August 28, 2005

In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden

Phillipa Talbot, head of a department in the British Ministry of Trade and Information at a time when women simply did not hold such posts, is poised for a promotion when, instead, she resigns her position and seeks admittance as a postulant to Brede Abbey, a house of Benedictine nuns. What follows is an amazing tale, to which I simply cannot do justice.

To begin with, it's a novel.

When you go to the bookstore, you see the fiction divided by category, which the publishers miscall "genre". In fact, the genre is the form of the work--the novel, the short story, and so forth. To publishers, the word novel means simply any book-length work of fiction. In fact, there two classical book-length forms: the novel and the romance. Tales of adventure, of derring-do, of space opera or feats of arms, indeed any book in which the primary action and conflict and movement is external is a romance--and the fact is, that's what I usually read. In the novel proper, the primary action and conflict and movement is internal. Accustomed as I am to speaking of premises and plots and all the wonderful externalities of fantasy and science fiction, I am usually somewhat nonplussed when faced with writing about a proper novel. Sure, I can write about the externalities, but to do so is to misrepresent the story. And yet, I don't have the vocabulary to speak about the internals with any assurance. Bear with me, please.

In addition to this basic problem, there is the difficulty of conveying the feeling of Brede Abbey, the peace that lingers about it and fills the book from one end to the other, the voices of the nuns raised in plainsong as the canonical hours pass day by day. To do so I would need to tell you about stern Dame Agnes, skillful Dame Maura, quiet Dame Catherine, staunch Sister Cecily, ladies of great faith and holiness--but I can't. Godden reveals them herself, so well, so deftly, little by little filling in each portrait until the whole is revealed that I should feel like a vandal if I were to attempt to summarize Godden's prose and so reveal details out of order.

But I have to say something, or why bother reviewing the book at all? So here are a few points.

There are a number of crises in the book, involving fiscal mismanagement, bad vocations, controlling parents, sudden illness, and the like, with which the abbey community must contend, and Sister Phillipa must, of course, do her part. But the crises, and the times of peace in between them, are not the story; the story is about Sister Phillipa's giving of herself to her Beloved Lord bit by bit and piece by piece. It is about redemption; sacrifice, self-denial, submission, hard work, and a joy and a peace which passes understanding.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Some thanks are in order. I first heard of the book on the 25 of August, 2000, five years almost to the day before I actually opened a copy and began to read, from an e-mail correspondent named Rachel. She wrote me again in 2001, and again in 2002, each time prompting me to give the book a try. And I did look for it, but never found a copy; it had gone out of print. (Yeah, I know, I could try the library; somehow, I never do that.) And then Amy Welborn of the blog Open Book began working with the Loyola Press on reissues of a series of classic Roman Catholic novels, one of them being In This House of Brede. I ordered a copy on-line, and it arrived, and after a couple of weeks I picked up and devoured it.

So thanks to Rachel, and thanks to Amy; I hope I can repay the favor some day.

Posted by Will Duquette at August 28, 2005 03:36 PM