In This House of Brede (Loyola Classics) available in Paperback
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- Loyola Press
“A novel of sensitive dedication.” —The Atlantic Monthly
“Rumer Godden deals precisely with the theme of the religious life . . . as representing ‘the heart of holiness of the Church.’ It is at once a life of great peace and often equally intense struggle.” —America magazine
This extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community. In this gripping narrative of the crises surrounding the ancient Brede abbey, Rumer Godden penetrates to the mysterious, inner heart of a religious community—a place of complexity and conflict, as well as joy and love. It is a place where Philippa, to her own surprise and her friends’ astonishment, finds her life by losing it.
About the Author
Rumer Godden (1907–98) was born in England, began writing fiction as an adult living in India, and continued a successful writing career after moving back to England. She is the author of many novels , including In This House of Brede, Black Narcissus, The River, and Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.
Read an Excerpt
Introduction Phyllis Tickle
The motto was “Pax,” but the word was set in a circle of thorns.
In This House of Brede opens with that sentence, and any introduction to Godden’s work dare not do less. “Peace” above the door, but a crown of thorns surrounding it.
Eastern Orthodoxy has, almost from the beginning, had the clearest aesthetic of all of Christianity about religious art, whether the art be in stone or paint or music or words. The Orthodox Church teaches its artist/believers that holy art must always be informed by and saturated with a certain and “bright sadness.” Divine art must always be pervaded by a sweet mixture—deep, compassionate sorrow for the sin and sorrows of this present life commingled with a luminous joy over the promised salvation and relief, which are promised by the one who can never promise in vain. That certain and bright sadness informs every Byzantine painting that has ever been hallowed and every iconostasis that has ever been venerated. Though Rumer Godden was a Roman Catholic rather than Eastern in her profession, that certain and bright sadness that pervades Orthodoxy informs her great novel, In This House of Brede.
Philippa Talbot is Godden’s protagonist, the icon who becomes saturated with the bright sadness over the course of the story of Brede. When we first meet her, she is a well-tailored, striking widow of considerable accomplishment in government service who has gone as far as she can go in the formation of her own soul. Further progress requires some radical interruption in her ways of being in the world. She is a disciplined woman, but of a generous disposition. This is as it should be in a Christian. She has managed to change a passionate affair with a married lover into one of companionship without infidelity, albeit at great personal cost and pain to both of them. This, too, is as it should be. She even has come to understand that her marriage, though it was ended by her husband’s death, was in essence a failed one; and she accepts with contrition that the failure was as much her fault as his.
Philippa carries with her as well the eternal agony of a personal tragedy buried deep in her past. The memory of her desperate, pleading words during those moments course like an antiphon through every day and every night of Philippa’s life. They become a dark motif, a constant chant of the grief that informs Philippa’s way of coming to the House of Brede.
Philippa seeks admission to Brede, a Benedictine monastery near the sea in the south of England. A fictional place based on Stanbrook Convent and St. Cecilia’s Abbey in Ryde, Isle of Wight, Brede is a holy place inhabited by very human sinners called to a very particular form of service to God. The cloistered nuns have one single, overarching vocation. They are called to the life of prayer. Everything else is subsumed under that one duty: prayer. In choir and away from it, the nuns pray. They know that it is in this way only that the world is changed. God flows through the nuns into human affairs, and human affairs flow back to God in the same way. Conduits of conversation between the divine and the human, they discipline themselves toward the purity of soul required to be a good and trustworthy portal between two realms. The aim and the result of such a life is peace, as the motto above the entrance to the House of Brede says. But the peace to be gained and effected at Brede is, as Brede’s Lord said, “My peace, and not as the world gives.”
Philippa’s story can be read on several levels. In This House of Brede is probably the most accessible, accurate, and sympathetic presentation of monastic life in all of English literature. I have often sent copies of it to friends who want to better grasp what a monastery actually is, how it is organized, and why it exists. In fact, I first came to know Brede a quarter-century ago in precisely that way. I had been asking about monasteries; a colleague of mine, Judy Platt of the Association of American Publishers, sent me a copy of Brede as the definitive answer. She was right. Since then, I have returned to Brede more than once. In fact, with the exception of the Bible, it is the only book I have ever read more than three times.
One can certainly read In This House of Brede as the finely honed story it is. Rumer Godden was a consummate artist long before she was a Christian, and she never betrays her craft, not even to make a doctrinal point. The skills of rich characterization that she brings to her nuns are marvelous to behold. Godden’s women fairly dance across her pages, each one as credible as a favorite aunt or—sometimes—a distressing mother-in-law. (Caveat: One does not love all the sisters at Brede, but one does believe them.)
From the beginning, it is also apparent that one can engage this tale as simply a fictional but very realistic biography of Philippa Talbot. The progress of her soul is translucent, open to our view, entirely plausible. But any of these readings of Brede—an exploration of monastic life, a wonderful story, a biography of Philippa—is incomplete unless pursued in combination with yet one other way of knowing the story.
As with the Pilgrim of Pilgrim’s Progress, so with Philippa. She is every searcher after Christian truth; and Brede is the microcosm we each inhabit. Our stories are not hers but the stuff of our souls is identical to hers and, Godden lets us understand, identical as well to that of every other follower of the Christ. We are all vowed, and we forget that to our own peril. We forget it as well to the peril of the community of which we are member-parts. We belong by virtue of communion and confession to that larger house of which Brede is not more than an exemplary image.
