Wednesday, 26 March 2014

'The land of spices, something understood'

Apologies for my very long absence! I’ve been dashing here, there, and everywhere for work and play. In the meantime, however, I did get around to reading a wonderful book, which I been meaning to explore since attending the ‘Irish women, religion and the diaspora’ symposium in January. The last presentation of the day at the symposium was by Jane Davison of the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on the religious aesthetic of Kate O’Brien. I had never read any of this writer’s works, but I had come across her name once before! As we were reminded, she’s mentioned in the wonderful film, Brief Encounter (1945). Making a trip to the lending library, the bored and lonely housewife, Laura (Celia Johnson) tells us: ‘Miss Lewis had the new Kate O’Brien for me.’ In Liverpool, Jane Davison outlined the author’s life and writings, describing her strong criticism of the restrictions and repressions of the Irish Church, and her opposing affection for the culture of Spanish Catholicism. She intrigued me by quoting from O’Brien’s work about the Reverend Mother of an Irish convent school, The Land of Spices, which upon its publication in 1941 was condemned for ‘immorality’ by the Irish Censorship Board. It is this book that we’ll explore today.

 The Land of Spices excited me from its very first line – always a good start!

‘The chapel was warm, although it was early October. Reverend Mother hoped that no one would faint...’

For any churchgoer, this (vain) hope is sure to conjure a wry smile of recognition! Add in the reception of three postulants and benches of overexcited schoolgirls, and a fainting is guaranteed! And so we are introduced to the Reverend Mother, the Compagnie de la Sainte Famille, and their school in Ireland.  

When the novel begins, it’s 1904, and the Reverend Mother, Mère Marie-Hélène (or Helen Archer, as she once was) is suffering a crisis of spirit. After joining the Order at the age of eighteen – an old girl of one of its schools, she has risen rapidly through its ranks, becoming Assistant to the Mother General in Brussels, and then Provincial of its English Province and headmistress of its large girls’ school in the Irish countryside. Helen’s background is intriguing, however. O’Brien tells us that her decision to become a nun was the product of no long-held vocation, but a ‘rash decision’ made in shock ‘for a reason admitted to no other human being.’ It was a decision that hurt and bewildered her father, who brought her up. Once within the convent, however, Helen was rewarded by an increase in faith, and found security and defence in the vows of poverty and chastity, although her intellect continued to struggle with obedience. When we meet her as Reverend Mother, she is not unhappy in her chosen life, but English-born and European in temperament, she is unhappy in Ireland.

The Reverend Mother feels respected in her position, but disliked. She fears that she is seen as cold and aloof and foreign. Through her eyes, and through the eyes of O’Brien, we are presented with the narrowness of nascent Irish nationalism in the Church. O’Brien describes Reverend Mother’s repeated contretemps with the young nationalist priest, Father Conroy, over the teaching of Irish language in the school and the European character of the Order:

‘Bruges is not a “barbarous” place, Father Conroy – and our novitiate there is one of the most beautiful religious houses in northern Europe.’
‘No doubt, Reverend Mother – but it isn’t Irish. Is it, now?’
‘No; it isn’t Irish.’ 

On Sunday of the Rosary, Reverend Mother can take it no more. Making the Sign of the Cross to assemble her thoughts, and wiping away tears, she sits down at her desk to write in French to the wise Mother General, describing her unhappiness and the ‘gulf’ separating her from ‘this mysterious country.’ O’Brien details her woes like a litany:

‘That she was maimed, that she was sick here in this deepening exile where she could not pitch a tent; that, misunderstood, she was becoming incapable of understanding; that, branded alien, her spirit took the brand; that invalidishly she had dreaded now the restoration in her of a loneliness and mercilessness which once had made her father shudder...that God had withheld the grace for this too arid phase of her vocation...that she was at the end of self-control, hated Ireland, hated being hated; that she must feel the dew of grace again, feel it tenderly in her heart – at home under skies that loved her.’  

Yet, this letter is never sent; its sending forestalled by a glimmer of such grace. At the ‘reading of Marks’ for the schoolgirls that evening, it is the turn of the Second Preparatories to recite a poem. The Reverend Mother’s attention is diverted by little Anna Murphy, the youngest girl in the school by several years. Only six years old, Anna has been taken on as a pupil as a kindness to her mother, an old girl, who is struggling with an alcoholic husband. Too young to join the others in the performance, Anna is unconsciously reciting the poem alongside them. The Reverend Mother comments on this: ‘Have you taught yourself any poems, Anna?’ Thus prompted, the little girl begins to recite ‘Peace’ by Henry Vaughan:

My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,

This poem touches a chord deep inside the Reverend Mother. It was one taught to her as a child by her father. She feels ‘an assault’ – ‘a storm break in her hollow heart.’ She is confronted by a rush of memories and feels once more ‘the dark convulsions and intersections of the paths that lead innocence to knowledge and desire and dream to reality.’ She sees part of Anna in herself. Strangely heartened and comforted by incident, she tears up the letter.

The novel goes on to trace the Reverend Mother’s continued headship and Anna’s school career. The nun observes the little girl growing up from a distance – her cleverness, increasing self-possession and reserve. In the day to day business of the school, their encounters are fleeting. It is not until Anna is almost grown up and ready to leave Sainte Famille that they are brought closer together once more, and the Reverend Mother directly intervenes in Anna’s life to ensure her future happiness.

Kate O’Brien’s depiction of life in a convent school – of the petty snobberies, passions, and trickeries of its girls (and indeed their parents) – is convincing and extremely witty. She captures the cadences of adolescent chatter. When rehearsing for the Chaplain’s concert, Bernadette asks the wild and exotic Pilar:

‘...How many languages can you make love in, Pilar?’
‘Spanish is best,’ said Pilar dreamily.
Anna climbed down from her last gaselier.
‘Have you made love often, Pilar?’ she asked in straightforward wonder.
Pilar opened wide grey eyes at her.
‘Por Dios, no!’ she said.

