Black Narcissus / Rumer Godden
Hammondsworth, England: Penguin, 1987, c1939.
Black Narcissus was Rumer Godden's first big hit. She wrote it while living in India with her daughters, and was shocked to see all the banners and advertising for it when she was finally in England again after its publication. It tells a story that she returned to again and again, focusing on the lives of nuns in extremis.
A small group of nuns from the Order of the Servants of Mary has been invited to establish a presence in an old palace in the Darjeeling hills. The small group of nuns are supposed to run a dispensary and school, and educate local girls in useful things like lace making.
But the former harem palace has a strange atmosphere, high up in the hills, and it begins to change all of them. From Sister Clodagh, the abbess, to the sturdy gardener Sister Phillippa, to the already unstable Sister Ruth, each feels the effect of the isolation and the indifference of local people. They all rely on Mr. Dean, a rather louche Englishman who lives nearby and takes care of practical matters. He's also youngish and very manly, a bad combination for the obsessive nature of Sister Ruth. The Sisters are faced with the reality that their work doesn't seem to be making much of a dent in the native population, and that they can either stick to their traditions and be largely ignored, or absorb the culture and be changed themselves.
This is an interesting study of the internal lives of women who have committed themselves to serving a larger purpose, and in the process thwarted many of their natural impulses. Sister Honey begins to wish for her own child, Sister Ruth for power and love, Sister Clodagh for peace and order. All that occurs, however, is highly dramatic and emotional, forcing them all to look deeply at themselves, and try to maintain their grip on reason and acceptable behaviour.
The story is definitely coloured by the time at which it was written, of course, but it is still a fascinating read about ideals clashing with reality. The dramatic nature of the story resulted in a 1947 film starring Deborah Kerr, which stuck fairly closely to the book, so if you're interested you may want to try both.
While this is not Godden's strongest book, in my opinion, I still found it a good read. I have a weakness for these kind of midcentury books, and Godden in particular. While another of her novels, In This House of Brede, deals more effectively with a closed community of nuns, this novel reflects the strong influence of India on all of her life and work. It's still worth exploring.