Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rumer Godden's Brede and Dame Gertrude More

Dorothy Cummings McLean reviews Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede for Crisis Magazine:

Novels are what we read when we should be reading something else—or are they? Currently I should be reading Henri Nouwen’s “modern spiritual classic,” The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but in fact I have just finished Rumer Godden’s novel, In This House of Brede. And I feel no embarrassment in saying that the laywoman’s novel taught me far more about the way of the heart than the priest’s meditations. After decades of preaching the virtues of a low fat diet, nutritionists now tell us our dietary culprit isn’t fat. Apparently we have always needed good fat in our diet. Godden’s novel runs with rich oils; Nouwen’s book strikes me as sugary.

I first heard of In This House of Brede when I went to the Solemn Profession of a young nun to the Abbey of Saint Cecilia at Ryde on England’s Isle of Wight. Saint Cecilia’s, I was told, was one of the models for Rumer Godden’s fictional Brede. As my visit to the abbey was one of the most edifying trips of my life, showing me how beautiful enclosed life can be, I resolved to read this book.

The abbey Godden more closely based her work on was Stanbrook Abbey, which is now in a different location than when she knew it, but has its roots in the English exiles of the Reformation and Recusant eras, who founded the house in Cambrai. One of the founders was St. Thomas More's great-great-granddaughter, Helen More--Dame Gertrude More in religion:

St Thomas More's great-great-granddaughter, Helen, left England at the age of seventeen as a key figure in a new venture: the foundation of a monastery for Englishwomen under the aegis of the English Benedictine Congregation. Suitable, though dilapidated, buildings were found in the city of Cambrai. There, together with two of her More cousins and six other young Englishwomen, Helen was clothed in the Benedictine habit on 31 December 1623 and professed as Dame Gertrude on 1 January 1625. The monastery of Our Lady of Consolation, now at Stanbrook Abbey, Wass, had come into being.

Dame Gertrude herself was utterly miserable. A lively extrovert, she was not born to a life of prayer and had not particularly wanted to enter a monastery, though she had kept that to herself. She tried to read spiritual books, consult different confessors, but in vain. In November 1625 she was so desperate that she went to the man she had hitherto ridiculed, Father Augustine Baker.

Within a fortnight her life was changed. What had seemed impossible was 'made by him so easy, and plain,' she recalled. Once she had learnt to put aside self-will, she was free to recognize God's voice, the 'call' or prompting of the Holy Spirit in her heart. Her fear and despair gone, Dame Gertrude was at last flying 'freely with wings of Divine love'.

I certainly agree with McLean that Godden's novel is a masterpiece. I read nearly all of Godden's books and always appreciated her excellent story-telling and sometimes adventurous technique, usually dealing with time and place (Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time; China Court: The Hours of a Country House, etc). Little, Brown has been re-issuing some of her novels in paperback with new covers as part of the Virago Modern Classics series.


  1. I enjoyed your review. Have you read her novel, "Five For Sorrow Ten for Joy." It too, is about an order of nuns. It's an amazing, spiritual book as well as just a great story.

  2. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I've read that book--I went through a long Rumer Godden period and read just about everything she wrote! "A Candle for St. Jude" is wonderful too; the protagonist's sister always stops and prays the Angelus when the bells ring, no matter what is going on. She comments that her sister would pray even if the world was ending--another character says, wouldn't that be the best time to pray?