Rumer Godden was born in England in 1907, reared from infancy in India, returned to England as an adult, and died in Scotland in 1998. She wrote more than sixty works during her life, works that included novels (Black Narcissus, The River), children’s books (The Kitchen Madonna, St. Jerome and the Lion), poetry (The Creatures’ Choir) and nonfiction (Two under the Indian Sun).
Godden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1968 at the age of sixty. Of it, she would later say, “I like the way everything is clear and concise. You’ll always be forgiven, but you must know the rules.” The poignancy and the unguarded candor of that profession take on an added persuasion when one understands that, in preparing to write In This House of Brede, Rumer Godden lived for three years at the gate of an English Benedictine abbey. The experience changed her life. It certainly has changed mine. And I assume it is about to change yours as well. Traveling mercies.
In This House of Brede
All the characters in this book are imaginary, but many of the episodes are based on fact; some are taken from the life and sayings of Dame Laurentia McLachlan and Sister Mary Ann McArdle of Stanbrook Abbey. To many monasteries of Benedictine nuns I owe most grateful thanks; especially do I offer them to our English Abbeys of Stanbrook, Talacre, and Ryde. My thanks go also to Mr. M. Kinihiro of the Information Center, Embassy of Japan (London), for constant help given, and to James Kirkup, poet, for permission to quote from his book Return to Japan.
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.
Penelope Stevens never forgot that morning. It was New Year’s Day, “which made it all the more heartbreaking,” she told her young husband, Donald, afterward.
“Heartbreaking?” Penny could imagine the amused lilt in Mrs. Talbot’s voice if she had heard that. “Isn’t the first day of the year a good time to begin?”
To Penny it had not felt a good time to do anything; she and Donald had been up till four o’clock dancing the New Year in at one of Donald’s “important” parties, “which was why, perhaps, I was so dim,” said Penny.
“Mrs. Stevens, I have spoken to you twice! You are here to work, you know.”
“Sorry, Miss Bowman.”
Joyce Bowman was personal assistant to “the mighty woman,” as Donald called Mrs. Talbot, and was important to those who wished to “get on,” as Donald was always urging. For a while Penny’s fingers went so fast on the typewriter keys that she slurred letters together and had to start again with fresh sheets of paper. “Three sheets!” she could imagine Miss Bowman scolding, and, “You would never have been given this post,” the typing-pool superintendent told Penny, “never, if Mrs. Talbot hadn’t taken one of her fancies to you.”
“Taken a fancy to me?” Penny had been astonished. “Why, she’s as cold as . . . a flick knife,” said Penny.
“Flick knife was a good simile,” Mrs. Talbot said when, long afterward, Penny told her this story. “I used to flick people. I still do. I must learn not to.”
Penny had known something was going on. Mr. Marshall, from overseas press division, had had a desk in Mrs. Talbot’s room all the week. There had been talks—“but there often are”—there had been private meetings. If Penny had put into words what she sensed about that week it would have been a confirmation of what was rumored through the whole department: one of the four controller posts in the office was vacant and Mrs. Talbot was to be made that fourth, “and how many women controllers are there in the whole service?” asked Penny. That morning the meticulously punctual Mrs. Talbot had been late, very late. When she did arrive, a string of people had come in to see her, one after the other, and the telephone had hardly ceased; the inner office had hummed, but the outer office was that same as on any day: telephones ringing, Mrs. Talbot’s buzzer going, messengers coming in and out with files, the three typewriters—Joyce Bowman’s, Cynthia, the senior typist’s, and Penny’s—all clicking and Penny’s desk getting its usual muddle of copy paper, carbons, lists. “Mrs. Stevens, why can’t you work tidily?”
Penny’s eyes, too, kept straying to the window; the window of the outer office looked northeast over London, and, sitting at her desk, Penny could see far over the roofs to the thin green skyline of Hampstead and Highgate. A new office block hid the turrets and towers of Westminster, but the campanile of the cathedral could be seen overtopped by one of the new office buildings. Something happened to people’s minds when man learned to build offices higher than spires, thought Penny, then she blushed as she realized that the thought was not her own but Mrs. Talbot’s. “Why do you have to blush when you talk about your Talbot?” Donald had once asked her, amused. Penny knew why, but she was not telling Donald. Donald had the innate antagonism that a husband feels toward someone to whom his wife gives allegiance. “You can be loyal without being enslaved,” he said resentfully.
“I’m not enslaved,” but Penny had not said it; with a wisdom older than her years she did not talk now about Mrs. Talbot. At first, in the excitement of being promoted to Mrs. Talbot’s office, she had—babbled, thought Penny now, and boasted, “Mrs. Talbot isn’t only a director, she’s . . .” Penny could not exactly express what she sensed Mrs. Talbot was, and, “she’s special,” she said lamely.
“In what way?” Donald had raised his eyebrows.
“Well, she’s the only woman director in the office. She has men as well as women working under her.”
“That must be difficult for the men,” said Donald.
“It isn’t difficult,” Penny had said. “It’s easy.”
“She must be marvelous,” said Donald so dryly that Penny should have been warned but, to her, Mrs. Talbot was precisely that—marvelous.
Not that Donald was not marvelous, too. “Why he married me I don’t know,” Penny told Miss Bowman. “He’s brilliant and so good-looking. Isn’t he good-looking?” demanded Penny. Miss Bowman had to concede that Donald was exceedingly good-looking, though she had only seen him when once—just once—he had come to collect Penny from the office. “And he’s so popular,” said Penny. “He’s such a brilliant conversationalist, and talented; he writes.” Penny said it reverently. “One day he will be published.” She obviously had not a doubt of it. “And I can only cook and sew and things like that,” she said.
