Chris Rea: You Must Be Evil
Roman Guardini: The End of the Modern World

52 Authors: Week 44 - Rumer Godden

Because it’s timely.

“I always wonder,” said Lise, “why, in Britain and America, we make Hallowe’en into a frightening thing with, for children, ghosts and skulls, witches, spiders and black cats, when it is the eve of one of the most radiant feasts of the year—All Saints, all those men and women who have shone out light and goodness, courage and faith into the world.”

“And All Souls is radiant too,” said Soeur Marguerite—it followed the next day. “For us there is loss, but for the dead, for him or her, it is the culmination, the crown . . . .”

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, Rumer Godden

I first heard of Rumer Godden from my grandmother. She had been reading In This House of Brede and she couldn’t quit talking about it. My grandmother, although Catholic, wasn’t a person who talked a lot about the faith, but she was a serious reader and knew a good novel when she read one. I, being about 19, and not too interested in nuns, didn’t read the book at the time, but I respected my grandmother’s opinion and long ago I came to share it.

I have read many of Rumer Godden’s novels over the past 30 years or so and several of her children’s books. However, before I wrote about them, I wanted to read some of her autobiographies to get some idea of what formed the woman who could write such beautiful and mysterious, and sometimes terrifying fiction. Pretty soon I was completely caught up in Ms. Godden’s own story which is as fascinating as any novel, and so it will be largely about her three autobiographical works that I write.


I chose this picture because Rumer Godden loved Pekingese. She had something over 50 during her life.

In one of the autobiographies, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, Ms. Godden writes this:

Indians have a custom of taking ‘darshan’ which means, with a temple, a place, a holy cave or a renowned view such as the sight of the Himalayan snow peaks, Everest or Kanchenjunga, or a notable person--for instance Gandhi or the President--they will travel miles, make pilgrimages simply to take ‘darshan’ of that person or place, not trying to make contact or speak--certainly not taking photographs as we do--but, simply by looking, to let a little of the personality, sainthood, holiness or beauty, come into their souls. They go away, usually without speaking and so keep it for the rest of their lives. Innately, from the time we were children, we had done the same thing; it was perhaps our deepest delight.

As I read these three books, I got the feeling that after having taken darshan for many years, she was sharing all she had learned with me.

Two Under the Indian Sun, written by Rumer and her older sister Jon in 1966, tells the story of their childhood in India. It is not, they say, “an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone.” And that it is. They present us with a vision of India from the viewpoint of a child, and that vision evokes a yearning for beauty and mystery.

English children in India were usually sent home to school about the age of six; however, Rumer and Jon (ages 6 and 8) after a year with rather straight-laced aunts in London were sent back to Narayangunj (now in Bangladesh) in 1914 “because of Zeppelins.” Here they lived with their Fa and Mam, Aunt Mary, and younger sisters, Nancy and Ruth, and a number of Hindu and Moslem servants until 1920 when they went back to England to be educated.

The Godden children did not live entirely without structure, they had to do lessons with their mother and aunt, but they seem to have had a great deal of freedom for rich, imaginative play and to visit the colorful and fascinating bazaar filled with colorful paper garlands, rich silks, wonderful kites, every kind of food, and sacred cows. They lived near the river, and their father, who was an agent of a steamship navigation company, had a boat, The Sonachora. Some of the loveliest passages in the book take place on the river. For instance, on the nights of the Hindu festival Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, Hindus light thousands of little “earthenware lamps shaped like leaves or tiny boats,” and set them everywhere, under trees or on the rooftops or anywhere else, to help Kali in her battle with the evil one. On these nights the whole family boarded the Sonachora to view the flickering lights from the river. Another time, they took a long trip—weeks—as the only passengers on a larger steamer, through the Sundarbans, the river jungle of the Ganges Delta. They tell of long, languid days watching the banks for tigers that they heard along the bank, but never saw. Nevertheless, there was plenty of wildlife to be seen and they tell of crocodiles, monkeys, porpoises, and myriad river birds: osprey, eagles, ibis, storks, and kingfishers. Their days on the river were full of lush beauty and peace.

There was, of course, a dark side to their time in India. There was dirt, squalor, and violence—including a murder in their own household. I’m sure that their mother’s view of India wasn’t nearly as sanguine as theirs, but this is memoir of children, and the wonder overshadows the tragedy.

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep begins with Rumer’s return to England for a formal education. Neither she nor Jon was prepared for life in a girls' school either academically or temperamentally, and they failed at more than one. Finally, and thankfully, at the Moira House Girls’ School, Rumer found that one teacher, Mona Swann, who recognized her talent, and spent the next six terms drilling her relentlessly in the disciplines of writing. It is fairly certain that Ms. Swann was responsible for the excellence of Rumer Godden’s future work—and it was going to be not her present, but her future work.

After leaving Moira House, Rumer had to make a living, and for some unfathomable reason, and although she herself could not dance well, she trained as dancing teacher, and appears to have been a good one. For the next several years she had her own schools, and although she never made a very substantial income, seems to have really enjoyed her work and her students, and managed to support herself.

