With the smash success of the BBC’s television series Call the Midwife, it is nun season once again. Every half century or so humankind takes a break from Getting To Work On Time and Wondering What the Neighbors Think to ponder for a bit just what it is nuns do. While Midwife and its twentieth century brethren usually come down on the side of a more or less benevolent and whimsical conception of nun-dome, that has by no means been the case historically. A look back at the nun literature of the last three centuries shows how, more often than not, the cloister has been seen as the breeding ground of villainy than heroism.
Skipping over the Middle Ages and its saliva-bestrewn fascination with the prostitute-turned-nun trope, the foundational work of modern Nun Fiction is, for most, Denis Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which only received its first real printing in 1796, twelve years after the author’s death. It is a brisk novel that grew out of a practical joke that was inspired by a court case. In 1758, Marguerite Delamarre, a nun at the Longchamp convent, sued to be allowed to leave her convent, lost, and was forced to remain there for the rest of her life. This was not at all uncommon – the convent was where you sent daughters whose dowry you couldn’t afford to pay or, if you happened to be in Russia under the thumb of the Domostroi, where you sent wives when you got tired of them.
Diderot’s book, then, is a look at the piteous state of convent life, both for those with and without a religious vocation. The main figure is an illegitimate daughter sent to the convent so she won’t try and claim any inheritance. She seeks release from her compelled vows, only to find the full weight of the cloister brought to bear against her – psychological manipulation and pure physical violence are in turn heaped upon her shoulders. Diderot unleashes his full scorn for the crimes against nature wrapped up in the three vows of the convent, and the moral destruction they necessarily breed:
“Faire voeu de pauvreté, c’est s’engager par serment à être paresseux et voleur; faire voeu de chasteté, c’est promettre à Dieu l’infraction constant de la plus sage et de la plus importante de ses lois; faire voeu d’obéissance, c’est renoncer à la prérogative inaliénable de l’homme, la liberté. Si l’on observe ces voeux, on est criminal; si on ne les observe pas on est perjure. La vie claustrale est d’un fanatique ou d’un hypocrite.”
(To take the vow of poverty is to promise to become a layabout and a thief; to take that of chastity is to promise to God a constant infraction of the wisest and most important of his laws; and to make the vow of obedience is to renounce the inalienable prerogative of man, Liberty. If you observe these vows, you are a criminal, and if not, you are a perjurer. The cloistered life always makes of you either a fanatic or a hypocrite.)
By forcing young women so resolutely against the best parts of their nature, the convent life grinds slowly away at their humanity and very concept of identity, leading at best to a numbed acceptance of your captors’ truths, and at worst to mad flights of self-destruction:
“Alors les unes courent se jeter aux genoux de leur superieure et vont y chercher de la consolation; d’autres se prosternent ou dans leur cellule ou au pied des autels et appellant le Ciel a leur secours; d’autres dechirent leurs vetements et s’arrachent leurs cheveux; d’autres cherchent un puits profound, des fenetres bien hautes, un lacet, et le trouvent quelquefois; d’autres apres s’etre tourmentees longtemps tombent dans une espece d’abrutissement et restent imbeciles; d’autres qui ont des organs faibles et delicats se consument de langueur; il y en a en qui l’organisation se derange, l’imagination se trouble et qui deviennent furieuses. Les plus heureuses sont celles en qui les memes illusions consolantes renaissent, et les bercent presque jusqu’au tombeau; leur vie se passe dans les alternatives de l’erreur et du desespoir.”
(Some nuns throw themselves at the knees of their superior and attempt to find consolation there; others prostrate themselves in their cell or at the foot of their altars and call to Heaven for relief; some rend their clothes and tear their hair; others search out a deep well, a high window, or a rope, and sometimes find them; others, after long torment slip into a state of stupefication and remain that way; those of a weak and delicate constitution waste away in languor, while others still lose their minds to wild fancy and go stark mad. The most fortunate are those for whom the consoling illusions of religion reassert themselves, and continue to do so unto death; their lives are thus spent in delusion and despair.)
