Godden: In This House of Brede

June 16, 2011

In This House of Brede
Rumer Godden
(Loyola Classics, 2005) [1969]

668 p.

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.

26 Responses to “Godden: In This House of Brede”

  1. Janet Says:

    I saw the movie made from this book long before I read the book and it’s one of a very few cases where I like the book and movie equally, although I see them as two different stories, because they are. Ms. Godden had a gift for evoking an atmosphere. She captures the cultures of the English countryside and mysteries of India equally well.

    She wrote some nice children’s books, too. My favorite is The Kitchen Madonna. http://www.amazon.com/Kitchen-Madonna-Rumer-Godden/dp/0670413992 You should get it for Iona when she is a bit older.


  2. KathyB Says:

    I love this book and have read it several times. Personally I find it refreshing that it is not about women on the inside who want out. I know in the novel there is some discussion among the nuns as to how to proceed after Vatican II, for example, changing their habits and chanting in English. I have a feeling that the novel was finished and published before the mass exodus really began – especially since there were probably a few years between Godden’s living in a convent and the novel’s publication. Perhaps the idea that the convent will continue forever reflects the fact that no-one on the outside really foresaw an exodus, or perhaps wishful thinking on the part of the author.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thank you for that recommendation, Janet. I am always happy to hear about good children’s books. I’ve added it to my list. For what age do you think it would be appropriate?

    Kathy, I expect you are right that the book was published (and therefore written) before the problems were evident, but I cannot help thinking that there must have been some advance signs that trouble was ahead, and that a great novelist would have captured something of that. But maybe nobody saw it coming. I have often thought of looking at Thomas Merton’s later journals (he died in 1968) to see if he foresaw a threat to religious life from the Council, but I’ve never got around to it.

    The whole phenomenon (the exodus) is awfully upsetting to look back on. Surely religious, of all people, should have been most immune to the misguided enthusiasms of those years, but, alas, it seems that it was not so. Certainly I prefer a story in which religious life is portrayed as noble and beautiful — that is how it appears to me — but given that Godden seemed to be striving for realism, and was writing when she was, something unpleasant but important was missing.

  4. Janet Says:

    I would say about 7 or 8.

    I think that Merton’s own life in later years was a sign and a warning about what was going to happen after the council.


  5. cburrell Says:

    That’s a perceptive comment. I expect you are right. I do like Merton though, at least some of the time.

  6. Janet Says:

    Oh yes. His early stuff is the best.


  7. cburrell Says:

    Apart from The Seven Storey Mountain, I don’t have a good feeling for when Merton wrote which book. Probably Zen and the Birds of Appetite was relatively late, but I am not even sure about that.

    One of my favourite things from Merton is “Fire Watch”, which was included in The Sign of Jonas. (Again, no idea about publication date.) If you’ve never read it, I recommend it. On the surface it is about walking through the monastery alone, at night, after everyone has gone to sleep, but there’s a lot more going on than just the surface. It’s a really beautiful piece of work.

  8. francesca Says:

    I have heard Benedictine women groan when ‘In this house’ was mentioned – they thought it saccharine and unrealistic

  9. cburrell Says:

    Interesting; I’d not have expected that. Anyway, it could have been much worse.

    Did you get to Santiago?

  10. francesca Says:

    I enjoyed the novel myself – I’m just recording the nuns’ reaction, which interested me. It’s like, if you know, Austrians uniformly loathe The Sound of Music.

    The fall of the ‘House of Brede’ may have been like the fall of the Soviet Union – apparently ‘predictable’, but unpredicted at the time. Or again, I doubt if an early 16th century novelist would have predicted that half of Europe would suddenly go Protestant within half a century. It all looked so stable, at the time.

    Yes, I made it to Santiago for the morning of Pentecost. It was wonderful. If you friend me on FB you can see some of my pictures. My father struggled manfully for hours to get my camera pictures onto the web and in the end we gave up and put up half a dozen.

  11. francesca Says:

    To non Catholics of my mother’s generation, which is not so distant from Rumer Godden’s, the Catholicism of the first half of the 20th century just ‘is’ what Catholics ‘are’. They would not imagine it as capable of just disappearing over night.

  12. cburrell Says:

    Maybe it is unrealistic for me to expect someone — even a perceptive novelist — to have seen it coming. I can’t help thinking that there must have been some fairly widespread discontent, something rotten in the structure, as it were. Could that really have been hidden?