During this time, she became pregnant and in 1934 married Laurence Foster, the father of her expected child. Although Laurence and Rumer were not really compatible, they got along well enough for several years, and it was during this time that her first books were published, but shortly after her first great success, The Black Narcissus, Rumer came home in 1939 to find that Laurence had gone to the army, leaving her with enormous debts which consumed almost everything that she made on The Black Narcissus, both book and movie.

The remainder of the book, the meat of the book really, tells of her struggle to make a life for herself and her two young daughters in India during World War II. This part of the book tells of a time of poverty and exhausting struggle and sadness, but also of a time of peace and beauty in her small home, Dove House. Unfortunately, this idyll ends in violence.

Ms. Godden wrote 24 novels, 11 works of non-fiction, and 28 children's books. I have read only a few of these. The reason that I was curious about her life though, is found in her novels about India. They seem to suggest that even with the best of good will, there is something in the atmosphere of India that is inimical to westerners. In The Black Narcissus the earliest novel that I have read, the menace seems to be only connected to a certain place, the building that has been given to an order of Anglican sisters for a convent. In The Peacock Spring, and Kingfishers Take Fire it is more omnipresent. I found this a mystery since all her life she thought of India as home; however, the answer to this mystery lies, I think, in the violent event that ended her stay in Kashmir during the war.

Although Rumer was surrounded by people of many different faiths during her life: Hindus, Mohammedans, Buddhists, Protestants and one Catholic nanny, religion did not play much part in her life, although she was made to say her prayers and had some passing knowledge of the Bible. Then on page 174 of A Time to Dance…, we suddenly come across this passage.

Thinking about religion brings me to the thought of the Catholic Church; it seems to me to be one of the solutions—maybe the only solution. It is universal, it has a common tongue. It was founded by Christ, not man. This does not mean I want to become a Catholic now, does not because, to become one, I would have to shut my eyes to many things—or see beyond them and at the moment I cannot see. There is though, this: I sense that no-one can appreciate the Catholic Church until they are part of it.


There is an Indian proverb or axiom that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time, but, unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.

This brief introduction is found at the beginning of A House with Four Rooms. Resuming where A Time to Dance . . . left off, this final autobiography begins with Rumer’s arrival back in England with her two daughters, Jane and Paula. It is here that she gradually finds some stability, and picks up the threads of her literary career which had become pretty thoroughly unraveled during the war. She had come home with a finished novel in hand, and it was The River which brought her back into the public eye. Not only was the book a best seller, it was made into a film by Jean Renoir, son of the painter Auguste Renoir. The movie which was based an event in Rumer’s childhood can be seen on Amazon video. Rumer worked closely with Renoir during the making of the film and she was very happy with it because every detail (almost) was authentic. It was a critically acclaimed movie, but it would be worth watching, even just to see portrayals of the Indian festivals.


Diwali, from The River

 It is in this book that Rumer meets James Haynes Dixon, who was a civil servant, albeit more successful than that title would suggest. After a long courtship, and having been given an ultimatum by James, Rumer married him on November 26, 1949. Rumer did not want to be married, but she could not imagine being without James. They had a long successful marriage, full, of course, of the vicissitudes which fill every marriage, which lasted until James's death. On October 10, 1973, the day of his death, Rumer wrote in her diary, “James died in Hastings Hospital. I do not want to be consoled—ever.”

This also is the book in which Rumer converts to Catholicism. She does not talk about this much, but throughout the book, you find little indications of interest. They visit a monastery, they meet a priest, they meet some nuns, and finally they come in. There is a bit about her reasons in A House with Four Rooms, but we get a much better look at her spiritual journey in the last two novels I want to write about.

The first of these is the one with which I began this essay, In This House of Brede. It's been a year or so since I read it, so I'm a bit foggy on the details, but this is the story of Dame Philippa Talbot, a successful career woman who enters a cloistered monastery. There are different story lines that take place throughout the book which are resolved, and we learn to know the sisters there, but I don't think that it goes into great spiritual depth. During the writing of this book, Ms. Godden visited the monastery frequently over a period of five years. She interviewed the nuns who were sequestered behind bars. She had a floor plan of the monastery so she became intimately acquainted with all the nuns comings and goings and the daily rhythm of their lives. When the book was finished, she sat with a panel of three of the nuns who went over every detail of the story until all their objections were taken into consideration.

Ms. Godden wrote:

People who have read In This House of Brede have told me they could not put it down. I could not put it down either, not for those five years. “Promise me” said James, “you will never write another book about nuns. Write one about a brothel.”

Ten years later I wrote a book about both.

The book that Ms. Godden wrote is Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. I first read it about 30 years ago before I had developed my current taste for finding grace in the midst of the darkness. I was looking for a nice Christian story, and found a story about the madame of a house of prostitution. I just didn't get it. Reading it again last week, I was amazed. As I read about the transformation of Elizabeth Fanshawe, military chaufeur to Lise Ambard, Mère Maquerelle of the whorehouse to La Balafr>é>e, notorious murderess, and finally to Soeur Marie Lise de Rosaire it was evident that Ms. Godden's conversion was very deep indeed, and that she had a profound understanding of the power of the grace of God and the intimacies of the spiritual life.

