Friday, March 18, 2011

The novel that changed my life

One of the many things I’ve appreciated since becoming involved in the blogging world is the number of really excellent book recommendations I’ve come across, often for books I would never have thought of trying without such suggestions.

Perhaps I can return the favour by telling you about a book which has meant more to me than I can easily express. Its author was Rumer Godden, probably not as widely read as she used to be, but very well worth discovering. In a long writing career she wrote over 60 books and she was widely praised for her vivid, highly atmospheric writing, especially in her works set in India. A number of her novels were made into successful films, including Black Narcissus, The River and Greengage Summer.

The book I want to write about isn’t one of her best-known works, though it too is a good read, but to me it’s so much more. Its title is In This House Of Brede and it tells the story of a woman in her 40s, who gives up a very successful career to become a Benedictine nun. It is beautifully written, well characterised, and extraordinarily absorbing in its portrayal of a very different and demanding way of life.

I first read it in 1975, at a time when I was neither a church-goer nor even a nominal Christian. I hadn’t been to church, other than for weddings and funerals, for nearly 10 years and wasn’t in the least interested in changing that situation. It was the purest serendipity that led to my picking up the book in the first place. It was lunchtime, it was raining, and I wanted something to read while I ate my sandwiches in the staffroom of the library where I worked.  After a hasty search along the fiction shelves, my eye fell on a book on display, which I didn’t remember having seen before. It looked different enough to catch my interest and make me decide to read it over lunch. The rest, as they say, is history.

Once I started reading, I could hardly put it down. I devoured it, reading late into the night, even though I had to get up early for work the next day. Even before I finished it, I knew that my world-view had altered. For the first time in my life I realised that faith isn’t just something believed in the head, but something that has to be lived out, something that changes people profoundly, and, hopefully, for ever. This realisation didn’t immediately make me a Christian, but it was the first small step on a road which led me within a year to confirmation in the Anglican church and years later, after many twists and turns, to ordination and eventually to full-time parish ministry.

As a librarian, I knew in theory the ability of books to change lives. Now, as a retired parish priest, I can testify from my own experience just how profound this change can be. Books are powerful, otherwise why would oppressive regimes try to ban them?  Books are powerful and to be treasured and my copy of In This House Of Brede is very treasured indeed.

Image via Wylio


  1. My copy is also very well-worn, and has been my "Desert Island" book of choice since I first read it about 17 years ago.... (heads off to re-read it for the nth time!)

  2. You too? I didn't know that, though perhaps I should have guessed :-)

  3. This is definitely be on my list! I'm familiar with Black Narcissus and The Greengage Summer -- The Greengage Summer is a favorite film of my husband -- though I don't like it much. Thank you for this post -- I love hearing about books and how they affect people's lives -- as you have probably guessed!

  4. For me it was Thomas a Kempis and Dame Juliana of Norwich.
    Of Rumer Godden I read the Black Narcissus..but I must now try 'This House of Brede'.

  5. What a fascinating and moving story! What were the odds that you would encounter this life-changing book at just the time you were open to its message and to making major changes in the direction of your life. Well, maybe it's not an accident, but a miracle. I, too, love hearing how people's lives are impacted by books!

  6. Broad, In This House Of Brede is a much longer and more complex novel than Black Narcissus and to my mind a greater work. Enjoy it!

    Fly, when I read In This House Of Brede I kne nothing whatsoever of the enormous riches of Christian spirituality, though I soon started to discover them. Julian is one of my favourites too and I often return to her.

    Kathy, thanks for visiting. I've no idea of the odds, but I can still remember so vividly the difference reading it made and how very unexpected it was.

  7. If you and your readers want to read a pick-it-up-and-read-through-the-night Rumer Godden, try her heart-breaking The Battle of the Villa Fiorita.

    Oh man, this one will knock your socks off, especially if you are a woman. Pick it up on Amazon for a few pence, but know that you'll never be the same afterwards... I just love this book.


    (and your blog is lovely, too!)

  8. Hello Perpetua,
    I read In This House of Brede for the first time around the time you did, though I was a school-girl.

    Years later, I still remember things I learnt from it. For instance, she uses the image of the bird caught in a net to explain what one should do when beset by trouble. It is best not to struggle when you are caught in a net. If you do, you only get more entangled.

    I think the spiritual application was to be still and quiet.

  9. Amalee, thanks for visiting my blog and for the recommendation. That's one of Rumer Godden's I haven't read, so I must make sure to get hold of it.

    Anita, isn't it interesting that In This House Of Brede has proved so unforgettable for so many people? I remember that image well and it's a lovely one.

  10. Thank you for that story, In this House of Brede has long been one of my favourite books (you're making me want to read it yet again!)

    Truth follows fiction - did you catch Radio 4's Midweek interview of Dame Catherine? She used to be a very successful banker before joining Stanbrook Abbey (Brede is based on Stanbrook as I'm sure you know). She is now Prioress of a new Benedictine Community at East Hendred.

  11. Thanks for visiting, Amanda, and glad to meet another fan of a wonderful book.

    Unfortunately I missed the interview, though I caught up with the TV coverage on the BBC website. Dame Catherine writes the iBenedictines blog as DigiNun, and it's worth following.

  12. I read this book when I was a very young nun, and have read it again since, but not recently. It is good to hear that it is so much appreciated, by many people in different walks of life, as it mirrors conventual life extremely closely. I will read it again now having discovered so much interest. I am no longer a nun so will look at it in a new light. Perhaps it will inspire me to tackle new things and to let go of others.

  13. Thank you for joining us, fellow pilgrim. I really appreciate learning that a book that means so much to me is a truly authentic portrayal of the life it depicts.

    On a lighter note I've just realised that the blog name I chose comes from one of the characters in it. :-)

  14. Dear Perpetua (mobile), I will look for a translation into German, or I "beat my teeth together" and read it in English! Motivated by you! I remember our book-shopping-tours in Wales! Thank you and greetings from Hamburg. (Our wheather is very british today, rainy, stormy, right for reading!)

  15. Hello R. Sorry the weather is as bad in Hamburg as it is here, but reading your way through the blog will certainly help to pass the time. :-)

    I don't know whether this book has ever been translated into German, but the English is very well-expressed and readable and you might find you can read it without too much difficulty. It is worth the effort.


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