In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden

Phillipa Talbot, head of a department in the British Ministry of Trade
and Information at a time when women simply did not hold such posts, is
poised for a promotion when, instead, she resigns her position and seeks
admittance as a postulant to Brede Abbey, a house of Benedictine nuns.
What follows is an amazing tale, to which I simply cannot do justice.

To begin with, it’s a novel.

When you go to the bookstore, you see the fiction divided by category,
which the publishers miscall “genre”. In fact, the genre is the form of
the work–the novel, the short story, and so forth. To publishers, the
word novel means simply any book-length work of fiction. In fact, there
two classical book-length forms: the novel and the romance. Tales of
adventure, of derring-do, of space opera or feats of arms, indeed any
book in which the primary action and conflict and movement is external is a
romance–and the fact is, that’s what I usually read. In the novel
proper, the primary action and conflict and movement is internal.
Accustomed as I am to speaking of premises and plots and all the wonderful
externalities of fantasy and science fiction, I am usually somewhat
nonplussed when faced with writing about a proper novel. Sure, I can
write about the externalities, but to do so is to misrepresent
the story. And yet, I don’t have the vocabulary to speak about the
internals with any assurance. Bear with me, please.

In addition to this basic problem, there is the difficulty of conveying
the feeling of Brede Abbey, the peace that lingers about it and fills
the book from one end to the other, the voices of the nuns raised in
plainsong as the canonical hours pass day by day. To do so I would need
to tell you about stern Dame Agnes, skillful Dame Maura, quiet Dame
Catherine, staunch Sister Cecily, ladies of great faith and holiness–but
I can’t. Godden reveals them herself, so well, so deftly, little by
little filling in each portrait until the whole is revealed that I should
feel like a vandal if I were to attempt to summarize Godden’s prose and
so reveal details out of order.

But I have to say something, or why bother reviewing
the book at all? So here are a few points.

There are a number of crises in the book, involving fiscal mismanagement,
bad vocations, controlling parents, sudden illness, and the like, with
which the abbey community must contend, and Sister Phillipa must, of
course, do her part. But the crises, and the times of peace in between
them, are not the story; the story is about Sister Phillipa’s giving of
herself to her Beloved Lord bit by bit and piece by piece. It is about
redemption; sacrifice, self-denial, submission, hard work, and a joy and
a peace which passes understanding.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Some thanks are in order. I first heard of the book on the 25 of August,
2000, five years almost to the day before I actually opened a copy and
began to read, from an e-mail correspondent named Rachel. She wrote me
again in 2001, and again in 2002, each time prompting me to give the book
a try. And I did look for it, but never found a copy; it had gone out of
print. (Yeah, I know, I could try the library; somehow, I never do that.)
And then Amy Welborn of the blog
Open Book
began working with the Loyola Press on reissues of a series of classic
Roman Catholic novels, one of them being
In This House of Brede. I ordered a copy on-line, and it
arrived, and after a couple of weeks I picked up and devoured it.

So thanks to Rachel, and thanks to Amy; I hope I can repay the favor some
day.

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