This is where the world of book bloggers is so satisfying. You read, say, Antonia White’s Frost in May and allude to the sub-genre of nun fiction. Your delightful bookish friends follow up by recommending other nun novels, including Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices. Eventually you read it and hope that your bookish friends will chime in with their opinions — and you have never laid eyes on these people! The whole phenomenon makes me very grateful.
Not, mind you, that The Land of Spices was a home run for me. On the plus side: lots of circumstantial detail about life in a convent school in 1910s Ireland. The Compagnie de la Sainte Famille is a French foundation, somewhat aristocratic and international in character, proposing to teach its students la pudeur et la politesse. Modesty and good manners are obviously, in O’Brien’s estimation, values of an earlier age but she’s even-handed enough to let us see their attractive qualities.
The novel is seen largely through the eyes of Helen Archer, otherwise known as Reverend Mother Marie-Hélène. An intelligent, well-educated Englishwoman, she is out of place in the increasingly nationalistic Ireland of the era. Owing to a childhood trauma and her own nature, she is reserved, even cold. Her much-loved father calls her “merciless.” One of the essential conflicts of the novel is Reverend Mother’s struggle with her flaws which (this being a nun novel) divide her from God.
Little Anna Murphy is Reverend Mother’s antithesis — or rather, a childish version of Reverend Mother, brought to the convent at the age of six to escape troubles at home. Brilliant, observant, an obsessive reader, she felt to me like a possible stand-in for O’Brien herself. Anna “developed a need, a love of reading, which made her unsociable and absent-minded towards other children as it grew. She was, for many of her early years, the kind of reader who will gratefully read anything rather than not read. Words, their shapes and lengths, their possibilities of breaking into other words, or into pairs and groups of letters, became her constant amusement…” That is surely the voice of experience describing Anna’s development? (Which is no doubt familiar to some of you book worms.)
There is, however, something slightly charmless about O’Brien’s writing. Where it can be sensual — she is keenly sensitive to visual beauty and deft at describing it — it is also didactic and insistent. Saying something once is not enough. O’Brien is sometimes affecting but always earnest.
Maybe nun novels always are earnest. Maybe this is because they are often a way to think about feminine authority, especially in the mid-twentieth century. The Land of Spices in some respects explores the themes of Rumer Godden’s more middle-brow In This House of Brede: how can an intellectually capable woman lead other women who are not her peers? Does authority cancel warmth? Can religious humility coexist with leadership? Is it possible to lead without emotion? Is it possible to lead with it?
The title, by the way, comes from George Herbert’s sonnet, “Prayer.” It is characteristic of O’Brien to allude to this fact without spelling it out.