“And wash and iron and clean and shop.” Miss Bowman was looking at Penny’s hands. “And go out to work and earn quite a good salary.”
“Donald earns far more.” Penny was earnest. “He’ll go far. They all say so. I only do it to help.” She had no ambitions for herself, least of all when she was with Donald. Penny was nineteen, a married woman, Mrs. Donald Stevens, but she was still, as Donald often told her, hopelessly naive. “Perhaps it’s lucky for Donald that you are,” said Miss Bowman, which Penny did not at all understand. “And you should remember,” Miss Bowman added, “remember that Mrs. Talbot picked you out.” Penny still did not know why, but it was true that on the rare times she went into Mrs. Talbot’s room she became a different Penny, someone in her own right, Penelope Stevens. Mrs. Talbot expected you to be yourself—and more than yourself; she teaches me things, thought Penny, but it was more than that; it was as if Mrs. Talbot stretched her, made her stand upright. One day I might even be—“groomed” seemed asking a little too much—be tidy, thought Penny. Already there was a difference in the way she put on her clothes, held herself, talked or did not talk. Even Donald had noticed it.
What did Penelope know about Mrs. Talbot? Very little. Her name was Philippa, but her peers in the office never called her Phil, always Philippa. She did not, like Penny and the other girls and women in the office, only hold a post; she had a career that had brought her a long way. She worked and consorted with men—“High-up men,” said Penny—on equal terms. Often she was the only woman on a board or at a meeting—with the Foreign Office, for instance.
Penny, as the most humble member of the outer office, had little to do with Mrs. Talbot. “Just as well,” said the pool superintendent, but Penny came under the “Talbot image,” as Donald called it. One mistake in a letter and it was sent back; no rubbings out were allowed; it was of no use either, thinking of leaving at five o’clock every day. “If there’s work to do, we stay,” Mrs. Talbot had said when she had interviewed Penny. It was that “we” that explained Mrs. Talbot’s hold on her staff; if they worked hard, she worked harder. “Doesn’t your paragon have any private life at all?” asked Donald.
“She has a flat in Highgate, a housekeeper called Maggie, and a cat, a Siamese, called Griffon. She told me that,” said Penny with pride. “She doesn’t take books out of a library, she buys them. I have sometimes ordered them for her; all kinds of books, sometimes in French,” said Penny, “and, yes, Latin. Do you know, she has been studying Latin again—at her age.”
“How old is she?”
“She’s forty-two. She gives dinner parties,” said Penny dreamily. “Sometimes in my lunch hour I buy things for her. She tells me to take a taxi.”
“What sort of things?”
“Oh, a special kind of crystallized ginger, smoked trout and pâté, profiteroles.” Penny had been fired with the idea of getting a jar of pâté de foie gras for Donald’s birthday. “In one of those dear little pots, but enough for two, just two, costs forty-five shillings!”
“Is Mrs. Talbot good-looking?” That was another of Donald’s questions.
“N-no,” said Penny. “She . . . hasn’t much color but . . .”
How could she convey the, to Penny, exquisiteness of Mrs. Talbot? The . . . the finish, thought Penny. “She’s groomed,” she said.
“That’s money,” said Donald, but Penny had a belief that, had Mrs. Talbot been poor, she would still have looked elegant. “Yet her clothes are very plain,” said Penny. “In the office she wears suits, plain suits, low heels, silk stockings, not nylons.”
“Mannish,” said Donald immediately.
“No, not at all,” said Penny. “Her hair is long; it gleams. She has a little-finger ring, not a signet ring but one huge pearl. It’s real. And you should see her office. . . .”
The inner office was like no other room in the building; it had ivy-green walls and white paint. “I wonder how she got the Ministry of ?Works to consent to that!” Donald said when Penny described it. “Perhaps she didn’t,” said Penny. Mrs. Talbot had a way of doing things she wished and taking the consequences. “She has a picture,” said Penny. “Sisley.”
“Well, she must be getting four thousand a year and probably has money of her own. Who is her husband?” asked Donald.
“I don’t know,” said Penny. “She isn’t married now.”
“A widow or divorced?”
“I think she’s a widow.”
“Does she have lovers? Most of these high-up women do.”
“If she does, they are her own business.” Penny spoke sharply; she oddly resented Donald’s asking that. “She makes you feel she is her own business. There’s hardly any office talk about her.”
“That must be uncommon.”
“She is uncommon. You should see her clock.”
Penny liked the clock even better than the Sisley. A clock like a large watch, a gold repeater that lay in its case on the desk. It was heavy. Penny had once lifted it when Miss Bowman told her to dust the desk after a storm had blown smuts in through the window. The clock’s face was rimmed in a border of blue enamel and gold with a design of miniscule leaves; its hands were chased gold, and it had a chime, rich and sweet, that would, Miss Bowman told Penny, repeat to the nearest quarter of an hour.
Once when Penny had taken some papers in—Miss Bowman was away and Cynthia had gone to get a cup of tea—Penny had dared to linger until Mrs. Talbot glanced up. “Can I do anything for you?” It was meant to be sarcastic and Penny’s blush came up but she had to say it, childish though it seemed. “It’s almost a quarter past,” she said. “I was hoping your clock would chime . . .” and Mrs. Talbot had actually picked up the clock, pressed the knob, and the chimes had rung, three—for three o’clock—then a stave of notes for the quarter.
