Almost all of the nuns were acutely observant of clothes and, perhaps because of their own perpetual black and white, they revelled in colours .... the new sister Cecily’s dress and matching coat were delightful. ‘That love-in-the mist blue, said Dame Beatrice.'
Mention Rumer Godden and women of a certain age will smile fondly and remember beloved children’s books such as The Diddakoi or Miss Happiness and Miss Flower or coming-of-age novels such as The Greengage Summer, always charming and never sentimental. Then there are the semi-autobiographical trilogy of ‘Indian’ novels for which she is perhaps best known. My own favourite is her 1969 novel set in an enclosed order of nuns at Brede Abbey in Sussex. Godden had written about nuns before in the darkly melodramatic Black Narcissus but In the House of Brede is her great mature novel.
Philippa Talbot joins the order in her early forties, having been married and giving up a highly successful career for the contemplative life. Philippa makes mistakes, accidentally breaking the wing of a stone angel and failing to be impressed with a know-it-all missionary. She also inadvertently stokes the jealousy of Sister Agnes who sees Philippa as a threat.
She envied the clarity of the younger woman’s mind and Philippa was so much quicker than Dame Agnes who felt herself beginning to be slow; she even envied Sister Philippa’s slim height, her carriage and the grey eyes that were so beautifully set; they would be more noticeable still when they were framed by the wimple and fillet.
Philippa learns that nuns can be envious and occasionally mean-spirited but they always, always try to support one another, to do what is right and to harness the power of prayer. There are secrets in the order, too. What is Dame Hester trying to say on her deathbed? Why is Dame Veronica acting so strangely and what is Philippa herself not revealing.I didn’t think that the election of a new Abbess at Brede or Dame Hester’s deathbed message or the unsuitable crush that Dame Maura develops for novice Cecily would be so nail-bitingly readable but Rumer Godden’s gift for storytelling will keep you turning the pages.
Do you have a favourite Rumer Godden?