With all its invective against the unnaturalness of religion, The Nun is very much a product of the high Enlightenment, touching on the universal dignity of man and how it is ill-served by monasticism. Forty years would pass before the next big explosion of convent fiction, one equally critical of the life of religious seclusion, but which comes from a much darker place than the open and free humanity of Diderot’s forward-thinking mind.
The 1830s were a time of massive anti-Catholic sentiment here in the States, the heyday of the Know Nothing movement, and they saw the birth of a whole industry of anti-Papist fiction, with some of the most lurid examples being the Escaped Nun genre. These were novels purporting to be true memoirs of nuns who escaped their convents and the life of gross sin therein. Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent (1832) and The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836) both ignited massive popular indignation with their portrayals of priests forcing nuns into sexual slavery, and babies murdered to hush up scandal. Reed died of tuberculosis shortly after her account was published, but Monk lived another thirteen years, enough time to see her book become the most-widely read in America, and then to die, abandoned and disgraced.
Americans responded how they generally do to these sorts of events. They burned down a convent in 1834, started feeling a bit embarrassed about it, and got on with their lives.
And so the genre had seemingly played itself out until, in 1942, a German Jewish émigré by the name of Franz Werfel wrote a six hundred page fly-squisher of a novel, Das Lied von Bernadette, published in America as The Song of Bernadette. It was as tremendously popular as it is thoroughly creepy. Most of the book centers on Bernadette Soubirous, the poor daughter of an ex-miller, and the visions of a resplendent holy lady that she has at a local grotto. Werfel, writing from the heart of the Second World War, fleeing the maw of the Nazi state, saw science and rationality as destructive forces threatening to tear civilization asunder, and so made of his book a sustained impassioned plea for a simple, fervent mysticism.
These were, by and large, the same concerns that motivated Heidegger earlier in his Question Concerning Technology, and would prod Horkheimer and Adorno a few years later to produce that pillar of modern anti-positivism, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. And yes, caught up in the whirl of a world that seemed intent on self-destruction, it’s hard to blame them for grabbing onto whatever was at hand for support, whether the purity of religious experience sought by Werfel or the entirely imaginary pre-Use-Value society of Heidegger. It was an awful time to be a European, or indeed a human, and so, if their vision stumbled here and there, if they mistook friends of humanity for its enemies and vice versa, it is understandable.
That said, Werfel’s book is pretty skeezy. Bernadette’s vision lady is obsessed with penitence, and gets a sort of sadistic kick out of watching this poor, uncomprehending girl thrash about trying to please her:
“The lady was never uncertain of herself and knew her own value. Therefore the appropriate posture in her presence was on one’s knees, if possible with a burning taper in one’s hand. If ever one moved to and fro in the grotto, or, still worse, turned one’s back, an expression of nervous suffering would tarnish the radiance of her countenance. If, on the other hand, one did a painful thing – Bernadette knew this well – such as sliding on one’s knees over the jagged rubble toward the rock, then was she transfigured with joy… if the jagged rubble made the knees bleed, then an act of penitence had been accomplished.”
Later, the Lady makes Bernadette eat grass and mud, and promises to reward her in the afterlife, but only after causing her much suffering in this existence. Ultimately, that suffering will include governmental abuse, seclusion in a convent, and death by bone cancer. Meanwhile, her family doesn’t know what to make of her and she, for her part, throws over their merely terrestrial love in favor of prolonged contemplation of her Lady and the Lady’s will. It’s everything that is deeply wrong about religion, written about as if it were the cure for modernity’s ailments.
Bernadette is eventually packed off to a convent, and, every once in a while, shows a glimmering of something resembling an actual character. In his attempt to portray her utter innocence, Werfel has drained her of anything tangible or interesting. She’s a blank space – things happen to and around her, but that need to keep her absolutely pure also stops her from having anything like growth or insight, and so it’s up to everybody around her to have philosophical and life-changing moments in her stead, giving the whole novel a feeling of hollowness – a vast activity at the circumference masking a yawning stasis within.
