In This House of Brede

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Category: Classic
Date Published: February 1, 2005 (Originally published in 1969)
Number of Pages: 672
Print Price: $10.96
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In This House of Brede opens with a sea change in the life of Mrs. Philipa Talbot, a middle-aged professional woman of considerable renown, who has lived all over the world.  She is in the final stages of shutting down her life in London to catch a train.  Her destination is Brede Abbey.

The novel ends with another sea change for Dame Philipa of Brede.  In this sense, she might be viewed as the protagonist.  She brings unusual gifts and uncommon obstacles into the community.  The book hints early that she has lost her only child.  Her history and her future are not revealed until after the reader, like Philipa, has been strengthened through many seasons of monastic life. 

Author, Rumer Godden, lived in the gatehouse of an English Benedictine Abbey for three years to prepare for writing this novel.  She converted to the Catholic faith one year before it was published in 1969.  Godden was already widely admired for clever plots and luminous sensory detail in her previous novels about India.

At 638 pages, a book about life in a monastery could be viewed as a daunting read. Yet, the discernment Godden brought to this tale makes it an absorbing experience, one that moves remarkably swiftly, with subtle characterization, ingenious plot turns and laser-focused dialogue:

 "Flowerets!” groaned Dame Agnes.  “’Petals from the Little Flower.’”

“It’s either that or the haiku,” said Abbess Catherine . . .

“And at least she knows she has to study them,” Dame Agnes said in fairness. . .

“Now she wants to write the childhood of Christ in haiku . . .”

“’But we know scarcely anything about the childhood of Christ,” Dame Ursula objected.

“Dame Veronica does,” said the prioress.

“But Mother,” said Dame Edith . . . “you won’t let her publish any of these books.”

“Think of the reputation of the house,” Dame Ursula said. . .

“Which is worse,” the prioress asked . . . “Dame Veronica exalted or humble?”

“Humble is more dangerous,” said the abbess and sighed.              

The women of Brede seek charity and balance.  Under the Rule of Saint Benedict which shapes their lives, their first vow is stability, commitment to house and community.  With poverty, chastity and obedience, the four vows create a cauldron in which each character must confront her true nature:

“Weren’t you surprised that God should have chosen you?” a young woman reporter, 

writing a piece on vocations, had asked her.

“Yes,” Dame Perpetua had answered, “but not nearly as surprised as that he should

have chosen some of the others – but then God’s not as fastidious as we are.”

Ultimately Brede Abbey – in Godden’s artful hands replete with orchards, parks, flowers, bells and birds – emerges as a single living organism.  The monastery itself becomes the central protagonist.   

Each of the well-developed individual human plot lines, including Dame Philipa’s, at first depends upon and then resolves into the historical, continuous and forward-reaching Benedictine Opus Dei. 

In fact, the most critical events on which the plot and characters turn are always those that affect the community as a whole:  a dying Abbess’s rumored “stone sickness;” her apochryphal last word “Sor-ry”; a looming economic crisis with serious consequences for everyone; a humble wooden pectoral cross carved long ago by a Savoy princess, just before she went to the guillotine, worn by every abbess of Brede; postulants for a new foundation in Japan; the Second Vatican Council.   

Phyllis Tickle, in her Introduction to the Loyola Classic Edition of In This House of Brede, suggested four different possible ways to read it:   as a biography of one unique woman; as a well-plotted story; as a portrait of Benedictine monastic life; and as a universal parable for life, anywhere. 

I would suggest a fifth:  as a worthwhile lesson in how to write a great Catholic novel.


ISBN-13: 978-0829421286
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.8 x 8.5 inches

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Margaret King Zacharias embraced the Catholic Faith in 1988 after earning degrees in education, anthropology and psychology.  She is the eldest of four siblings, mother of two grown sons, and Auntie to abundant cousins, nieces and nephews.  Margaret has published short stories, poems, art, music and drama reviews, academic articles, and written five produced plays.  She loves exploring different cultures and languages on Catholic pilgrimage, incorporating French, Irish, Italian or German vocabularies into her creative works.  Margaret teaches writers’ workshops for children and senior citizens as an Iowa Arts Council artist.  She recently completed Master’s certification in archetypal dream pattern analysis.  But on some days, she prefers to cook in her kitchen, or hide in her sewing room to needlepoint, knit, pray.   St. Therese of Lisieux works hard to keep Margaret humble; and St. Anthony of Padua never fails to find the various things she misplaces daily.

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