Rather fortuitously, Ali passed me a copy of this book recently, just as the LibraryThing Virago Group we’re both in was planning a year of themed reading, with Teachers or Nuns as the first theme. So I picked up this novel about nuns with its fantastically gothic cover (and somewhat gothic events) and it was a good read, as Godden reliably is, with some reservations around language and terms (as you’d probably expect in a book set in India by a British author, published in 1939. I thought this was the only challenge this fits in with, and it’s a slightly odd contrast with all the Nordic stuff I’ve been reading recently, but astoundingly, it fills in one of the remaining years in my Century of Reading!

Rumer Godden – “Black Narcissus”

(05 December 2021 – from Ali)

A group of nuns from a fictional order with its Mother Convent in Surrey travel north into the very edges of Darjeeling to set up a convent, school and clinic in a disused “palace” half-way up a hill, looking over the Himalayas to Kanchenjunga. Their only help is The General, a man living in the shadow of the memory of his more exciting father and, more practically, Mr Dean, said to have “gone native” (more on terminology later) and able to get things done either himself or with the help of the local people. A group of English nuns, between the wars, stuck on their own in a slightly peculiar ex “house of the women” where concubines used to live, thrown on their own resources with one reasonably fit and healthy man going in and out (I don’t want to subscribe to stereotypes about nuns, but if you put a man in a nunnery, he’s going to be a Chekhov’s Gun of a man, isn’t he?) and with one among them who is likely to be trouble, and is from the start – throw in a creepy Ayah who is used to having the place to herself and mourning her dead mistress, the flamboyant son of the General who only wants to learn, and a ripe and luscious local girl, and a sort of amorphous mob of public opinion and you’re asking for something melodramatic to happen.

We see things through some people’s eyes more than others, and Sister Clodagh, the Sister Superior in charge, gets to show us her reason for becoming a nun, having flashbacks of memories of a lost love that she thought she’d tamped down. The local town acts as a sort of chorus, sardonic Mr Dean as a warning and recording angel, and the mysterious holy man who lives above the convent a sort of immovable figure, showing that everything will go on as it has been before when the nuns are inevitably thrown off the mountain. The psychological stresses within and between the central characters are subtly done and draw us on through the narrative as things wind up to their conclusion – whatever that might be.

It’s an entertaining novel and well done – but of course there are colonial attitudes to get through (although to be sort of fair on Godden, she praises her characters when they start to see the “natives” as individual humans). There are comical and naive locals, superstitions that the nuns try to stamp out, and while they’re seen as being inflexible and not seeking to understand, but to impose their standards on the village, and that this is not a good thing, there is also some really regrettable language that causes the modern reader to wince. An interesting period piece that needs to be read with an understanding of the context and the change in how we would interact with these Indigenous populations now.