Novelist Rumer Godden would have been 100 years old this year. She was born in England, lived much of her life in India, and died at age 91, having converted late to Catholicism.
Godden wrote numerous novels, but the ones about nuns remain her most famous. "Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy" and "In This House of Brede" have been re-released in the Loyola Classics series.
Both these books are about middle-aged women with "pasts" who find themselves called to a vocation that demands energy, action and self-honesty.
"A convent is not a place for broken hearts," Sister Marie Lise, murderess and former prostitute, muses in "Five for Sorrow."
Both books delineate the ironies of monastic life--abundance through poverty, freedom through discipline and obedience, love through chastity. Perhaps the best part of the novels are the backstories--or hints of stories--that Godden offers about individual sisters. These are not sugar-coated holy women, though some reach holiness. Others get only partway there. Some fail altogether.
The Loyola series doesn't include "Black Narcissus," which depicts the gradual breakdown of discipline that befalls a convent trying to operate in a former harem in the Himalayas. It is to nuns what "Lord of the Flies" is to adolescent boys. It is a less inspiring picture of monasticism, to be sure, but no less a revealing one.
In re-reading "Five for Sorrow" last week, I noticed some similarities between Godden's nuns and some of the heroines in today's popular chick lit, especially the ones in "The Nanny Diaries," "Citizen Girl," and "The Devil Wears Prada." Fed up with materialism, the toxic workplace, and the devaluation of love and friendship, those girls, like Godden's nuns, deliberately turn their backs on conventional notions of success to save their, well, souls. Though religion isn't the language of the chick lit novel, I think Sisters Marie Lise and Phillippa would have recognized the impulse.