This is, in my opinion, a most enchanting book. It is the story of a number of years in the life of Brede Abbey, a fictional English Catholic woman’s monastery, and the nuns who live there. The book opens very simply with Penny Stevens, the juniorest typist in a government office run by a Mrs. Philippa Talbot, who Penny adores. On this particular day Penny can tell that something is going to happen—namely that Mrs. Talbot has been given a promotion. She is called into Mrs. Talbot’s office where, quite to her surprise, she is told that Mrs. Talbot is going to be a nun and is leaving, for good.
The story then switches perspectives and goes to Philippa Talbot as she prepares to make her entrance to Brede. For a large portion of the book the narration continues to focus on Philippa as she enters the monastic life but it occasionally switches to another character.
The pace of the story is gentle and slow, like monastic life itself. A fast-paced adventure story this is not. However, I would not call it boring. There are major troubles within the monastery and the conflict surrounding them was very gripping. Rumer Godden’s nuns live and breathe: sweet Dame Emily Lovell, stately Dame Maura, vivid Dame Colette, and steady Dame Catherine. A few of them will naturally become most dear, just as real people. Philippa herself, Hilary, and Dame Catherine were my favorites.
Godden’s descriptions of the monastic year are very striking and could be applied to any Christian liturgical tradition. “The Church is like a wise mother and has given us this great cycle of the liturgical ear with its different words and colours. You’ll see how you will learn to welcome the feast days and the saints’ days as they come round, each with a different story, and, as it were, a different aspect; they grow very dear, though still exacting.” (p. 60). As an Orthodox Christian, I nodded in agreement with every word of that sentence, not excluding the last bit (“though still exacting”).
My experience of monasticism has been different than the experience of Catholic monasticism that I gained from this book. Orthodox monasticism has developed differently than its Western counterpart, and there was much that was unfamiliar or that I disagreed with. Still, the desire to serve God and the world by retiring from the world is one that I can understand and respect. And again, the characters became so real with their struggles and triumphs that I felt I could count them as friends.
“If a place has been filled with prayer, though it is empty something remains; a quiet, a steadiness.” (p. 195)