Soeur Marie Lise is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Béthanie, an order founded by Fr. Jean Joseph Lataste in 1864 to serve women in prison. The communities are (or were, I'm not sure there are any left) made up of both sisters who enter in the regular way, and sisters whose former lives were seriously sinful. No one but the superiors of the order know which is which.

Aside from the stories of spiritual transformation in the novel, there is a wonderful sense of the flow of the Church year with all of her feasts and fasting. The reader also enters into the rhythm of the work and life of the monastery from day to day, and from season to season. Of all the books that I have read for this authors series, and there have been 50 or more, this may be my favorite.

I will end this post, and my contribution to the 52 Authors series with the final paragraphs of House with Four Rooms.

Like everyone else I am a house with four rooms. As a child the physical room was barred to me, I had to fight my way to get into it. The room of the mind has always been mine. In the emotional, I have been enormously lucky; with the spiritual, it was a long time before I would do more than peer in; now it is where I like best to be alone.

All of us tend to inhabit one room more than another but I have tried to go most days into them all—each has its riches.

My house is, of course, slightly worn now but I still hope to go on living quietly in all of it, finding treasures, old and new until the time comes when I shall have, finally, to shut its door.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.


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I was curious about the Dominicaines de Béthanie. The order's website indicates there are about 40 left, spread over France, Italy and Switzerland, with one postulant. They celebrated their 150th anniversary last year.

Sorry, that shoudl read "spread over four houses in".

And shoudl should read should. This could go on a long time ...

Well, there's this:

Looks like it's a bit stuck in the 70s, but they probably do good works. It's interesting that in the book, the nuns only visited the women in prison. All the prisoners in those pictures are men.

The story of the founding of the order is in the novel and it's quite beautiful. I was hoping that Fr. Jean Joseph Lataste had been canonized so I could write about him, but, alas, no. It didn't look like I'd be able to find any good sources in English either.


I've only read In This House of Brede, and it was 30 or so years ago. I liked it a lot, and can still remember certain scenes, which isn't necessarily always the case. I'd like to read more (which has started to sound like sort of a rote thing in response to these posts, but I really would).

I'm especially intrigued by the Indian autobiography. There's a PBS series running now called Indian Summers, which is about life among the British in India in the early '30s. It's pretty good, not great, but has made me more curious about that milieu, especially as I had seen The Jewel in the Crown not too long ago.

Well, now I'm intrigued that there is a PBS series about India. I'm going to have to figure out how to watch at least some of it.

I think you would really like Two Under the Indian Sun It's my favorite after Five for Sorrow.... Well, they are two different things, so I really shouldn't even compare them.

I really liked Black Narcissus, too--both the movie and the book. It's funny. She did not like the movie because it was not authentic enough, but I would never have recognized the problems she talks about and it stuck very close to the book.


I remember a biographical program on TV in England about Godden. It said that she and her children were for a time in a daze and it turned out their Indian servants were putting hadhish in their food with the aim of killing them and taking over the house

Well, several things including ground glass. Only one servant, but he gave the woman who lived with them belladonna.


I may have Black Narcissus recorded off TCM...will have to check. If I do it's been there a long time.

[The novels] seem to suggest that even with the best of good will, there is something in the atmosphere of India that is inimical to westerners.

It seems to me that the something inimical to westerners is due to colonialism. Godden repeatedly laments her compatriots' lack of interest in Indians as people, their ignorance of the history, and their contempt for the culture. But it doesn't occur to her that that attitude will breed resentment and hostility in the locals.

The TV show said ground glass. But as I tapped I thought 'ground glass? Is that possible?'

Im trying to remember which of her novels Ive read. I know I was a fan as a child but Im not sure how many I read

It seems to me that the something inimical to westerners is due to colonialism. Godden repeatedly laments her compatriots' lack of interest in Indians as people, their ignorance of the history, and their contempt for the culture. But it doesn't occur to her that that attitude will breed resentment and hostility in the locals.

Have you read much Godden, Anne-Marie, because that certainly is not her attitude. I mean, there was nothing that she could do about the Rah, but she lived with the Indians as much or more than she did the Europeans. In fact, she was much more in tune with the Indians.

The inimical thing I'm talking about is spiritual, I think, although she herself didn't have any trouble moving in and out of those cultures.


Grumpy, Yes, her daughters noticed something gritty in her food and they found that's what it was. In India they use ground glass in food to kill vermin.


I've wondered, watching both these TV series about the British in India, whether their portrayal of the British attitude is generally accurate. They certainly do show it as contemptuous etc. and I've wondered if there is some anti-colonial propagandizing going on there. But I guess it would be surprising if a colonizing foreign power were not that way, and the British were probably not as bad as some.

Regarding the inimical spiritual power: I know of someone who went to India as a young hippie and got deeply involved in Indian religion (I don't know exactly what sort, presumably something under the Hindu umbrella) and had some kind of experience of spiritual evil that terrified her and I believe had some effect on her turning to Christianity. That doesn't mean all of Hinduism is demonic, but there are probably some bad things hanging around in such an eclectic spirituality.

The attitude of the conqueror to the conquered. One of the educated Indian critiques of British rule was that it was maintained by surprisingly un-British attitudes and practices. It is bizarre that the British of the late 19th century regarded some of the most ancient and complex civilisations in the world as "barbaric", and instituted forms of racial segregation to maintain their own mystique as overlords. (While there were always those who were intrigued, fascinated, respectful, who might have been a minority but were certainly an influential minority.)