“Thank you!” Penny had stammered. “Thank you!”
“I rather like it myself,” said Mrs. Talbot. “Now . . . get.”
At half-past eleven that New Year’s morning there was a directors’ meeting. Mr. Marshall went, Mrs. Talbot did not, but Cynthia was sent with Mr. Marshall to take the minutes. At a quarter-past twelve the buzzer sounded, and Miss Bowman was told to go in to Mrs. Talbot. Penny heard Mrs. Talbot’s voice; it sounded curt. It was some time before Miss Bowman came out, and when she did her eyes were red. Penny had raised her head but hastily ducked it again. What can she have done? thought Penny and made as much noise as she could with her typewriter to hide the other’s sniffs. Mrs. Talbot must have flayed her, thought Penny.
Presently Miss Bowman was quiet, but she did not work again. She put her papers into her drawer, confidential papers that no one else in the outer office was allowed to see but she, locked the drawer, and stood up. “Mrs. Talbot is lunching with the permanent secretary,” she said. “Will you wait and listen for the buzzer?”
“Yes, Miss Bowman.” Penny tried to put into her voice the sympathy she felt, but the older woman took no notice. “Yes, I was dim,” Penny told Donald afterward. On Miss Bowman’s little finger was a ring with a large pearl. “Why! You have a ring exactly like Mrs. Talbot’s.”
Miss Bowman made a noise like a hiccup and ran out of the room. Feeling mystified and important, Penny returned to the letter in front of her, but she could hardly type. Something is happening, she thought. It was something that did not fit with Mrs. Talbot’s being made a controller, something different. Her ear cocked to the inner office, Penny tried to concentrate on her letter but . . . Something is happening, she thought again.
At a quarter to one, Penny heard the private door from Mrs. Talbot’s room to the corridor unlock, then close and lock again. She is going to the washroom, thought Penny. Mrs. Talbot came back through the outer office. Penny stole a look from under her lashes; Mrs. Talbot was wearing a hat and was freshly made up. Penny typed diligently, but Mrs. Talbot did not pass her; she stopped by the table. “I want you for a moment, Penny.”
Penny! Not Mrs. Stevens! An odd excited quiver ran through Penny, a premonition that, at the same time as the excitement, made her feel cold. Had she, like Miss Bowman, done something terrible? But then why “Penny”? As she followed Mrs. Talbot into the inner room, the back of Penny’s neck and her hands were damp.
Mrs. Talbot’s gloves, long and mole-colored—and clean as new, thought Penny—lay on the desk with her bag and the Sisley painting, taken down from the wall. Why was it taken down? “I’m just going,” said Mrs. Talbot.
“Yes, Mrs. Talbot.”
“I wanted to say good-bye.”
Good-bye before going out to lunch? Again that quiver came as Penny raised puzzled eyes to Mrs. Talbot’s face.
“Yes, Penny. I’m not just going out to lunch. I’m leaving.”
“Leaving?” The floor seemed to give a lurch, and Penny clutched the back of a chair. “Leaving? But . . . when?”
“Now. I’m not coming back.”
“But . . . Mrs. Talbot!” and, “No!” cried Penny sharply. “No!”
“Not ‘no,’ yes,” said Mrs. Talbot, “and I wanted to give you this. I believe you always liked it.” She picked up the clock and put it into Penny’s hands. “Don’t drop it.”
“But Mrs. Talbot!” Penny was incoherent. “Mrs. Talbot. I . . .
You,” and in a rush, “I don’t understand. Don’t you want it?”
“I shall have no further use for it.” Mrs. Talbot’s voice sounded amused. “It will probably surprise you, Penny, when I tell you I’m leaving to become a nun.”
“A nun!” Now Penny nearly did drop the clock, and Mrs. Talbot had to put out a quick hand.
“If I were you,” she said, “I should put that in your bag to take home.”
“But . . . a nun!” Penny—Pennywise, as Donald often said—blurted out the first thing in her mind: “At your age!” then blushed even more hotly than usual. “I’m sorry . . . I mean . . . but don’t nuns usually go in at eighteen or very young?” Then, “I’m sorry,” said Penny again, “that was rude,” but Mrs. Talbot was not angry.
“You are perfectly right,” she said. “I should have thought of it long ago.”
“But a nun.” Penny felt stunned. “And the clock! Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m going to be a nun or sure I don’t want the clock?” Then the amusement went out of Mrs. Talbot’s voice. “I am sure, Penny. Nuns don’t need clocks. We have bells—or large silver watches. And I’m sure I’m going to be a nun, a Benedictine of Brede Abbey in Sussex.”
“But you . . . Oh, Mrs. Talbot, no! Please no.”
Penny looked up and saw that Mrs. Talbot was laughing at her, gently laughing. “Do you think it will be the end of me?” Penny emphatically did but, “I hope it will be the beginning,” said Mrs. Talbot. She did not sound dismayed, only happy, thought Penny incredulously. Then Mrs. Talbot was serious again and said something incomprehensible to Penny. “I have a long way to go. Will you think of me sometimes, Penny? I shall be very much alone.”
