I’m so glad that I picked up this book, the third of Rumer Godden’s three ‘convent novels’, when she was The LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month.
It is a quietly compelling account of one woman’s life, telling of the downfall of Elizabeth Fanshawe, a young Englishwoman in Paris and the chain of circumstance that would lead her to become Soeur Marie Lise, one of the Sisters of Béthanie at the convent of Belle Source.
That historical setting is very real. The author spent time with the real Sisters of Béthanie, who minister to the poor, the downtrodden and the imprisoned; and she speaks wonderfully well for them. The pictures she paints of convent life is are vivid, rich with detail, and utterly captivating.
Elizabeth grew up in the quietest of English villages; raised by an elderly aunt as she was orphaned at a very early age. War came and, wanting to see more of the world, Elizabeth joined the army as a driver. She was in Paris when the city was liberated, and she was swept up in wild and joyful celebrations.
That would change her life.
She met Patrice Ambard, a handsome and charming elder man that night and he would draw her into his world of crime and high-class prostitution. It was clear that he had prospered during the war years, that he had been a collaborator, but Lise – he called her Lise – was far to innocent and inexperienced to see him for what he was.
She fell in love with him, and by the time she realised where he was steering her, and that he didn’t love her it was much too late. She had no family or friends to turn to; and because she had taken his name and lived openly with him she couldn’t bring herself to approach the church. And so she was trapped, she was broken and she became hardened.
Lise never lost her compassion for others, and so she had to care for the damaged, unhappy young girl she found.
That would change her life again.
Lise took her in; Patrice seduced her and set her in Lise’s place; and Lise’s love for the girl and her wish to guide her to a happier life than she had would lead to her downfall. Because she didn’t understand how damaged the girl was, she didn’t understand that she didn’t see the world as Lise did.
One desperate act would make her notorious, and send her to prison.
It was there that she met Sisters of Béthanie, who ministered to prisoners. She realised that she wanted to join them, she felt that it would be impossible for someone with her background, but she was told that her background would be no obstacle at all. The order included former prisoners and former prostitutes like her, and their experience of the world would help them to understand others in need of their help.
That would truly change her life.
Lise began a long journey that would lead to her becoming Soeur Marie Lise du Rosarie.
This wonderful story – of one woman’s downfall and redemption – is quite beautifully told. It moves backwards and forwards in time, setting stories of Lise’s past against stories of her life at the convent. The stories flowed into one another, and the author had such skill that it felt completely and utterly natural and I always understood where I was and what was happening.
She brought all of the women in this story and their world to life. They were utterly real, she cared about them and she made me care.
There was such love and compassion in this book that I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden was inspired by the real Sisters of Béthanie.
That is not to say that it is her best work. The story of Lise’s downfall wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, at least one character is compromised to make the latter part of the story work, and the conclusion is rather too contrived and melodramatic,
The arc of this novel though is quite wonderful; and the other side of the story, following Lise from the moment when she that she may have a vocation, through her novitiate and into her life as a fully professed nun, is exquisitely drawn and rich with detail.
For that, and for what this book has to say, I have to love it.