There's a collection of Rudyard Kipling stories, Plain Tales from the Hills, that shows (and satirises) both attitudes. And I've heard Indians rhapsodizing his Kim as a novel of India.

Plain Tales seems another one that should go on my list.

There's a scene in Indian Summers that shows a sign: "No Dogs or Indians Allowed." Would that be an embellishment, or a real thing? Not to paint a rosy picture of colonial rule, but that's little worse than I would have expected. It's not just some scrawled piece of paper in a shop window, but a brass plaque or something.

Janet, I've read roughly half of her books, including the first two autobiographies. I think I didn't make myself clear. I mean that the condescending British attitude that Godden deplores, if it was as common as she paints it, would lead to resentment of the British among Indians; that resentment is the inimical thing I was referring to.

Godden doesn't share that attitude, but she can't avoid belonging to the overlord side. She talks about the social limits that she, as a British woman, was subject to--even in her remote house, she had to have servants, and she had at times to treat them quite severely. By the same token, she can't avoid being on the receiving end of that inimical something.

Mac, here's someone else asking your question about the signs:
Short version: no-one seems to have a documented case of such a sign, although no-one disputes that there were places where Indians weren't admitted. (And some hotels in India today are alleged to have "foreigners only" policies.)

Thanks, Anne-Marie. That's as I suspected. And interestingly--the comment at that page which refers to a notice on an old club at Shimla may be talking about the same one that's shown in the tv show, as the show is set there. You can see it here. Though the commenter says it's been taken down so maybe this was constructed for the show.

I've also read that the "No Irish" signs often said to have existed in places like Boston in the 19th c are similarly legendary, which of course doesn't mean that there wasn't prejudice and effective exclusion.

I can remember an Indian girl in my boarding school telling me that the British had clubs in Calcutta for British people only. I imagine she knew of such things from legend - like me she was born 40 years after Independence.

The British in India was a relatively successful experience of colonialism. When we handed the place back, it had the rule of law, and India has been able to maintain the rule of law since that time. By relatively successful I mean that there was not that broad absence of sympathy between the colonists and colonized which seemed to have occurred eg in Zimbabwe. In India, the British were dealing, and to an extent, knew they were dealing, with a highly civilized people; in Africa they encountered people who seemed to them to be living in the stone age, people who in some cases had no written language, for example.

Look at Joseph Conrad's description of European colonianism on the East coast of Africa - where colonialism was purely and simply predatory (from that description) and compare it to the British in India. The British in India were snobbish about the locals. They were of course racist by present day standards. But thousands of British civil servants and engineers and so forth gave their lives to India, creating a working civic life.

I'm not saying the British in India was the best thing since Marmite. I'm saying that compared with other colonial experiments it was relatively successful, there was relative sympathy between the two parties, the British were able to give as well as take from their colony, and that this exercise was not purely predatory.

I'm not saying the Indians love the British to death either! I have an Indian sister in law, from Goa, and she could say something about the racism which is still inflicted on Indians by others.

After about a year in the Mid West, I discovered that there is an Indian grocer attached to an Indian restaurant which was in - relative (!) walking distance of my house. I didn't have a car at that time and it took me a long time to find it because it is a long way away. I was delighted by the Emporium I discovered. It was identical to the many Indian Grocers which one can find in British cities, and it is also a purveyor of loose tea. Even their tea bags are real, strong tea, not the surrogates which are sold in America as 'Irish tea' and so forth. So I cannot help myself. Whenever I go to the counter with my purchases, I always say, 'I love it here, it is home from home. Just like England.' I have to confess that this exclamation never even raises a smile.

So yes I imagine they feel a bit more negative about the British/Indian experiment than we do.

In James Morris' history of the British Empire, he says that in the early days, relations between Brits and locals were more equal and informal. The adventurers who were the first wave of colonialists were pretty free and easy about living "native style." It was basically once things got more organized and settled, and British women came out to join their husbands, that the divisions and constraints were established.

Back to Rumer Godden: I find it interesting that many, if not most, of her children's books center on dolls whose thoughts and wishes are at the core of the story. And yet dolls don't seem to have been an important part of Godden's own life.

In James Morris' history of the British Empire, he says that in the early days, relations between Brits and locals were more equal and informal.

I think things changed a great deal after the Indian Mutiny of 1857. There was not only a change in how the British ruled the country, but also in the attitude back home.

India's first prime minister after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote a book, The Discovery of India, that can be read online here. It goes into some detail on the history of India both before and during British rule. Related to exclusionary signs, there's this in the book:

Racialism in India is not so much English versus Indian; it is European as opposed to Asiatic. In India every European, be he German, or Pole, or Rumanian, is automatically a member of the ruling race. Railway carriages, station retiring-rooms, benches in parks, etc., are marked 'For Europeans Only.' This is bad enough in South Africa or elsewhere, but to have to put up with it in one's own country is a humiliating and exasperating reminder of one's enslaved condition.

I see what you were saying Anne-Marie, and I'm sure there is something to it, I just think it was the other, too.

