In This House of Brede

Rumer Godden
Loyola Press
Number of pages: 
648 pages
Grade / Age level: 

“This extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community. In this gripping narrative of the crises surrounding the ancient Brede Abbey, Rumer Godden penetrates to the mysterious, inner heart of a religious community – a place of complexity and conflict, as well as joy and love. It is a place where Philippa, to her own surprise and her friends’ astonishment, finds her life by losing it.” – from the back cover

The Loyola edition includes an introduction by Phyllis Tickle and a few study questions. I found the introduction helpful and interesting; among other points, she said that Godden had lived "at the gate" of a Benedictine Abbey for three years while working on the novel, and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1968 (shortly before it was published). The study questions are rather meager for a volume of this size, but they could make a starting point for discussion.

Although on one level, In This House of Brede is simply an interesting novel, on another level it offers profound truths about the journey of a soul along its vocational path. Rumer Godden succeeds in giving the reader tremendous insight into the communal religious life through the various situations and conflicts involving the nuns at the fictitious Brede Abbey. Among other things, we learn about the process of formation: the postulancy and the novitiate, the real everyday life of the nuns, and the depth of the spiritual life of a contemplative community and how this impacts the world around it. The nuns are extremely well-characterized and very believable both in their human frailties and in their ability to serve as a channel of God’s grace.

Besides the enormous size of the book, it contains several themes that are not suitable for young readers, hence my recommendation that it be reserved for adults and mature teens. Among these themes are:

(1) the tragic story of the death of Philippa’s son – I found this a very difficult read myself

(2) a former employee (Penny) who has an abortion

(3) references to Philippa’s love life (prior to her conversion)

Other themes that may concern some readers include the financial crisis that the Abbess gets her community into and the discussions among the nuns regarding the election of Pope John XXIII and the second Vatican Council.

One quibble I have is with the wording when Philippa is counseling Penny to choose life for her baby. After Penny says that she wondered if she could “stop it” but her doctor wouldn’t do anything, Philippa responds, “Of course he wouldn’t. Doctors don’t like doing it even when there are strong reasons.” (p 404) Given that she makes several statements along the lines of “Babies … are people from the very beginning,” I don’t think she is implying that abortion is OK sometimes, i.e. for “strong reasons.” But it still bothers me.

Overall, I found this to be an excellent novel and I love the way that Godden portrays the action of Divine Providence in the lives of her characters.

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