    I am very glad to hear that you reached Santiago. Congratulations! I remember that I found the last few miles, through the rather bland outskirts of modern Santiago, discouraging, but arriving at the church was wonderful.

    Although I am not much of a Facebook user, I think that I will try to “friend” you in order to see those pictures. (It is a pity that the makers of Facebook had not heard of “befriending”.)

  13. francesca Says:

    I think I’m ‘Francesca Aran Murphy’

  14. francesca Says:

    I think there was something rotten in the structure, not just something which went wrong in, say, 1968. There is a book called ‘I leapt Over the Wall’ by Monica someone, describing a woman’s life in and departure from a convent. It’s from the late 1950s or early 1960s, I think. Ida Gorres comments in ‘Broken Lights’ that it was amazing that anyone could spend that long in a convent and not have a clue what it is about.

  15. Janet Says:

    I think it may have been like a house that has termites. The structure might be really damaged, but you don’t see it until just before it falls apart.

    I don’t remember anything seeming wrong in the Church in general, but maybe it was because I was only 15 at the end of the council. Still, I’m pretty sure that the average Catholic had no idea. Part of the reason may be that when things are a certain way and they have been that way all your life, and you a pretty happy with the way things are, you don’t see that there may be underlying problems.


  16. Janet Says:

    I have The Sign of Jonas. I’ve read part of it before, and I’m going to go read Fire Watch right now.


    • cburrell Says:

      Well, I hope you’ll let me know what you think of it. I re-read it every couple of years. There is something about it that encourages and refreshes me.

      • Janet Says:

        It was lovely. I ought to go outside and read it with a flashlight, but at the moment, I’m too tired.


  17. Janet Says:

    I thought that this passage from Fire Watch coincided in a strange way with the discussion about the crumbling on the monasteries.

    Lord, God, the whole world tonight seems to be made out of paper. The most substantial things are ready to crumble or tear apart and blow away.
    How much more so this monastery which everybody believes in and which has perhaps already ceased to exist!
    O God, my God, the night has values that day has never dreamed of. All things stir by night, waking or sleeping conscious of the nearness of their ruin. Only man makes himself illuminations he conceives to be solid and eternal. But while we ask our questions and come to our decisions, God blows our decisions out, the roofs of our houses cave in upon us, the tall towers are undermined by ants, the walls crack and cave in, and the holiest buildings burn to ashes while the watchman is composing a theory of duration.


  18. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I always think I’d like to read it outside, seated high in a tower, by moonlight.

    The passage you quote does resonate with the earlier discussion. I was thinking earlier today that perhaps there were many people in religious life who did not truly have a vocation for it, and when the ‘winds of change’ blew the doors and windows open, they made a break for it. But if that were true we would have expected to see the post-exodus Orders more faithful and more focused, and my impression is that that was not the case. Certainly some of the sisters I have met have been pretty flakey. Monks, not so much.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    To the comment that there must have been some in Brede wanting out, I can tell you that at least one young nun at Stanbrook Abbey, the model for Brede, who left. She was there in the early 1970s and is now out and still an artist, using her religious name, Meinrad Craighead. While she was at Stanbook, she created woodblock designs that were printed and sold in the Abbey gift shop.

  20. Janet Says:

    This is what really happened to the Benedictine nuns.


  21. cburrell Says:

    Oh Janet. Oh, Janet.

    When watching that I had to remind myself that the Almighty hath fix’d his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.

    You know, I have heard people complain about ‘Kumbaya-singing nuns’ as one of the archetypal examples of what went wrong after the Council, but I never thought they were referring to actual nuns actually singing Kumbaya.

    And on national television too.

    At least they were wearing their habits?

  22. Mac Says:

    Aw come on, y’all. Look on the bright side. There are no guitars. There are no drums. There is no tambourine. The singing is competent. The leader, while perhaps overactive, is not shaking her hips. The words don’t actually make my skin crawl. And, as you say, they are wearing their habits. As a veteran of thirty years of folk/pop Masses, I appreciate these little mercies.

    Ok, I admit, my skin did crawl every time that forced-enthusiastic voice announced the words of the next verse.

  23. cburrell Says:

    That sounds like a counsel of despair. 8)

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