"she had to have servants, and she had at times to treat them quite severely"

I think that the fact that she had to have servants was as much do to the Indians as to the British. They pretty much insisted on it and there had to be a lot because each job could only be done by someone of a particular caste or religion. Margaret Landon wrote about that in Anna and the King of Siam, too.

There were a lot of Indians in English public schools, weren't there?


I can remember the same English girl telling me that one rupee a month was plenty for a servant to live on, and that if her family did not have servants these people would have no income. She was the only Indian girl in my year, and I do not remember many others at the school. Her father is now a British Lord, a life peer from Blair's government.

I was told by a Scottish philosopher who does a lot of lecturing in British private schools that a huge percentage of the children are now Asian. That would be very different from the public schools I knew.

I wish I had my books here so I could go and see for myself which books by Rumer Godden I read!

I mean the same Indian girl!

I agree with your assessment of Britain's rule of India, Grumpy. It's not a very informed assessment, but it certainly seems justified by what I do know, and the simple present-day evidence of how well India is doing now. It seems that the one-time British colonies are generally in better shape than some of the non-British ones, though that again is not a very well-informed statement, and I'm sure it's not a completely rosy picture.

Also, just in case it isn't clear: in doubting the "No Indians and Dogs" signs, I'm not suggesting that there weren't in fact places where Indians were not allowed. A lot of them, I imagine. Just that the "and Dogs" is maybe over the top. And that signs were probably not necessary. I don't remember any of that sort of thing in the segregated south--they weren't needed for businesses, clubs, etc. because everyone knew the rules. You did see them where there were public conveniences such as water fountains--they were marked "white" and "colored". That's no legend, because I remember them very well. They disappeared at some point, I assume because the white governments decided to get rid of them altogether rather than integrate them.

Getting back to Godden, sort of, In This House of Brede: I think it's permissible for me to observe that groups of women tend to get into spats with each other, often about things that seem pretty, um, subtle to men. I've sometimes wondered how that works out among cloistered nuns who are going to live together for their whole lives. Judging by some observations I've had over the years of offices mostly staffed by women, it could be a real problem. The novel, if I remember correctly (been a long time) does show some of that, and how it's dealt with. If, again, I remember correctly, there is one nun who is something of a pain, but the novel shows others (at least some of them) coming to understand her better.

Also: I have a single volume containing three RG novels: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, The Greengage Summer, and An Episode of Sparrows. Anybody have an opinion on those?

I had no idea Rumer Godden wrote so many books, and so many children's books! I have read The Mousewife and Impunity Jane to my kids, but I had thought they were exceptions in her authorship.

The only full-length novel of hers that I have read is In this House of Brede, which I greatly appreciated. It has been very interesting to learn where that novel fits in the context of her life.

As a child I read exactly the three Craig mentions - The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, The Greengage Summer, and An Episode of Sparrows.

I didn't realize they came from a special sensibility. I thought that was 'the English point of view'.

Later I read In This House of Brede. At Pluscarden Abbey once there was a group of Benedictine sisters visiting, and they all detested the book! They said they hated the way everyone who has an idea of convent life gets it from In This House of Brede.

Oh no! Another illusion ground to bits.

Wait! They may not have liked it, but the sisters who actually lived in the monastery it's based on vetted it very thoroughly.

What I didn't mention was that the sad thing about the book is that you can see the 60s/70s changes happening.


Well these sisters that if you got your whole idea of convent life from Brede you would have an untrue idea of convent life

Has anybody mentioned that she was a Benedictine Oblate?

Mac, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita and An Episode of Sparrows are two of my favorites, although I'll conceded that ES is probably not one of her greatest works. Both they, and The Greengage Summer show children coping, as best they can and with varying degrees of success, with a world made difficult and incomprehensible for them by the adults in their lives. VF also does a terrific job showing the turmoil in the main character's heart, torn between being loved and being needed by people she loves.

Grumpy, did they say in what ways is was an untrue picture of convent life?

Difference between traditionalist and not-so-traditionalist nuns, maybe?

They were traditional Benedictine nuns.

They thought it was a limited steriotype

To be clear, 1) these were not odd ball nuns. They were traditional Benedictine nuns in their habits.

2) Imagine if anyone you know gets their idea of Alabama from some one book. Now, even if that book is true up to a point, it would be annoying to you if everyone you ever meet gets their idea of Alabama from that one book. You would feel it was a caricature and a steriotype.

The ideas of the South which people make take from, say, Huckleberry Finn or Easy Rider or from Flannery O'Connor - suppose everyone you met got their idea of the South from Flannery O'Connor novels and solely from Flannery O'Connor novels.

I'm not saying these nuns said In this House of Brede gives a false picture of convent life. I'm saying that they would say, 'O no, don't tell me you read In this House of Brede'. Admittedly, they said it was 'false', but what they meant by that, in context, was that taken by itself its not the whole of the truth.

Yes, I can see how it would seem limiting. Odd that the group she consulted were happy with it, though. Must have been some difference between the two groups, I mean in general outlook.

An all-Flannery South would be misleading, yes, but not nearly as misleading as, say Easy Rider. Or The Dukes of Hazzard. To someone who thought it was all Flannery, I'd say yes, but that's not the whole story. To someone who thought Dukes of Hazzard, I would just scoff. You're saying their reaction was closer to the first than the second, sounds like.

