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Rumer Godden and the chick lit girls

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.



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We watched Black Narcissus with Deborah Kerr on televison recently and thought it very , very good--that is, I did, but I should let Sue speak for herself. I remember when the film appeared way back in the bad old days and the idea that nuns could be like that--even though of course they were not real nuns!--was thought dangerous! What idiots we all were!

Wow. The only one of her novels I've read is Greengage Summer, so this is a whole new view for me.

Jean, Tha's really an interesting insight. Thanks! A question, though? Don't you think having been in the world --and then rejected it-- was a good thing for these heroines -at least some of them. Philippa had a certain style, maturity, sense of judgment for having been so competent in the work world --it was ultimately integrated into her spiritual life. And in the Devil Wears Prada, Andie grows up working for Miranda Priestly--she gets style, she gets tough--she ultimately doesn't let Prada wear her, but she can still pull of Prada if the occasion demands it (let's sasy she'd be IN Prada, but not OF Prada, so to speak).

Joseph, I LOVE "Black Narcissus." Rented it recently and the DVD has an interesting special feature on the cinematography.I don't recommend the Diana Rigg version of "In This House of Brede." It's leaves out many of the plot lines and ignores the issue of sexuality and lesbianism, which Godden hits with a kind of direct delicacy (if that makes any sense).I love Deborah Kerr, who also played a nun in "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," which is one of my all-time favorite nun movies. Largely because it has the very interesting and nicely put-together Robert Mitchum in the lead. (They were also great in "The Sundowners," thought my favorite Mitchum movie--among my top 10 list of any and all movies--remains "Night of the Hunter." I can't hear "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" without getting the creeps.)Cathleen, I don't want to stretch the comparison between the chick heroines and nuns too far. But when Andie sold off all her Prada at the end of the book to give herself a start at a happier, more materialistically modest life, I was reminded of the beginning of "In This House," when Phillippa gives away her stuff.

Jean, I share your affection for Deborah Kerr, but I think that the Hollywood boys did not know what to make of her. One of her greatest triumphs was getting the American public to pronounce her surname.

"Kerr" rhymes with "car," no? Just like "Edinburgh" rhymes with "breadnbutta.

Glad to know there is a site dedicated to fans of Deborah Kerr. Not only did she play nuns but her debut role in Major Barbara (ok movie that goes haywire in the end, but who can complain with Wendy Hiller and Deborah Kerr in the same movie?) was as the young Salvation Army girl Jenny Hill. Almost made me enlist.Clearly her British films show a charm that is missing from her American films, but with the possible exception of Audrey Hepburn what female star of the 50's did the Hollywood boys know what to make of?

OK, sorry for going off-topic. This post is supposed to be about monastics and Gen Nexters and literary themes and highbrow stuff like that.So let me drag this off the Kerr-Hepburn axis and respond a bit more to Cathleen's query about the connection between the chick lit heroines and Godden's nuns.I submit that "Citizen Girl" and "Five for Sorrow" make an interesting parallel reading project. Here are some posers to consider if you try it:1. Both books feature paid prostitutes. To what extent are the prostitutes victims? To what extent do they elect prostitution? How do they rationalize their choice?2. How does prostitution and pandering play a more figurative role in both books, i.e., prostitution of talent, effort? Pandering to market forces, supply and demand?3. Both heroines, despite their prostitution, have "moral resources" that allow them to move away from their situation. What are those resources? When do they appear (and perhaps disappear for a time)?4. In both books, there is a foil for the heroine, a character who remains mired in prostitution at the end of the book but who propels the heroines to act in more moral ways. What do the authors seem to be saying about the relationship between good and evil?5. Both heroines, at the end of the book, find their salvation in the company of other women. Contrast the nature of this salvation. 6. Audrey Hepburn played a nun in "A Nun's Story." (Just thought I'd throw that in to see if anyone actually got this far).

I haven't read, I confess, as much as I need to deal with your questions adequately. I read In this House of Brede once, a long time ago, I skimmed the Devil Wears Prada. On both, I'm probably merging them with the movies. And I haven't read the rest.My point was not really deep: it was just that in these two cases, we weren't dealing with an affirmation of innocence, we were dealing with a "sadder but wiser" view of the heroine. And the worldly knowledge that Andie and Philippa have gained isn't lost; it's somehow integrated into their new lives.

I'm not trying to set up an exam, just indulging my little fantasy in which I am Empress of All--or at least have total control over all coffee shop book clubs. And then we will read at least two books at the same time (my choice) and discuss the similarities.

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