The amazing thing is that Werfel, for all of his antiquarianism, doesn’t really care for convents either. He thinks of his precious Bernadette as far too authentic and pure to be contained by something as merely human as a convent or a Church. She is primal religiosity in its best, least reflective, sense. Ironically, her unquestioning, visceral faith, which Werfel offers as the cure to the spread of Nazism, is precisely the sort of mindset that drove a nation into the arms of that very movement. Read her talking about her Lady, and read an account of a Hitler Youth member talking about his Fuhrer, and you’ll find but little difference.
The 1960s, as was their wont, drove nunnery to two extremes, one of goofy amiability, and one of profound change. For the former, look to the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” religious affability of The Sound of Music or, if you’re in the mood to really bathe in some uncomfortable Americana, Sally Field’s short-lived sitcom, The Flying Nun, about which the less said, the better.
On the serious side, Vatican 2 was raising questions about what convent life ought to be about. The old order was dying out, and the question of Whither Now Nuns was being grappled with by superiors and novices alike. Karen Armstrong, who left convent life just as these ripples of change were making themselves felt, summed the spirit of the times up in the introduction to her The Spiral Staircase.
“Many of the orders had got stuck in a traditional rut. Customs that had made perfect sense in the nineteenth century, when my own community had been founded, now seemed arbitrary and unnatural. Practices that had no intrinsic spiritual value but were cultural relics of the Victorian age had acquired sacred significance, and change was regarded as betrayal. The council urged the religious orders to go back to the original spirit of their founders… Nuns and monks should also let the bracing spirit of change invade their cloisters; they should throw out the rubble that had accumulated over the years and craft a new lifestyle that was in tune with the times.”
One of the places this ambivalence with regard to the future of the cloister makes itself felt is in the alternately brilliant and thumbsy pages of Iris Murdoch’s 1980 novel, Nuns and Soldiers. There are characters of breath-taking complexity to be had here, amongst which is Anne, a former nun who left her convent after a loss of faith. Unfortunately, most of the book’s heart is spent not on her meditations on the meaning of personal religion, but on analyses, re-analyses, and re-re-analyses of a relationship between the two vapid central characters, Tim and Gertrude, about whom it is not possible to care less.
Still, when Anne is given time to act and think outside of the literary chasm that is Tim And Gertrude, her insights are deeply compelling. She realizes that she joined the convent primarily out of a fundamental need to reclaim innocence. Religiosity as extreme makeover. Sensing the futility of her hectic academic and social life, she instinctively heads it off at the pass by forcing herself into the role of perpetual penitent. But, of course, innocence doesn’t work like that. You can pretend for a long while (and it’s hard to look out at the religious landscape, especially here in America at the moment, and NOT interpret it as a sustained act of collective pretending aimed at achieving a desired lifestyle – just the right accessory to pull one’s whole mortal outfit together) but the immense concentration and dedication required to sustain that illusion speaks against its creation.
Murdoch’s ex-nun, then, shows us the convent teetering on the edge of irrelevance, a place where young women go to maintain a desired self-deception for as long as their consciences will allow. That sense of life momentarily de-railed is carried over into Call the Midwife, where the older generation of nuns (and here is a spoiler alert for those of you not done with season 2 yet) has to sit by and watch as a young member of the order struggles with her faith and, in the end, decides to reach out for life and romance at last. It’s a tale of simple human nature, honestly told without a hint of rancor, and so a world away from its literary ancestors.
Nun fiction has come to ground, then. No longer the ecstatic stuff of priestly fantasizing or the exasperated retelling of man’s worst instincts run amok, it has settled for the simple truth of ordinary people getting a bit confused, a bit more scared, and heading desperately into the arms of a whispy phantom for protection, closing their eyes desperately against the dissipation of their guardian until one day they awake, alone, armed only with the question, “What do I do with myself now?”
Which is where all good stories begin.