Its not odd that the group she consulted were happy with it, because they had not been hearing about it for thirty years! They were amongst the first people to resd it before it was published! How could they possibly feel what nuns would feel about it nearly half a century later?

When I read In this House of Brede, I did wonder a little about the portrait of religious life. She was writing during Vatican II (the book was published in the late 1960s, I think), and the story takes place in the same period, but there is no hint in the novel about the catastrophe that was looming for religious life after the Council. Nobody seems particularly unhappy, nobody is conflicted over doubts about their vocation, and nobody wants to put on pants and wear brooches.

I don't have good insight into the reasons for the decline of religious life immediately following the Council. Was it that the climate within the Church changed suddenly and threw the basically healthy religious orders into turmoil, or was there already a rot that the Council merely unveiled? If things were already ripe for collapse, that doesn't come through at all in the novel.

That's not true, Craig. You can see the changes creeping in. I mean, it was a long time before they started wearing pants.


We read this in book club about a year ago, and I know we talked about that aspect of it. I just don't remember exactly what the things were.


I guess us old folks remember what the little changes were in the first five years. It wasn't a fast break so much as a slow deterioration. I was in a Catholic high school until 1968, so I saw it happening slowly--short habits were first. The most liberal sister I knew--no longer a sister (surprise!) didn't take off her habit until mid 70s.


I remember mention of the changes toward the end of the novel.

Ida Gorres read 'I leapt over the Wall' - autobiographival tale about leaving a convent - and she comments that this woman never has Any idea why she was there. So she woukd say the rot set in a long time before. I would agree.

I think Rumer Godden saw the side of it that was still healthy

I've always been of the "existing rot" school of thought about what happened after VII. But I wasn't around, so it's theoretical.

However, with respect to sisters: I don't think most of us now realize how autocratic many bishops were back then (still are, I'm sure, though less openly). And I don't care for the word "sexism", but it does exist, and probably sometimes played a role in the way sisters were treated, and produced resentment. That doesn't really apply that much to the Brede situation, though, I guess--a cloistered community.

I incline to the "existing rot" school too, also theoretically since I was born after the Council closed. My opinion is based largely on conversations with an SSJ sister who worked in our old parish. Her early convent life (pre-VII) really seems to have been infantilizing; for instance, she said they were not allowed to read theology, only catechism. The restrictions on their movements and interactions with people were tighter than on children in a boarding school; if there were serious spiritual motives for the restrictions, that was not apparent to her. Etc.

"it was a long time before they started wearing pants." Not in Oklahoma. Things got really radical real fast under Bishop Victor Reed.

Mac - I agree. To this day friars and priests speak in openly misogynistic ways about nuns and sisters. Imagine what it was like in the 1950s!

I once met a sister who is a professor and a scholar on Anselm. She said the women in her order in her generation went straight out of high school into teaching high school. They were not given further education. And yet, she said, every boy who goes into seminary studies theology whether he has an aptitude for it or not.

After that meeting Ive always said there was a reason nons and sisters of her generation became feminists.

Did you see Doubt? Thats a movie about this

"...there was a reason nons and sisters of her generation became feminists."

Yes, I've always thought so.

It's fiction, but there's a J.F. Powers short story I always think of as probably revealing of a syndrome that did exist. I can't remember the name of it. Thought I had the book but I just looked and apparently I don't. Anyway, it concerns a group of sisters who run the school attached to a parish, and the way they're under the heel of the somewhat malicious pastor. Not to suggest that it was always that way, but given the structures and attitudes of the time it's probably not so far-fetched.

Did the male religious orders, which would not subject to this misogyny, also collapse the way the female ones did?

It's a long time ago, and my memories are based on a child’s point of view, but when I was in Catholic grammar school between 1947 and 1955, the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught us seemed very much in control and not in any way “under the heel” of the parish monsignor. I can still see the very tiny, rather tough, mother superior standing talking with the monsignor and him looking rather sheepish.

I'm sure there was a huge variety of situations and experiences.

I've never had the impression that the collapse of the men's orders was as dramatic as that of the women's. But I wasn't around so I can't really say.

The J.F. Powers story that Mac is thinking of might be "The Lord's Day" (about sisters spending their Sunday afternoon counting out the collection pennies because their superior is unable to stand up to the parish priest). I don't know that more need be read into that than weakness of character in the superior. One with more gumption would never have let it happen. Or it could be symptomatic in the sense that regardless of a superior's gumption, the parish priest shouldn't for a moment have thought this was something he had the authority to require.

Another thing. Those sisters teaching hs with only a high school education did a darn fine job. I'm not sure that was really unusual at the time. My high school teachers were better than a lot of my college teachers.


I don't know if that's the story or not. I don't remember the pennies. What I remember had to do with a tree. But there might have been other components of the plot.

The sister who told me the story did not say they did not do a good job. No one said they did not do a good job. But if all people care about is whether one is doing a good job a person is liable to be instrumentalized and to feel instrumentalized. A person is an end not a means.

Ann Marie: I said that misogynist treatment bt priests and friars is one reason why nuns and sisters later became angry feminists. No, the priests and friars did not become feminists, although some supported the ordinstion of women to the priesthood.

