Yet another Rumer Godden novel. I’m on a serious kick now with several more on their way via Book Mooch.
This novel has something of the same feel as In This House of Brede and I think is my next favorite after Brede. Like Brede, it centers around a religious community and specifically on the a particular sister, flashing back to her life before religious life and following her through her conversion, aspirancy, postulancy, and final vows and exploring the life of the religious community through her eyes. Like Brede, it takes us through the round of seasons and all the rigors of an argarian monastery. But the setting, the protagonist and this community of Bethanie are all very different than those of Brede.
Although the protagonist is once again an Englishwoman, the novel is set in France. Bethanie is not a fictitious community but a historical fact and it was fascinating to learn about the founding of this unusual community of Dominican nuns. It began in France in the eighteen-sixties when a priest of the Order of Preachers, Pere Lataste preached a retreat at a women’s prison. He spoke about God’s mercy and love and realized that these women had never heard that message. He also realized that among them were women who had a call to the religious life. The sisters of Bethanie take as their model the household of Mary and Martha in Bethany, and they identify that Mary with Mary Magdalene, the penitent sinner from whom seven devils were driven out and who anointed Christ’s feet with oil. And so the community is formed of women who are former convicts and those who have entered religious life in a more conventional way. But one of the rules is that they do not speak of the past and so none of the sisters knows which are the former prisoners.
The novel’s protagonist is Lise, “a criminal, a murderess, a whore”. The novel also follows Father Marc, their new chaplain, who was serving in the Far East but has had to return to France because of illness. The story was fascinating. Like Brede it moves back and forth from the past to the present in a sort of mosaic that the reader has to piece together. Here I also saw the same profound insight into the struggles of the human heart that Brede displayed.
I also loved that the heroine struggles with praying the rosary, which has always been a devotion that I’ve had a hard time embracing. (The five and ten of the title refer to the mysteries of the rosary.)