My good friend, Julie, first chose In This House of Brede for our book club about twelve years ago. I remember liking this novel by Rumor Godden enough to search out and read other books by her, but I couldn’t recount a lot of the details. When it was recently suggested that we re-read this book, I ran to my book shelf and jumped right back in.
Shortly after the end of World War II, widowed Philippa Talbot leaves her high-ranking career in the British civil service for life as a cloistered Benedictine nun in the (fictionalized) Brede abbey. Godden does a beautiful job unfolding Philippa’s story throughout the book while at the same time weaving in the emotions and histories of some of the other sisters and postulants. Each character has strengths and weaknesses—pasts that influence and shape who they are—and the enclosed life allows them the insight to know themselves better so that they can become more humble and charitable toward others. Or at least in most of their cases. Sister Veronica will leave you audibly sighing and shaking your head. The theme of obedience is the theme that really struck me on this re-reading.
I think, perhaps, what has made this book even dearer to me is that, between my first reading (circa 2007) and now, my family has become Associates of The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. We wanted to expose our children to this aspect of religious life, and we made monthly visits to the convent just to hang out with the sisters. Their personalities are so vibrant and different, and we all have our favorite nuns. They have a goodness, holiness, and sense of peace that just radiates from them. In This House of Brede reminds me of their simplicity, too.
This book is so exquisitely written and detailed that it is a work to be savored. Considering that Rumor Godden converted to Catholicism just a year before the book’s publication in 1969, her command of the rituals of religious life and the Mass are excellent. The ending left me wanting to know more and longing to spend more time with the characters. It will remain in my library to be read again and again.