The buzzer went, and Mrs. Talbot bent and listened to a man’s voice. “I’m coming, Richard.” Richard was Sir Richard Taft, the permanent secretary. Mrs. Talbot picked up her bag and gloves and put the Sisley under her arm. She’s going to give it to him, thought Penny, and an intuition ran through her, a sudden awareness of something she, Penny, had once seen and not taken in—with my usual dimness, thought Penny. Once, long ago, when again she had been alone in the outer office, Mrs. Talbot, with Sir Richard, had been wrestling with some knotty office problem in the inner room; the buzzer had sounded and Penny had answered it. As she had listened to Mrs. Talbot’s orders, Penny had been acutely conscious of Sir Richard standing by the window. She had felt him looking and for a moment had let her attention slip from Mrs. Talbot; he was indeed looking, but not at Penny—for him, the Pennys of the office scarcely existed—he was looking at Mrs. Talbot, and his guard was down. It was a look of infinite tenderness. Penny had been surprised that she, ignorant Penny, had been able to find those grave words: “infinite tenderness,” and, If only Donald looked at me like that, she had thought with a pang. Now suddenly she knew what it meant. Sir Richard and Mrs. Talbot! thought Penny. Mrs. Talbot and the permanent secretary! Of course! And Penny felt she had been entrusted with an immense secret.
“But . . . I’ll never see you again!” It was a cry.
“Why not? You can come and see me.”
“I . . . Could I? Could I?”
“Yes. You will have to come. I can’t come to you. I shall be enclosed.”
“Enclosed?” The unfamiliar word seemed to ring in Penny’s ears. “You mean—shut up?”
“Not shut up. The walls are not to keep us in but to keep you out.”
“An enclosed order is like a kind of power house,” said Mrs. Talbot. “A power house of prayer; you protect a power house not to enclose the power, but to stop unauthorized people getting in to hinder its working.”
“Then, how would they let me come?”
“You wouldn’t come into the enclosure. There are parlors to which people can come—lots of people.” Mrs. Talbot turned to the door. “I mustn’t talk to you now or I shall be late for Sir Richard. I’ll write to you. Good-bye, Penny. Try to be a little tidier for Mr. Marshall.”
When she had gone, the clock in Penny’s hand gave out a single deep rich chime that filled the empty office. Penny began to cry.
Only moments of that day broke through to Philippa, “until the evening in the little train,” she said. Small things stood out sharply: Penny’s face, her bluntness when she had said, “At your age!” Why did Penny make more impression than devoted Joyce Bowman? Then, when at lunch Richard Taft had suddenly said, “What about the food?” The headwaiter was cooking their steak Diane in front of them. “The food. Have you thought of that?”
Everyone outside the monastery, Philippa was to find, was concerned about the food. When Dame Catherine Ismay, who had been Mavis Ismay, entered Brede, her old nanny had concealed a jar of malt and cod-liver oil in her trunk—“You don’t know what they’ll give you to eat in that place, or what they won’t give you.” Sister Cecily Scallon’s cousins were to tease her unmercifully. “You’ll have lentils and fish. Ugh!”
“Bread and water on Fridays.”
“No. On Fridays you’ll fast. And what about Lent?”
Dame Ursula Crompton, Brede’s novice mistress, knew all about these postulant fears. “Have you ever seen a nun who didn’t look perfectly well fed?” When Sister Cecily came to think of it, she had not.
“I expect the food will be ordinary,” Philippa had said in the restaurant. “I’m told the tea is terrible. I shall mind that. It will be one of the difficult things.”
“And this?” Richard had touched her glass. He had ordered a Chambolle Musigny—“Liquid rubies,” Philippa had said as she tasted it—and she answered, “I believe we have a glass of homemade wine”—Richard made a face—“on the day of the miracle of Cana, and I have heard that once, on a great occasion, the monastery was given, fittingly, a bottle of Benedictine, and everyone in the community had a sip.”
“As a matter of fact I’m not. Well,” she shrugged. “I have been wonderfully good to myself all these years.”
“I give you six months,” said Richard.
Philippa laughed. “I thought you were going to say six weeks. No, Richard, I shall stay—somehow.”
She had meant to spend the journey remembering, going through it all again in her mind, gathering up that long, long thread into a ball—and keep it hidden in my hand, thought Philippa, forever; she lit a cigarette and settled down, but, as the train clanked slowly over the bridge across the Thames and the towers of Westminster sank away—I may hear Big Ben again, I shall never see it—when the brief stop at Waterloo was over and the train settled to its speed through the suburbs, weariness overcame Philippa. It had been a long morning, full of pangs and tearing and tears, beginning with the agonizing half-hour when she had taken Maggie and her last suitcase, with Griffon protesting in a basket, to their new home, the flat Maggie was to share with her sister. “It will be yours for always Maggie.” “To make a home for Griffon,” Maggie had said obstinately.
Griffon! “We nearly all of us had had animals,” Philippa said long afterward—all except Sister Julian, who seemed to know from the beginning that animals were not for her. Cecily had had her spaniel; Hilary, the hunter her father had given her; the only time anyone saw tears in those plain gray-green eyes was when Sister Hilary spoke of her hunter. It was better, Philippa found on the train, not to let herself think about Griffon. It was possible to shut Griffon out, not to think of Griffon—she had succeeded in doing that—but she could not always do it with Keith.
He came like a ruffle, a ruffle of wind on leaves or water, a cool little breeze. Well, Keith means a wind. Even as a baby he always used to be disappearing:
“Keith, where are you? . . . going round the garden without being seen.”
