Why read Rumer Godden?

In This House Of BredeI’m closing in on the final pages of Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede (1969) and asking myself, why read more Rumer Godden?

According to the Rumer Godden Literary Trust website, she wrote “some 60 works during her life,” including novels, poetry and books for children.

Her New York Times obituary (11/10/1998) says she published “some 70 novels, children’s books, memoirs, biographies and collections of poetry and stories.” (Did her publisher lose count?)

I have The River (1946), one of her acclaimed novels based on her childhood in India, under my reading belt, thanks to a school assignment way back when. (I trudged through the book, bored stiff.) And now, also, this fictional rendering of life in a Benedictine convent.

In This House of Brede caught my attention because contemplative Benedictine life interests me. Godden lived for three years near England’s Stanbrook Abbey to research the novel.

The story concerns a successful corporate woman who enters the convent in her 40s. Aside from a few bursts of drama, Godden’s pretty heavy handed in filling the narrative with infinite details about the convent’s rituals and rules of worship, daily work and prayer. Hence, it’s not a novel I would widely recommend, except to those interested, like me, in the topic. 

Black NarcissusPerhaps to next read Godden’s novel Black Narcissus? Published in 1939, it concerns nuns setting up a convent in northern India. The New York Times review described it as “without flaw” and “not a book to miss.” (7/9/1939)

But a later reference to Black Narcissus in The New York Times (9/21/1969) describes it as an “airy and humorous thing” with a “forgiveable silliness.” Hmmm.

It’s curious that The Oxford Companion to English Literature on my shelf, edited by Margaret Drabble, 1998, doesn’t include Godden as an entry, while the trust website claims her as “one of the foremost English language authors of the 20th century.” Hmmm.

I doubt I’m going to become a devoted Rumer Godden reader, at least, this year.

The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University keeps the Rumer Godden collection.

6 thoughts on “Why read Rumer Godden?

  1. Kassie, I’ve always loved In this House of Brede. I’ve always been somehow-I dunno-comforted by it. Enveloped. It’s not great prose to be sure. Godden is no Merton, but it is a worthwhile yarn. By the way In this House of Brede was filmed for TV many years ago with Diana Rigg. The Columbus Library used to have the video. They ignore 3/4 of the book. Ho-hum.


  2. I saw the movie with Diana Rigg way back when. I was haunted for years by Phillipa the novice not being able to speak for a long time after arrival. Did this really happen? I talk so much….This would be time in Purgatory and it stuck with me. (Regardless of whether it actually was part of the movie plot.)

    Cut forward a few decades. I stumble upon the Loyola Classics version, very elegantly and irresistibly packaged. I’ve worked my way through Frevisse; I’ve solved monastery murders with Matthew Shardlake. My children are screaming; it’s chaos at work which always involves endless phone calls while things beep while I get further behind; rushing, rushing.

    How can I not be drawn into the cool stone chapel of Brede? The sisters do not coordinate outfits with purses. It’s quiet. It’s still. There’s time to think, not just react. (There are years to think about how to react, it would seem.) Would I go crazy? In about five minutes. It is lovely to dip in for a time? Yes, and to joyfully return to the internet and sushi.


    1. The monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (Thomas Merton’s abbey) observe total silence. The one time I was there for a few days, in 2004, even the guests were to observe the silence. I can see how that would work for a silent retreat, but always? It didn’t work for me and I never went back. Such silence is not observed at St. Gregory’s, except at night, after Compline. I find it more refreshing and fulfilling that I can be quiet yet also can converse with the monks and guests, such as at tea time.

      I, too, am drawn to the simplicity and stillness of monastic life. Whether reading about it or experiencing it for a few days, it renders this chaos we all seem to have bought into — cell phones, email, texting, blackberries, let alone calendars bombarded with scheduled events … we’re always called to be “on” — as having gone too far. I appreciate the monastic message of “when you make the bread, make the bread.” That is, don’t talk on the phone and read a book at the same time. I’m woefully entrenched in the Internet life and multi-tasking, but I love, as you say, the thought of “the cool stone chapel of Brede.”

      I had to put Frevisse aside. I started reading it right after Godden’s “Brede,” and when I confused the mention of Perpetua in “The Novice’s Tale” to Perpetua in “Brede,” I knew I needed a break from fictional nuns! Just yesterday, I put the Frevisse paperback series into a sack and walked it over to a neighbor’s house — she wants to read them.


  3. Best not to commit to Frevisse until you can devote your every waking moment to her. She supplies all my favorites: mystery, historic fiction, acerbic wit, and the occasional trip to church. Reading her is like eating popcorn with chocolate chips. Have you tried The Matthew Shardlake Series?


    1. I’m not familiar with the Shardlake series until your mention here. I checked it out … a hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake as the sleuth … cool! It looks like there are about 4 in the series up to now. Have you read all of them? I take it the setting is primarily Tudor England, not necessarily a monastery, yes?


  4. I mean, really, who can resist a hunchbacked Tudor lawyer?

    I have read the whole series. The setting of the first is a monastery, but it’s full of DUDES, not chicks. I like the series a lot, actually. The sophomore effort wasn’t as good as the first, but the third and especially the 4th are fabulous. Couldn’t put them down.


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