Paul, your reading og the story is reductionist. You sre over simplifying it

Human persons are not asexual beings

Janet: "Another thing. Those sisters teaching hs with only a high school education did a darn fine job. I'm not sure that was really unusual at the time. My high school teachers were better than a lot of my college teachers."

Yes. I had a highschool maths teacher who was not formally trained. He was a great teacher.

"The sister who told me the story did not say they did not do a good job. No one said they did not do a good job. But if all people care about is whether one is doing a good job a person is liable to be instrumentalized and to feel instrumentalized. A person is an end not a means."

That is true, Grumpy. I'm not certain that higher education is necessary for most people, really. It has become "necessary" for some bizarre reason in more recent years. I took Janet's remark as meaning that, more or less.

What am I missing, Grumpy?

You state that the fact that the people in the Powers story Mac describes are men and women 'don't count'. I don't know how you get to pronounce that. it just seems arbitrary.

Higher education may not be functionally necessary in order to do certain jobs, such as high school teaching. But some people may need it as people.

For that matter, some *priests* may not functionally need higher education. But as I said, in that context all young men going into the seminary got higher theology. None of the sisters got higher theology.

Gilson actually discusses a very similar situation, in France in the early 1960s, before Vatican II. He says that young seminarians with no aptitude for it are being trained in philosophy, because it's supposed to be the groundwork of philosophy. Yet as Gilson says, these are nonintellectual, pastorial guys who cannot absorb philosophy.

So you have young women, *all* of whom are sent straight into high school teaching without discerning what they might need as people, and you have young men *all* of whom as seminarians are taught philosophy-for theology without any respect for their aptitutde for it, - and this is all good because the selection of high school teachers one or two of us have met did a good job as teachers? Really?

I'm not sure where I implied that, but I certainly didn't state it.

There's an interesting piece here about the over-rosy view that British people have of their imperial past, particularly in India.

I certainly didn't mean that the minority of people who might greatly benefit from higher education should not receive it. I also think it should be endowed, so that nobody should ever be denied such an education on the basis of poverty.

But Paul, the first sentence is an absurdity. No one can seriously believe that before the British went to India, India was a rich country and now it's a poor country. The opposite is true

"For better or for worse, the British empire was the most important thing the British ever did. It altered the course of history across the globe and shaped the modern world. It also led to the huge enrichment of Britain, just as, conversely, it led to the impoverishment of much of the rest of the non-European world. India and China.."

That's historical nonsense. India certainly went through a period of poverty after the end of colonialism, partly because it embraced a Ghandi-Socialist view of itself.

Why in your opinion do very many Indians and people from Pakistan migrate to the United Kingdom if they object as much as William Dalyrmple thinks they do to the Amritsitre Massacre of 1856? Why do so many people from the Indian subcontinent emigrate England specifically in the immediate post-colonial period, if - just in the aftermath of colonialism, when there was a direct memory of it - the British were so deeply hated by their former "slaves".

Which country was it, by the way, which first outlawed the slave trade?

How much history does Dalyrmple actually know? I have looked at one or two of his books and I always found them too biased to want to read the whole of one.

The first paragraph is actually the strongest in the piece. Historically, the flow of money in the world economy was from Europe to India and China. The reason the British went to India in the first place was because it was, by British standards of the time, fabulously wealthy. This only changed as a result of the Industrial Revolution, which made Europe (in relative terms) far wealthier than India and China, and reversed the historical direction of trade. The British were able to seize control of their trading partners' governments and bend their laws to the benefit of British merchants, steeply slanting an already uneven playing field. From a historian's perspective, this isn't really arguable. In 1600, India and China were both immeasurably more wealthy than Britain; by 1900 the relative position had been reversed. Only now are India and China beginning to return to what could be regarded as their "natural" position in the world economy.

People from the Indian subcontinent migrate to the UK because they think their comfort, and their children's prospects, will be improved by this. That it should be taken as a sign that they approve of the Amritsar Massacre is a little bizarre. Is the extent of Irish immigration to the UK a sign of how much the Irish appreciate our centuries of government there, or don't really mind about Bloody Sunday and the Birmingham Six?

We disinherited Sir Seretse Khama of his chieftancy because he had married a white woman and we didn't want to offend the government of South Africa. But he continued to live in London while exhausting all avenues for justice, so he was probably fine about it, really?

Dalrymple doesn't use the word "slave" at all, so I'm not sure why you raise the issue. He doesn't even talk about coolies, who tended to be indentured under contracts that under colonial law it was a crime to break. Can you imagine trying that in Britain – fining labourers and sending them to jail as criminals for running away from their place of employment when they changed their minds about working there?

Yes, we abolished the slave trade; we stood alone against Hitler from June 1940 to June 1941; we established modern systems of justice in many colonies; we brought concepts sportsmanship and fair play to places where such concepts were thoroughly foreign; but British people don't learn, and understandably don't like to learn, about the less flattering side of our colonial history.