The treble voice came back from unexpected places: under the arch of the steps, from the barn roof—“You naughty little boy”—behind the hydrangeas. Philippa remembered the time he had climbed the great elm tree at Roughters, her mother’s house, and fallen, plummeting down until a branch had caught him, hooked by the straps of his dungarees, and there he had dangled, quite trustfully, as she stood below talking, while her mother and Morton, the gardener, ran to fetch a blanket into which he had fallen, laughing. He was only four then, but he had climbed that lofty tree. Laughing . . . think of him like that, not:
“Don’t cry Keith breathe breathe I’m here quite close Mother’s here breathe” . . . and, “picking up gold and silver . . . picking up gold and silver . . .”
With shaking fingers Philippa lit another cigarette and hastily returned to the day.
There had been all the office partings. She smiled again as she thought of Penny; for Joyce Bowman, it was, Philippa knew, the breaking up of a whole life. Then came Richard’s luncheon, but that amputation had been made long ago. Then back to Highgate for the last time, to wash and brush up. She had wiped all the makeup from her face, so that she looked ghostly pale—a ghost of the old Philippa.
Except for a small suitcase of night things, her luggage had gone in advance; there had been two cases of books for Brede Abbey library; everything else had gone into one small trunk. “Good,” Dame Ursula was to say approvingly. “Some postulants bring two or three.” In the trunk were the two long-sleeved high-necked black dresses she would wear as a postulant; black stockings and “silent” shoes; plain underclothes; two black shawls—those had been difficult to get in London and Maggie had crocheted them; blankets and sheets—“not too luxurious,” Dame Ursula had warned her. A small workbox—Philippa had not owned such a thing since she was at school—a fountain pen, a plain silver watch on a pin—“We don’t wear watches on our wrists,” and a gold watch would have been considered “unmonastic,” a word Philippa was speedily to learn; she had given her gold watch to Cynthia—a Bible, a missal, and a few chosen books. Philippa had only to pick up her suitcase, briefcase, and go. Maggie would come in later and clean the Highgate flat; already it looked bare, the furniture stiff, the rooms deserted. It had been sublet for eighteen months. “I hope you haven’t burned all your boats,” Richard had said.
“My heart tells me to, but my head says not,” answered Philippa.
She had locked the flat door behind her and given the key to the porter, George, as he held the taxi door open. George was the last of her “people”; then she was alone. At Charing Cross she went straight to the familiar four o’clock train; she had been down to Brede often in the last eighteen months, taking this same four o’clock train on Fridays to spend the weekend at the abbey, though not taken it like this, thought Philippa; but as soon as it started, the throbbing pulse in her temples quieted, and, as the small houses and gardens, playing fields and factories slipped past the window, she fell asleep.
She woke with a jerk. It was Ashford, the market town where she had to change and take a smaller train across the marshes. Always before, unless she had driven all the way from London, she had hired a taxi from Ashford to Brede, but, during these last few weeks, she had been steadily divesting herself of all luxury, and her car had been sold. “At least let me drive you down,” Richard had entreated.
McTurk, a controller himself and her immediate chief in the office, had offered, too. It was odd that Daniel McTurk, hitherto a withdrawn, almost unknown little man—in the office he was called by his surname as if his given name were too intimate—should be the only one among Philippa’s colleagues who understood what she was doing and approved. “You couldn’t not,” he had said, “not now,” but—and Philippa had learned it with the utmost surprise, and only when they reached these confidential terms—McTurk was inclined toward Buddhism and, thought Philippa, Buddhists understand contemplatives far better than most Christians . . . but, “I should rather go by myself,” Philippa had said, and as she stood on the Ashford platform waiting for the small train to come in, she seemed already separated from the people around her. Tomorrow I shall not be among you anymore; not of you but mysteriously still with you, thought Philippa. As Lady Abbess of Brede had said, “People think we renounce the world. We don’t. We renounce its ways but we are still very much in it and it is very much in us.”
Now Philippa felt a strange love, strange because she would not normally have noticed any of the crowd, except as a conglomeration, as people in a frieze. Now the fat girl in the too bright, too tight, badly fitting coat and skirt looked wistful as if—and as often with over-fat people—another girl were prisoned inside, looking out of her eyes. The porter trundling a truck had dirty hands, stubble on his chin, but there was something brave and independent about him; the tired, petulant young mother with a still more tired and petulant small girl, an overdressed, whining little girl, had a pathos, Philippa felt; yet she had no affinity with young mothers and did not like whining small girls. Who could? I’m looking past their faces, Philippa thought, looking into them. Perhaps it was the pulling up of her stakes, or claims, to her private loves, renouncing them, that had made room for these people in a kind of universal love, without any claims. “I shall run the way of thy commandments when thou hast opened wide my heart,” the psalmist had sung. Was that, Philippa wondered, what was happening to her? This was not only love but compassion, being with another, sharing his suffering in fellow feeling, and Philippa’s ironical smile touched her lips; how paradoxical to have fellow feelings when you are just about to leave your fellows!
The small train drew in and, still in this new dimension, thought Philippa, she found a compartment and put her shabby small case on the rack. She had changed cases with Maggie. “What! Me take your beautiful little air case and give you that cheap thing!” “It’s what I need,” Philippa had said, and “I shall not be going anywhere again.” Yes, this is almost the last step, she thought, as the train began to move and all at once she wanted to cry, “Those inexorable steps!”
