I’ve loved Rumer Godden ever since someone gave me Miss Happiness and Miss Flower to read around 1963. In This House of Brede is one of my all-time favorites but then, I am a total sucker for a novel about nuns. Unfortunately Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is a somewhat thin retread of Godden’s favorite themes.
The novel is set in France, largely in a Dominican convent that draws some of its sisters from criminal backgrounds. Heroine Lise (born Elizabeth Fanshawe, religious name Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire) was once a prostitute and ran a brothel in Paris before killing one of its proprietors and going to prison. From prison, she goes to the convent where she experiences healing and forgiveness and also encounters the stubbornness of evil. The stitching between fact and fiction is a little bit obvious and there were some loose ends: characters who seem at first important fall away, while other events are clumsily foreshadowed.
Still, second-rate Godden is still pretty good. She is earnest about the tale and I’ve always found her interest in redemption very attractive. She also combines the smooth, effortless English narrative technique of the late 19th century (think George DuMaurier, or Daphne D for that matter) with her own unmistakable fractured time-frames. Now that I think of it, that was a little avant-garde. Oddly, though, this book is more dated than her earlier ones, precisely because she tries to bring it up to date. When a postulant brings her radio into the chapel to play a song from “Godspell” for Jesus, you have to wince.