Faith and lies: Two fascinating novels about nuns

I’m very fond of the work of mainstream American novelist Gail Godwin. I first encountered her because she was right next to Rumer Godden on a library shelf. Do you know Rumer Godden? She was an English writer born in the British Raj who wrote odd interesting books from angles nobody else was much interested in—her dates are 1907-1998, but I find the books from the last decade of her life less interesting.

Godwin’s newest book is Unfinished Desires (2010), it’s now out in paperback. I read it when it came out earlier in the year and I’ve just read it again. The publisher’s blurb says “a complex and deeply affecting story of friendship, loyalty, redemption, and memory” and that’s not untrue, but actually it says this is because they think people won’t want to read it if they know it’s actually about nuns. They made her change the title from the working title of The Red Nun for the same reason. (So suddenly people don’t like books about nuns? What’s up with that? Doesn’t everybody love books about nuns? Nuns are so weird! And Unfinished Desires is a really good book about nuns.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Unfinished Desires reminded me of another great book about nuns, Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede (1969). I’ve just re-read that, and I think the parallels and contrasts are absolutely fascinating. One could argue that both books are fantasy—In This House of Brede has a miracle, and Unfinished Desires has conversations with God. But we’ll come back to that.

Unfinished Desires is set in three time periods—the 1930s, the 1950s, and the present decade, but most of it in the 1950s. The nuns keep a school, a Catholic girls’ school in Mountain City, North Carolina, the location of a lot of Godwin’s fiction. The central figure in all three periods is Suzanne Ravenal, who is a girl at the school, then its headmistress, and then a retired nun writing the history of the school and the order. What we have is two generations of intertwined families, and family secrets. The girls at the school in the fifties want to know about their mothers’ secrets, and they have their own secrets. The whole thing unfolds and entwines very satisfyingly, and I’m not going to go into spoilers for any of that.

In This House of Brede is set roughly between 1950-1965, in Sussex. It’s focused mainly on three nuns, Abbess Catherine, new to her position, Sister Cecily, a young girl entering as a postulant, and Phillipa Talbot, a successful career woman entering as a postulant as middle-aged widow. The book isn’t written in order, it jumps about in Godden’s way, in fits and starts. Brede is a contemplative monastery, where the nuns withdraw, they do not teach, they do nothing but pray—it’s a powerhouse of prayer, in Godden’s metaphor. It’s amazing that she makes the book interesting, dramatic, and full of incident, but she does. I’ve loved this book for decades.

If you put the books together, while they are really very different, but they also have an astonishing amount in common. In both there’s an averted lesbian scandal with a nun, there’s a financial crisis, there’s an issue about vocations, there’s consideration of aging and dedication and changes, there’s a story about the early days of the foundation that turns out not to be what people thought, and there’s a whole lot of overt and covert consideration of class and how class affects everything. (This last is especially worth marking as unusual in Unfinished Desires.)

The main difference between them isn’t 2010 vs 1969, or America vs England, or active order vs contemplative order—it’s what happens when the story turns out not to be what people thought. We’re now going to have A SPOILER FOR THIS ONE THING ONLY. In In This House of Brede, there was a princess who gave the abbess of the time a crude handmade cross, saying “I give you the most precious thing I possess.” It turns out hundreds of years later to contain a ruby worth exactly what the abbey needs to save it. The story is told to everyone, it’s a minor but nifty part of the novel. The story is true, indeed truer because it contains a secret. In Unfinished Desires there’s an unfinished statue of a nun in red marble, and the story is that she was a girl who had a vocation but who died before she could become a nun, and then the sculptor died before he could finish the statue. The truth is that she was a silly hysterical girl and the sculptor wasn’t very good. When this comes out it’s immediately covered up again, and the characters explicitly say that it doesn’t matter that their story is a lie, it’s better for people to believe it. Again it’s not a huge part of the novel, but it’s significant to it. And it’s a lie.

Now this is where it’s interesting to be a fantasy reader coming to these books. I’m not especially interested in the beliefs of the author in either case—I expect from other evidence that they’re both more or less Christians. But the text of In This House of Brede has an expectation that the sky is not empty, that they are dedicating their lives to a God who accepts their worship. The text of Unfinished Desires has the expectation that it doesn’t matter whether founding myths are true or not as long as they are a useful basis to go on from. And it isn’t stated, but of course that’s as true of the story of the Resurrection as the story of the Red Nun. So although God appears in dialogue in Unfinished Desires and is only the spirit that breathes through In This House of Brede, the whole attitude and angle of the texts to the issue of magic and what can happen is very different. The characters in both books all believe in God, the Christian God, and many of them are Catholic nuns. (Actually there’s one Buddhist in In This House of Brede.) But what the text believes, what’s true in the universe of the book, the whole way the worldbuilding looks at divinity is what really takes these books, both largely set among anglophone nuns in the 1950s, take place in different universes.

I highly recommend both of them, especially as a paired reading, to anyone looking for something different.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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