“My life was so beautifully arranged,” she was to say over and over again: her flat in London overlooking a garden square, its rooms so finished and exquisite, with Persian rugs, furniture, pictures; Maggie, Griffon; her work, outstanding in her department—“I was becoming a personality”—her devoted personal staff, from Joyce Bowman to Penny; her colleagues, McTurk and the others; her galaxy of friends—and Richard; and then this came like dynamite, thought Philippa, and blew it all to bits.
“Why suddenly?” Richard had asked bewildered.
“It wasn’t sudden, it was slow,” Philippa had said, “unforgivably slow,” though she knew now that she had been seeking—freethinker and renegade as she was—seeking, until, ten years ago, a whole decade, thought Philippa, she had gone one lunchtime into Westminster Cathedral, with its mysterious depths, the bleakness of its unclothed heights, the glimmer of its mosaics, the theatrical yellow arch behind the high altar, the scattered points of glowing gold from the candlestands. She had thought the cathedral dark, vast, and ugly compared with the patina and beauty of Westminster Abbey; then she had sensed the atmosphere of prayer; there was a coming and going; many people come to pray, not looking for history or beauty, but prayer. “I didn’t know what I was doing there,” Philippa told Dame Beatrice Sheridan, sacristan at Brede, to whom in her early days she often talked. “I was ignorant of the meaning of anything. I knew, though, that in churches one knelt down, so I went to a line of chairs and knelt.
“Being the lunch hour, the cathedral was busy and there was a queue of people, standing in line, I didn’t know for what. I suppose I must have been looking toward them, perhaps looking lost or troubled, because suddenly an old man beckoned to me. He was a tramp.”
“Was he a tramp?” Unlike most nuns who were more wary, Dame Beatrice often, quite calmly, found supernatural explanations for things.
“God knows,” said Philippa in the words of St. Paul. “He looked a very thorough and solid tramp.” She saw him now, dirty, unshaven, unlovely, in a drooping old overcoat, his trousers tied with string. “Surely if there is a miracle, that is the miracle? That someone quite ordinary, by some not extra-ordinary action, can work providence?” To find a tramp in the cathedral was most likely. “One of the good things about a Catholic church is that it isn’t respectable,” she had told Richard. “You can find anyone in it, from duchesses to whores, from tramps to kings.”
“I expect I looked toward the line,” Philippa told Dame Beatrice, “wondering what they were doing, because the old man beckoned me and gave me his place.”
“I don’t know,” said Philippa, which was true. “I only know that somehow I seemed unable to move out of that line, and the next thing I knew was that I was in the confessional.”
“And did you confess?” asked Richard. She had told him this story when she had broken her news to him. “Did you?”
“Of course not. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how, but I asked the priest if I could come and see him.”
“And that was the beginning?”
“Of the practical things. Of course I didn’t begin to realize then what I was in for.”
“And when you did realize?”
“I dodged,” said Philippa. “Oh, I had plenty of excuse,” she told Dame Beatrice. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time. There was one thing I had been playing for—in those days for me it was the one thing, and I must own I was playing prettily; the next step up in my department was a big step for a woman, but I think if I had waited a little longer I should have gotten it.”
Richard confirmed that. “Indeed you would have gotten it.”
“For another thing,” Philippa went on to Dame Beatrice, “I didn’t want to be bothered. I thought I was very well as I was; a human, balanced person with a reasonable record; with the luck of having money, friends, love. Only suddenly it wasn’t enough—not nearly enough.” Dame Beatrice nodded; this was what she understood. “Everything seemed—not hollow, but—as if suddenly I could see beyond them, into an emptiness, and all the while there was this strange pull;
no one can describe it to someone who hasn’t felt it, and doubly strange for me because until then such a thing had never crossed my mind.”
“That’s what happens,” said Dame Beatrice.
“But how does it happen?” That was to be Mrs. Scallon’s wail for her Elspeth, who was to become Sister Cecily, as it had been the wail of countless parents all down the centuries. “No one in our family is Catholic,” said Mrs. Scallon, “let alone a nun. How does it happen?”
“It happens in all sort of ways,” said Dame Ursula Crompton, to whom, as Cecily’s future novice mistress, it fell to see much of Mrs. Scallon. “Vocations can come to the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances, and there’s no resisting. It’s as if God put out a finger and said, ‘you.’?”
“I suppose it is the greatest love story in the world,” Philippa said.
“Of course.” McTurk had been his usual matter-of-fact self. “Like the merchant in the Bible who found the pearl of great price and gave all that he had to buy it.”
“But I should have thought I was the last person,” said Philippa.
“Why? You are a woman with plenty of acumen.”
“But can I do it?” In these last few weeks Philippa had been more and more doubtful.
“A vocation is a gift,” said Dame Ursula. “If it has been truly given to you, you will find the strength.”
On the train Philippa began to feel she had no strength at all. The little train bumped and jolted its way slowly across the marshes, stopping at small lit stations with homelike names—“Ham Street,” “Appledore”—then wandering on through the flat marsh country where there seemed more sky than land. A fitting place for an abbey, thought Philippa. The lights from the train showed sheep grazing on the flats where the dikes separated the hedgeless fields; now and again water glinted pale in the darkness that seemed to deepen as they neared the coast.
“I couldn’t wait to get to Brede,” Cecily was to tell her.
“I just came when it was time,” said Hilary, and added, “What else?”
“I grew more and more afraid,” said Philippa.
It was almost six o’clock when Philippa came out of the station into the town.
