Sorry. I never get puns so when one comes to me I get all excited. Reading Sarah Dunant’s crackerjack Sacred Hearts got me thinking about the nun novel as its own special genre. I mentioned in that post the appeal of the closed religious community for writers. Then I began to tot up the number of nun books I had read — and there were a round dozen on my shelves. I’m sure there’s more to the genre, like Gail Godwin’s Unfinished Desires which just came out this summer. And I’m not even thinking about nunfiction–OK, I’ll stop. Nonfiction about nuns. So here’s my list:
Diderot’s The Nun wasn’t published until 1796, after the French Revolution and the disestablishment of the Church in France. It’s a savage epistolary proto-novel written as from an illegitimate girl unwillingly enclosed.
Rumer Godden gets special mention for having written three nun novels. Black Narcissus came first in 1939, filmed in 1947 with Deborah Kerr. Anglican sisters in the Himalayas try not to go too native. Then in 1969, after her own conversion to Catholicism, Godden wrote In This House of Brede, about a strong-minded career woman’s entrance into an (enclosed) Benedictine convent. Followed in 1979 by the somewhat watered-down Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.
Sylvia Townsend-Warner’s The Corner That Held Them (1948) is the atypical nun novel in that it takes the long view and examines the life of the community over a long spell of the Middle Ages rather than delving into the individual monastic consciousness.
Kathryn Hulme, The Nun’s Story 1956 If you’ve read one nun novel it’s probably this one, made famous by the 1959 film starring Audrey Hepburn. Sister Luke nursing in the Belgian Congo.
Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body (1966) demonstrates the usefulness of the convent setting for a murder mystery. Sister Anne has been tossed down the stairs. All of the suspects dress exactly alike and are identical to the untrained eye, confusing the police inspector.
Historian Antonia Fraser kicked off her fiction-writing career in 1977 with the tidy Quiet As A Nun, featuring clever detective/TV presenter Jemima Shore investigating the mysterious death of Sister Miriam. It was made into a popular 6-part British TV serial that aired in 1978.
Jane Haddam has written several mysteries involving the Sisters of Divine Grace. Precious Blood (1991) reunites a group of parochial school alumni, one of whom is a nun and one of whom gets murdered. A Great Day for the Deadly (1992) features a murdered novice at the Mother House. Murder Superior (1993) sees Sister Joan Esther knocked off at a religious convention.
Ron Hansen doesn’t write what the trade calls “category fiction” so his nun novel is serious. Mariette in Ecstasy (1992) tells the story of young Mariette who, as a postulant at Our Lady of the Afflictions,walks that mysterious line between devotion and hysteria.
Similarly, Mark Salzman uses his austere Lying Awake (2001) to probe the nature of religious fervor. Sister John of the Cross discovers that her recent close bond with God may actually be prompted by a side effect of epilepsy.
And Sarah Dunant’s 2009 Sacred Hearts mulls over some of the same questions against a colorful historical background.
But what have I missed?