This is a story of drugs, prostitution, murder, and nuns.
Of all the writers of the 20th Century the British writer Rumer Godden (1907 – 1998) best known for her 1939 novel Black Narcissus filmed in 1947 by Michael Powell and starring Deborah Kerr wrote the most searchingly and movingly about women’s servitude to the Catholic Church.
Although born in England she spent most of her life in India, growing up in Narayanganj, colonial India (now in Bangladesh), later in Calcutta where she founded and ran a dance school for children for over 20 years and where her writing began, but then in Kashmir in India’s north west. She returned to England in 1945 to concentrate on her writing. She did not convert to Catholicism until 1968 but was always interested in the mystical and emotional balance between the Catholic Church and the practical world of secular existence. She lived, from 1968 to 1973, with her second husband, in Lamb House, Rye: also inhabited at various times by writers Henry James (Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw) and E. F. Benson (Mapp and Lucia).
She wrote 27 novels, 11 works of non-fiction, 4 volumes of poetry, and 28 books for children. She was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1993 and her last novel, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva (1997), was published the year before she died.
Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy (1979) her 20th novel, and set in France, tells the story of Lise (just one of her names), a notorious ‘madam’ with a facial wound and known to the press as La Balafrée (The Scarface), and Patrice, her lover, her jailer, her protector, her pimp. But it begins with her journey, after her release from prison, to a nunnery: a place she can’t wait to get to. Along the way Godden weaves narratives in various tenses and voices to colour Lise’s story and her past; how a painter might use colours to give depth to a picture. But what she doesn’t disclose is why she was in prison in the first place. She saves that for later.
It’s easy to call her work melodramatic, which is probably why 9 of her works have been filmed, but her writing skills belie the degrading element of that classification.
What obviously fascinated Godden was how belief, not necessarily the subject of that belief, can completely take over a person and compel her to sacrifice herself to a god and even live a life outside of how that same god commanded them to live (“Be fruitful and multiply”, Genesis 1: 28). Lise’s obedience is not to her god but to her order, which protects her from the world, but also, and more importantly, from men. A man ruined her life so she seeks the protection of women, which, ironically, is in the service of a paternalistic church.
Parallel to Lise’s story is that of Vivi and Lucette. The former, a 14 year old whore eager to get away from the arms of the nuns and into the arms of handsome Luigi; but once that happens and she has a babe forced into her own arms she rebels and hates Luigi, his family, and his child: she denies all wifely and motherly instincts prescribed to women but which are also the instincts that are shunned by nuns; one woman is damned, others are exulted.
Lucette is a lost child who is released from prison on the same day as Lise but who sees Lise’s desire to run into the care of the nunnery as nothing but out of the frying pan and into the fire.
“They tell me that often the worst criminals make the best nuns.”
Spiritual and mystical beliefs by women to a masculine god tussle with what other women think being a woman is all about. This is what makes Godden’s work so interesting.
You can find a full list of authors and titles, including 13 by Rumer Godden – and not all about nuns – at www.openroadmedia.com or follow @OpenRoadMedia on facebook or twitter.
This is a strange blog post. Lise converted to a profound Catholicism and found the power of God’s love, as did Rumer Godden herself. There are many Catholic women and Catholic women converts who would disagree with the way in which you regard Catholicism.