The wind was blowing fresh from the sea; its salt tang was revivifying after the stuffy train, and she decided to walk up to the abbey. She had only her light suitcase and briefcase to carry, and the old town was so huddled together on its bluff, jutting out into the marsh, that it took only ten minutes to walk from wall to wall, up or across it.
The streets were steep, and as Philippa climbed the heights the wind grew more than fresh; it buffeted around corners as only the Brede wind could; the narrow streets made air funnels, and she shivered. The panic had come back; she felt cold, sick with apprehension.
Light fell from the house windows onto the cobbles; the pavements were so narrow that only one person could walk on them; a second would have had to step off to let the other by. The lamplight made each house look inviting, homelike; Philippa could see firelight, hear voices, children laughing. She caught a glimpse of a table spread for high tea; often the canned voice of radio; ordinary quiet people leading regular ordered lives, and, again under her fear, that odd love came up—but now it ached. Then, across this everyday life, came the sound of a deep-toned bell: three and a pause; three and a pause; again three and, after the pause, continuous changes for five minutes. It was the great bell of the abbey, Mary Major, ringing the Angelus. Philippa stopped. She was visibly shivering and, making up her mind—or unmaking it—she turned into the Rose and Crown, Brede’s oldest inn; habit taking over, she thought, and went into the saloon bar and ordered a double whiskey. “I had three in half an hour,” she told the abbess afterward. “I don’t know what the barman thought.”
The bar was comfortable, with its warmth and light, its glasses reflecting the heaped-up fire; its cheer might be fictitious, but it seemed a snug, human place and Philippa sat on, spinning out that third drink. She seemed rooted to her stool; she sipped and smoked, stubbing out one cigarette after another. The barman looked several times at the tall figure sitting so silently with bent head but did not speak to her. Then the clock struck the three-quarters; in fifteen minutes the parlors of the abbey would be closed. Are you going to stay here forever? asked Philippa of Philippa. Coward. Coward.
She stood up, fastened her coat, paid the man, and turned to go. “Not turned to go,” she said afterward, “turned to come.”
“You have left your cigarettes,” said the barman.
“I don’t want them.”
“Giving up smoking?”
“Yes,” said Philippa and went out into the night.
“What do you ask?”
“To try my vocation as a Benedictine in this house of Brede.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Since I read this book years ago it has been given away several times, once to a person who read it so often it was falling apart. So I gave her mine. Now I have a new one, this marvelous tale of love, courage, fidelity, reconciliation, forgiveness. Very recommended for book clubs. I have read most of Rumer Godden, she is always wonderful. Her books for children are actually "all ages" books. Enjoy this book!
'In This House of Brede' is a carefully crafted narrative about the nuns in a Benedictine monastery in the late 1950's and early 1960's. The characters are complete and nuanced. Rumer Godden is a superb writer and this book is her masterpiece.
Interesting. I need to sit down and write down a few thoughts about this book
I first read this book in the early 1970s, and have read it over and over... and over and over and over... many times since. It's a book I often pick up and randomly open so I can read a few pages. My favorite book... EVER.There are other reviews that give extensive explanations about the premise, so I will not do that here. What attracts me to this book, in addition to an intense interest in the monastic life, is Godden's writing style, which is often as scattered as the thoughts flitting around in my own brain. Sub- and side-plots abound, she writes of her characters' thoughts as well as their words and actions; and, while some may think there's too much going on and that it should have been tightened up, I love every word of it. It's a colorful 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that takes time to study, think about, and digest, but in spite of that, it's no slog of a read. If the subject is of interest to you, then do make the time to read this book at least once in your life.
Excellent book, extremely well written and wonderful. The first quarter of the book was absolutely fantastic - so perfectly written and put together that I kept going back to re-read sentences because they were so well written. The rest of the book wasn't quite as good, but it was still a great book.
Philippa Talbot decides to enter a monastery (a contemplative order of nuns) at the age of 42, leaving a successful professional life in London. Her small circle of friends and co-workers are shocked, and some in the rural Benedictine monastery in Brede have their doubts about her ability to change her life so radically in middle age. Phillipa was widowed as a young woman, and she must eventually confront even more painful experiences in her past. However, this book is not so much about her efforts to run away, but about her slow and deliberate progress toward discovering her humanity in a community of sisters. The story follows many years, from post-WWII to the early 1960¿s, each year marked by the seasonal changes of the land and the introduction of new novices who choose to follow a common path. Eventually, it reaches into the modern era of the Catholic Church, and we are witness to changes which challenge the nuns and their way of life. Perhaps most remarkable is the narrative style: Godden uses the voices of a variety of characters, some in the past, others in the present, and occasionally a few in the future, to describe most events. This 360º view creates a real sense of communal life as it is lived, day to day. I found the book subtle in its ideas and gentle in its progress, but utterly enthralling, even inspiring. Those looking for ever-escalating action may find its episodic nature slow, and others may be put off by the class consciousness of the nuns and their traditions, as I was. In any case, one thing is sure: there is no need for the reader to be religious to enjoy or take value from the story. This book provides a peek into another life, one few of us will ever experience, but one that offers powerful questions about life, humanity, the world and our place in it.
The finest novel ever written about the religious life. This is Rumer Godden's masterpiece, and that is saying a lot because she is one of the best writers of the 20th century. I have read my copy so many times that it is falling apart, but it is still a treasure to me.
A wonderfully inspiring book.