This reluctance does us harm. Just a week ago the PM offended the visiting Chinese by wearing a poppy to greet them. What he sees as a symbol of remembrance, they see as a symbol of injustice perpetrated against them. The Chinese delegation could easily have been briefed beforehand ("And by the way, the British will all be wearing poppies at this time of year, because ..."), but not being aware of how they see our mutual history, nobody even thought of it, and we needlessly cause offence to people we're trying to get along with.

I don't agree with everything Dalrymple says in the article I linked to (saying a view is "interesting" shouldn't be taken to mean "right on all counts" - or even necessarily right on any; and most of it is just trying to flog his book about Nabobs), but he is entirely correct to say that "we often misjudge how others see us, and habitually overplay our hand." (The only one of his books I've read is From the Holy Mountain, which I thought was brilliant.)

In the Powers story I'm thinking of, I don't say that the sex of the characters "doesn't count", but it's secondary to the clash of personalities between the selfish, over-bearing parish priest and the religious superior who bites her tongue (and puts up with her sisters muttering behind her back about how her predecessor would never have stood for it) rather than call him out on it.

Powers has stories, or vignettes in longer works, where the sexes are reversed (a confrontation-averse pastor with an overbearing housekeeper) or identical (a blunt parish priest with a shy curate). This inflects the relationship differently, but the core is "If only I could stand up to this person" not "This is how men treat women".

The worst thing about colonialism is not that it makes Britain look shady for reasons the British are largely ignorant about; it makes Christianity odious for reasons that are largely extraneous. You can tell Chinese historians that the best minds in the House of Commons and the bishops in the House of Lords denounced the government for the Second Opium War, but it doesn't much mitigate the bombardment of Canton, or alter the reality that it was the work of people who loudly called themselves Christians.

I'm not in a position to comment intelligently one way or other on the questions of Britain and India etc. But the broader one of the connection of Christianity with imperialism (not only British) is a vexing one. We talk a good bit here about the position of Christianity in liberal society, whether or not an explicitly Christian state would be better, etc. And one thing that always concerns me about the latter is that any state is pretty much inevitably going to do bad things, and that will taint the faith.

For what it's worth, I didn't take Paul's view of the Powers story to be a complete dismissal of the role of gender in the incident. He seems to be saying that the specific personalities involved are the main thing, yes, but not disallowing other factors.

Paul, I was going to ask "what is the Chinese-English history with the poppies?" but I see you've already answered it!

"We talk a good bit here about the position of Christianity in liberal society, whether or not an explicitly Christian state would be better, etc. And one thing that always concerns me about the latter is that any state is pretty much inevitably going to do bad things, and that will taint the faith."

That's true, Maclin. I hadn't ever explicitly thought about it in that way before.

I'm sorry I was too preoccupied to join this discussion in a timely manner, but here I am, late but enthusiastic!

Last year about this time I was devouring Rumer Godden's books, especially her children's books. They seemed to be just what I needed during the period when my husband was newly diagnosed with terminal cancer (he died in March this year.)

Decades ago, the first books I had read by her were In This House of Brede followed immediately by A Time to Dance. I was fascinated by her, and her books were somehow soothing and nourishing even back then.

While I was reading all of those children's books I found a book at the library in which she is interviewed along with other "creators of children's literature," The Pied Pipers by White and Fisher. The discussion is not limited to the children's books, however. She mentions Black Narcissus and how bad she thought the movie was. That was a relief to me, because I have only seen the movie and could not believe she would have written the story as it was portrayed.

In the interview she also talks about Episode of Sparrows and how she realized after it was published that she should not have given it a happy ending; it did not fit, and she thought it ruined the story.

I still hope that some day I will get my book-reviewing powers back, so that I can figure out what makes her children's books so appealing and satisfying to me. There is good character development (even though they are mostly about dolls!). Another thing I noticed is that the adults are generally portrayed as helpful and understanding people, or at least kind-hearted.

It puzzles me that I never discovered them when I had my own children to read to. I think the average child of today, with a short attention span, might find them very long and slow. But I read The Doll's House over the course of a few days with my 11-yr-old granddaughter and that was lovely. Godden said in her interview that it is a murder mystery.

The Story of Holly and Ivy I read in one sitting to my 5-yr-old grandson last Christmas, and he was captivated, though it took 40 minutes to get through. I heartily recommend that book for this season of the year, if you don't already know about it. It has so many elements that add up to the perfect Christmas story, in my estimation.

Thank you all for adding to my mind's store of Godden fodder. One friend to whom I lent my (unread) copy of China Court thought it excellent, so maybe that will be my next delicious exploration, likely to be sooner because of your reminders of her gifts. And thank you for letting me ramble on here. God bless you!

I'm so glad you said something, Gretchen. I really meant to say something about The Kitchen Madonna but I just ran out of room. I probably could have written a post twice this long. Have you read it? I've only read a few of her children's books. I was thinking while I was reading the others that I should get hold of some of them. I do have one of the doll books and I'm sure I've read it, but I don't remember it well.


Yes, I read The Kitchen Madonna - that one didn't make as big an impression on me as the ones about dolls, and even those I feel that I need to read all over again before I can write anything of substance about them. With all that was going on in my life at the time, they were a kind of escape reading -- good literature but not too demanding ;-)

It wasn't so much the characters or the story even; it was that it made me want to have a Madonna in the kitchen. ;-)


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