Saturday, January 28, 2012

Relative Reads - In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

 I was given the great fortune of growing up in a family of readers. Both of my parents read, and so do the majority of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. In fact, my Great-Grandma had cataract surgery in her 90's, because she couldn't bear to not be able to read. I thought it would be interesting to read some of the books THEY have discovered and enjoyed over the years, so I asked them to send me some recommendations, and the fun began! I have a list of the titles various family members have suggested on the side of the blog, so if you want to see what will be coming up you can take a peek.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
published 1969
376 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

Philippa Talbot is a successful London career woman turned forty when she feels the call of the religious life. "I thought I was very well as I was," she told the Brede Sacristan later, "a human, balanced person with a reasonable record; with the luck of having money, friends, love. Only suddenly it wasn't enough." She is one of the most attractive and sympathetic characters in Rumer Godden's long and well-loved fictional roster.

This, then, is a story of the life in an enclosed house of nuns and of the relevance of this contemplative existence to our changing world - a challenging theme. The novel unfold chiefly through Philippa, from the day of her entrance, through one crisis of mind and heart to another, until she faces an ultimate and almost unbearable sacrifice...."

My thoughts:

"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, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. 'It is My own peace I give unto you.' Not, notice, the world's peace. (p.3)

This is one of my mom's favorite novels, so I had high expectations before beginning. I expected it to have rich characters, a rewarding plot, and excellent writing, because those are all things my mom looks for in a novel. I found all those things; I also found a fascinating examination on what it means to be a woman; the morality of subverting your will for another; the value of a religious life in an increasingly secular world; and the bravery it takes to follow your calling, no matter what it might be. In short, I found an exceptional novel.

I am familiar with Godden's young adult work - her Christmas tale, The Story of Holly and Ivy, is a perfect Christmas story, and The Greengage Summer is a beautiful coming-of-age story. This is the first "adult" novel of hers that I've read, and it makes me itch to find more. If everything she writes has this much depth, she will quickly become one of my favorite authors.

She has a substantial cast of characters - there are 100 nuns in the Abbey when Philippa enters, and Godden gives voice to many as the story progresses. Each is seen with faults and graces, and the several women she chooses to give prominence reveal struggles and failings that anyone could relate to. These are not perfect people living a sheltered life - these are imperfect women who have chosen to live, to the best of their ability, a life close to their God. Godden makes them real, and gives the reader real affection for each.

The novel's plot is perhaps not it's main focus - this is much more about the women learning and making choices, so for some readers I think it might seem to be slow in many places. There are a few tense moments, and Philippa's revelation of what truly happened with Keith was so devastating I had to set the novel aside for a couple of days, but that was more due to Godden's excellent writing than any exciting twist of plot. This is definitely not a thriller, and readers need to be willing to give themselves time to immerse in the lives of the characters.

Godden tackles some interesting issues, and I can see many contemporary readers would take issue with the choices and opinions expressed in these pages. While I don't necessarily agree with them all myself, they felt perfectly organic to the characters - these are, after all pre-Vatican II nuns in a Catholic monastary, so you have to expect a certain mindset. I was surprised at how I found myself actually agreeing with some things - i.e. their dismay over the Mass being said in English, and their reasoning behind the long dresses and head coverings that they choose to wear.

The lines I quoted from the opening paragraph have stayed with me, and as I continue to contemplate them I am struck by how much they could also apply to the live of a mother - toil and struggle, often with little visible result, no sleep, misunderstood - and yet, full of joy and love. I didn't expect to understand Philippa as much as I did, and I think that was one of the biggest surprises of the novel. I really came to like this woman, and I can see her making my list of great female characters.

I enjoyed this novel very much. It will not be for every reader, due to it's pacing and subject matter. I personally found to be an extremely rewarding read, and believe it will become even richer upon re-reading in the future. Highly recommended.

Finished: 1/24/12
source: loan from my mom
MPAA rating: PG due to some adult subject matter
My rating: 10/10


Cath said...

I have some Godden on my to-read list that I've been meaning to read for a while. But I might seek this book out and start with it, instead. It sounds really finely done and just the thing for these winter afternoons.

Lisa said...

What an interesting review! I'm also reading a book that examines some basic ideas about being a woman (A Train in Winter), and there's a lot of ground to cover there. It's always interesting to read about someone who has chosen a very different path and how they manage it.

Zibilee said...

I have had The Greengage Summer on my shelf for the longest time, but have never given Godden a try as of yet. It sounds like she's got her finger on the pulse of being a woman and all the things that we face in love, marriage, and having families, so this actually sounds like a really intriguing read for me. I am so glad to see this review here because I might not have heard of the book anywhere else, and I really enjoyed reading your perspectives on this one, Elizabeth! Thanks for sharing it with us!

mar10123 said...

Yay! You finally got to read it! My first encounter with Godden was in 10th grade when I was assigned "The River." I've been a fan ever since. "Brede" was a made-for-TV movie many years ago - starring Diana Rigg. Nicely done.