The characterisation of the nuns is also entirely believable from the gentle and lazy Mère Martine, to the old and grand Mother Eugenia, to the clever but cruel Mother Mary Andrew, who unfairly denies Anna her first ‘Emulation’ – a day off in reward of good work. O’Brien’s real triumph, however, is the character of the Reverend Mother herself. She is no caricature, but a complex and truthful human being. Outwardly chilly, but with great inner warmth; authoritative, yet also indulgent of her charges; extremely capable, but plagued with self-doubt: Helen Archer is at once, fascinating, likeable, and understandable.

The Reverend Mother’s struggle to finally confront and come to terms with her reasons for entering the Religious Life is a central theme in the novel. Her father’s imminent death ultimately forces her re-examine painful and long-suppressed memories. 

If you haven't read the book and want to avoid spoilers, please skip to the last paragraph! 

During childhood and adolescence, following her mother’s death, Helen had enjoyed an extremely close relationship with her father. He was a scholar and taught her literature and history: ‘Without mercy, he fed and loaded her mind.’ Yet, a rupture had occurred when she was eighteen. One evening, she had popped home unannounced to collect some roses from their garden for the school chapel. In the hope of seeing her father, she had gone into the house and peeked into his study. To her shock, she found her father and a young student, Étienne, ‘in the embrace of love.’ She had fled from the house and retreated from life, finding refuge in the convent.

The reference to Henry Archer’s homosexuality caused Land of Spices to be banned upon its release. O’Brien’s nuanced depiction of the Reverend Mother’s struggle to come to terms with her discovery is noteworthy. At first, Helen is profoundly shocked and shuts her heart: ‘She found more specifically, that she hated her father. For many years she was to feel – without sign, without word – that hate.’ Interestingly, Helen is not so much appalled at witnessing the homosexual act itself but at the shattering of her perception of her father. Certainly, she believes she has witnessed ‘what she saw as the devilry of human love’ but she seems more upset by her former blindness to her father’s true self:

And she who believed she was the centre of her father’s heart, who felt his love for her as sweet and certain as her own for him, who held him for a saint – by his own rules – but still, a saint!

She feels jealous and betrayed. She has lost the security of her father’s human love and it is this that compels her to enter the Religious Life, seeking safety in divine love and service.

O'Brien does not portray the Religious Life as simply a retreat from modern life - a way out for those unable or unwilling to confront human relationships and sexuality. Perhaps a place for 'surplus spinsters'? To her, the Religious Life is no stagnant state, but a constant, evolving pathway. The Religious Life does not offer Helen complete peace until she has confront her past in the light of growing wisdom and spiritual understanding. It is through deepening understanding of the nature of divine love that Helen overcomes her hatred and pain. When her father is dying, she is unable to stop the past flooding into her brain and re-visits in her mind her teenage discovery. This brings an unexpected calm. She recognises her father as a sinner, but she feels herself to have been lacking in mercy: ‘she saw her own sin of arrogant judgement as the greater, in that it was her own... And she saw its insolence, not merely against God but against His creature.’ She opens her eyes once again to his goodness and his love for her and starts to forgive. O’Brien does not explicitly pronounce on the morality of homosexuality. Through the Reverend Mother, however, she does strike a note of caution against human judgement, implying that it is far more merciless than God’s.

The release that the Reverend Mother finds from confronting her past is fully demonstrated in the closing chapters of the novel when she intervenes to help the young Anna Murphy shape her own future. Anna wins the County Scholarship to the University, but her grandmother refuses to allow her to attend, feeling it to be unnecessary for a girl to engage in further study. Far from being a detached ‘cold fish’, the Reverend Mother passionately springs to Anna’s defence, skilfully exploiting the old woman’s snobbery to ensure Anna is allowed to do as she wishes. She is determined that Anna should be able to pursue her dreams; that her experiences do not lead her to become merciless and embittered like the young Helen Archer.

At the end of Land of Spices, the Reverend Mother and Anna have a final meeting in the gardens of Sainte Famille:

‘It is a very hard thing, I suppose,’ [Anna] said impulsively. ‘It is a very hard thing – to be a nun.’
‘I think so,’ Reverend Mother said.
‘I – I thought of it sometimes this year – but not properly. Not for holy reasons. Only because I was frightened.’
‘I know. Holy reasons are the only ones – and they are hard to be sure about, and hard to sustain.’
‘I don’t think I could possibly be a nun!’
‘You are young, Anna.’

This exchange is emblematic of the Reverend Mother’s journey throughout the book. Helen Archer became a nun because she was frightened. She was consequently frightened of Ireland, fearful of her own abilities and worth as a nun. At the end of the novel, however, the Religious Life is no longer simply a refuge to her, nor is it a burden. Her encounters with Anna, in whom she recognises herself, have helped her to reconcile the child she once was, with the woman she became. She has come to a greater understanding of God’s mercy. She has found the beauty in Ireland and a peace within herself. When we leave her, she is poised for a greater challenge... 

The Land of Spices is a rich and compelling book. It's a school story and a convent story. O'Brien is eloquent on so many subjects from Irish Catholic snobbery to vocation to sexuality. The novel's real strength, however, is as a sensitive, moving and very believable account of one woman's spiritual and emotional journey. I highly recommend requesting it at your lending library!  

All quotations in this blog are from the Virago Modern Classics edition of The Land of Spices. First published in 1988. Reprinted in 2007. 

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