, in the years immediately after this book was published, the religious orders of the Church began to hemorrhage members at a terrible rate. No hint of that looming catastrophe appears in these pages, and, in retrospect, this puts an unfortunate but undeniable blot on the portrait Godden painted.