Nuns In Novel(la)s

This year, despite not being religious myself, I’ve become slightly obsessed with fictional nuns. I thought I’d think a little about why nuns offer such interesting possibilities for novelists, in anticipation of Lauren Groff’s forthcoming MatrixHere, I’ll be discussing three very different books about three very different kinds of nuns: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (2008), which depicts a convent in sixteenth-century Italy; Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black (2019), which follows an unspecified order of nuns on board a living spaceship; and Rumer Godden’s In This House Of Brede (1969), which is set in an English Benedictine community in the 1960s. However, although these nuns are far apart in space and time, they all sit within the Catholic tradition; this post will therefore focus on Catholic nuns, while recognising that these aren’t the only nuns that exist, even in the Christian faith – and recommendations for books that deal with non-Christian nuns would be very welcome!

Catholic nuns tend to be the butt of jokes, either portrayed as incredibly prudish or sex-obsessed; because nuns are supposed to be angelic, any hint of misbehaviour from a nun is somehow funnier than if it came from a ‘normal’ person. (One of my favourite jokes as a child – no idea why – was ‘What goes black white black white?’/’A nun rolling down a hill.’/’What’s black and white and goes ha ha?’/’The nun who pushed her!’) The radical potential in stories about Catholic nuns, therefore, lies in asking what it’s really like to be a nun and whether this popular stereotype of repressed, unhappy, usually elderly women holds true. If you take out references to nuns or convents from the blurbs of Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede, they suddenly sound a lot more subversive: 

Sixteen-year-old Serafina is ripped by her family from an illicit love affair and forced into the women’s community of Santa Caterina, renowned for its superb music. 

Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her life among the London elite to join a women’s community.

This is not to say that you can simply ‘take out’ the religion from these kinds of communities and reimagine them as proto-feminist communes, but that there’s obvious potential in telling stories about groups of women who live together and rely on each other, and are often able to do things they could not do in the outside world, while recognising that this kind of life comes with its own set of restrictions. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Matrix sparks a new trend for this kind of novel, as it speaks to a lot of twenty-first century concerns: women who are not defined as wives or mothers; female separatism; loneliness vs chosen solitude; the un/importance of sex.

However, if nun novels were just about women both embracing and escaping the confines of their times, Sisters of the Vast Black would be pointless. Why write about nuns in space when you can invent a future where women can do anything they want? Here, I think we see the appeal of writing about a community of people who are simply trying to do the right thing, aside from feminist concerns. The first two-thirds of Sisters of the Vast Black have a moral seriousness that isn’t preachy or theoretical but very much connected to the world the sisters are dealing with. Even more interestingly, both Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede depict closed orders, where the nuns’ job is not to do ‘good works’ but to create a community of prayer, cut off from most contact with the world around them. The purpose of this can be hard to understand; what good are the nuns doing by removing themselves from the world? However, in both novels, the power of the convent, of this way of living, is evident, although both Godden and Dunant recognise that this life is right for some women and hellish for others.


Diana Rigg starred in a film adaptation of In This House Of Brede (1975)

Why read about Catholic nuns if you are not yourself Catholic or Christian? One great thing that these novels open up is the opportunity to write about women who are not primarily driven by one emotional tie, whether that’s to a man, a child or another family member. As I wrote in my review of Lissa Evans’s Old Baggagethese kind of novels are very rare. And while I wouldn’t want to read a nun novel that was simplistic or dogmatic about religion, none of these books are like that. Dunant vividly conveys the importance of faith to some women in her sixteenth-century convent while others suffer under its strictures. Godden has a harder task, convincing us that a twentieth-century character like Philippa would enter a convent in the first place, or thrive there as she does. But while few of us have a vocation to be a nun, I could identify with how Philippa struggles with herself, the fight to be the best version of herself she can be – I don’t need to share her beliefs to understand that.

Finally, there’s a thoughtfulness about these kind of novels, a deliberately reflective pace that I find hugely refreshing in fiction. Sacred Hearts and In This House of Brede tell a big story about lots of women and the lives they lead, and they aren’t tempted to hurry us along to hit the dramatic highpoints. Sisters of the Vast Black, in my opinion, suffers in its final third because it suddenly speeds up, losing much of what made it special earlier on. These books eschew standard plots with a single, ‘active’ protagonist to think about how even the most self-reliant of nuns are part of something bigger. Along the way, they break many ‘rules’ of fiction, and they’re all the better for it.

Have you read any of these novels, or any other novels about nuns? Do you have any recommendations? (I’ve already spotted that Rumer Godden wrote two other novels about nuns, and am eagerly seeking them out!)

25 thoughts on “Nuns In Novel(la)s

  1. What a very interesting post! The only other novel I can recall, exclusively about nuns, Is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them. It’s a fabulous, if slow, read, about the life of a medieval English convent. Nuns come, they go (through death or otherwise) and the convent, which in many ways is the main character, endures. Other than that, I believe one of Spark’s characters in The Prime of Miss Jean entered a convent; it’s been long since I read it and I don’t believe this was a particular focus of the plot. There was also a great nun in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, described in great detail in the Prologue.
    I suppose it’s not hard to see the appeal of writing about a group of nuns, especially in an historical setting, as they were in many ways the only women of their time with self-agency: they elected their leader, ran their own business affairs, owned property (if only communally) and governed themselves, all without dying of childbirth at the age of 16, or 20 or whatever. All this, of course, oculd be quite threatening to a worldly society dominated by male interests (remember the old feminist slogan, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”? Dating mysef here, I guess!) hence the ridicule or ambivalence. While spare daughters were off poppedd off into a convent to get them ot of the way, many women sought out the life, which they regarded as better than being married off to someone not of their choice. Important here, I guess, is the fact that many convents in medieval times often allowed women, especially noble ones, a certain laxity in their life style.
    Nice to know that Lauren Groff has another book coming out. I enjoyed Fates and Furies very much; Arcadia less so and am afraid I haven’t read the others. Neverthelss, she’s an interesting writer and anything she does is worth checking out.

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    • Thank you! And YES, all of this is exactly why I’m so interested in nuns. I definitely have to read the Townsend Warner.

      I had mixed feelings about Groff’s Fates and Furies, haven’t read Arcadia, but loved The Monsters of Templeton and her short story collection Florida so it looks like I’ve had a slightly better experience with her thus far! (I think I once intended to read Arcadia, but got mixed up and read Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! instead – luckily it was excellent). I feel like Matrix will be a real departure as everything else I’ve read from her has been quirky/contemporary.

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  2. Have you read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them? Set in a medieval convent with a long timescale and a contemplative tone–very relevant to your interest here, I think. (And recently reprinted, very nicely, by Penguin Modern Classics.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not familiar with the authors you feature, but I love how you pinpoint what’s unique about closed communities of women and the possibilities their dynamic opens up for fiction. I should have saved my copy of Mariette in Ecstasy for you — there were some interesting relationships between the characters, though I didn’t particularly like Hansen’s writing. I’m hugely looking forward to Matrix, of course, even though it’s set in a time period I don’t generally choose to read about.

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