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Skimming the Cream off the Orphans’ Milk

Pauline Hall

Gerald O’Donovan’s 1921 novel Vocations is a study of two small-town middle class sisters who are about to be professed as nuns. O’Donovan, a former priest, indicts late Victorian Catholic values and the waste of youthful potential created by the privileging of religious vocations over marriage.

Nearly half-way through his novel Vocations (1921), Gerald O’Donovan moves the action from the fictional town of Dunbawn and the airless drawing room of the Curtin family home to the spacious grounds of the Mercy convent. Here he is following his protagonists, the Curtin sisters, Winnie and Kitty, both of whom are just about to be professed as nuns. From this point on, the story unfolds in the convent till the conclusion, which leaves Kitty poised to fly free ‑ Stephen Dedalus-fashion ‑ and Winnie pledged to the mechanical and sickly routines of convent life.

This scene introduces three deftly individualised nuns. Reverend Mother Teresa’s apparently unworldly manner serves to shield her against any unpleasantness. She “looks at a rosebud but doesn’t see the grubs”. From an upper middle class family, her rank inspires her most credulous follower, Mother Callixta, the Mistress of Novices, to gush over her every word. The hard-headed Mother Bursar, Michael, raises matters that necessarily preoccupy her, namely finance. She remarks: “I hoped to be able to pay for the new cope out of the orphans this year.” Reverend Mother sighs nostalgically for a more relaxed era at the orphanage. “Inspectors are a scourge. I remember a time when they came in pleasantly to lunch and wrote a few nice words of praise in the book without fussing over anything.” The mention of lack of fuss over orphans, and, later, a reference to the convent kitchen “skimming the cream off the orphans’ milk” sound a grim note for twenty-first century readers.

On their walk towards the river-meadow, the trio are squeamish about the coarse “world” ‑ for them the town, dominated physically, socially and economically by their convent. In a novel full of strong satire, O’Donovan portrays Dunbawn as undoubtedly coarse. But the convent does not offer a corrective. The three nuns are keenly aware that it is “the world” that provides funds, of which the most important just now are the dowries of the Curtin sisters. “Thank God the little Curtins will enable me to balance my accounts” and “Mr Curtin might throw in the river-meadow on the day of the profession, if it was properly put to him,” Michael muses. Reverend Mother aspires to enhance her beloved gardens, but ‑ regarded as indifferent to money ‑ she leaves the details to Michael. And Callixta adds: “I was keeping the river-meadow back as a surprise for dear Reverend Mother. It’s sure to come the day Winnie is professed. She and all the novices have been praying for it.”

O’Donovan left the priesthood due to strained relations with his conservative and philistine bishop. His alienation from the church was accelerated by the encyclical letter of 1907 Pascendi dominici gregis, a condemnation of the errors of Modernism. In the story of the Curtin sisters, he indicts late Victorian Catholic values, warped by the privileging of religious vocations over marriage. He is scathing about the waste of youthful potential, especially of women, and realistic about how the pursuit of personal autonomy carries a high price. In Vocations, the female characters are most interesting. We follow Kitty’s progress (away from, into, and then out of the convent), from her perspective. O’Donovan renders in mostly sympathetic colours the essentially comic characters of Mrs Johanna Curtin and the Reverend Mother.

That Winnie Curtin will enter has been a given from the first scenes. O’Donovan takes a classic comic plot: middle class parents’ manoeuvres for advantageous matches for their children, and children’s manoeuvres to evade them. Here it has a distinctive twist. Mrs Johanna Curtin’s aspiration is that both of her daughters ‑ too refined for an earthly husband ‑ become Brides of Christ Himself. Their father, Tom, has ambitions, at least for Kitty, more in line with those of other self-made bourgeois fathers in European and English fiction. Though he thinks of his wife’s plan as a caprice, he yields to it. His pursuit of an alliance with another successful shopkeeper is thwarted, as is sensible Father Brady’s suggestion of a trip to Bray or Lisdoonvarna to find another match for Kitty: “Let her see the world a little.”

As in a fairy tale, Johanna has, at the moment of Kitty’s birth, struck a bargain. She will give up her children, not to a malign fairy, but to God. Shrewd and energetic, happiest when conducting business in their shop and partner in a happy marriage, she has been swept up in what the historian Emmet Larkin identifies as the Irish “devotional revolution” led by Cardinal Cullen. At the high tide of his promotion of vocations, membership of female religious orders surged from 1,500 nuns in 1850 to 3,700 by 1870.

Following her pains at Kitty’s birth, Johanna resolves to “more than make it up” to God for her “lapse into marriage” instead of becoming a nun herself ‑  though it seems clear that she did not have vocation. “If He’d only spare her and the child, all the children she’d ever have would be given to God.” She knows that it is their acumen and hard work that have created herself and her husband’s prosperity, yet she concurs with the view of the toady Sister Eulalie in seeing “everywhere the hand of God”. Like a New England Puritan, she believes that success in commerce is a sign of God’s favour. But as a member of a raw generation, the newly emerging Catholic merchant class, there may be a sharper edge to her fear that the family’s hard-won prosperity could be shaky, that what God gave He can take away if she displeases Him.

The Curtins are intent on advancing socially and Johanna sends her daughters to board in an elite convent, thus facilitating their flight from the gross state of marriage into the safety and refinement of religious life. This also provides an insurance policy for her as she will reap the benefit of their prayers. The nuns who educate her girls make clear their disdain for the general grocer’s shop and pub where the Curtin parents work tirelessly. It is clear that the couple revel in their enterprise, but all through their schooldays the girls are forbidden even to mention the family business, though Kitty, a rebellious spirit from the start, tells everyone. It is interesting how in a very different novel of convent life, The Land Of Spices, Kate O’Brien has a clever, dashing pupil describe her father’s profession as “turf commissioner” and is shamed when this is revealed to mean “bookie”.

O’Donovan actively supported social action and the co-operative movement and here, through Father Brady’s mouth, he bitterly attacks the type of genteel education which diverts young women from engagement with everyday life and practical skills. Father Brady also argues that the “natural destiny for young women is marriage and children”. “Give Kitty the chance you gave yourselves,” he urges the Curtins, but without success.

O’Donovan had strong aesthetic and artistic interests. When serving as the administrator of Loughrea Cathedral, he defied the disapproval of his superiors in commissioning stained glass from Sara Purser and Jack Yeats. He arranged visits by John McCormack and the Irish National Theatre. On the first page of Vocations he neatly captures the sisters’ different reactions to their milieu. “Kitty played the piano because she liked playing, not realising the sacrificial uses of music, not playing, as did Winnie, for the good of her soul.”

Their upbringing ensures that Winnie and Kitty remain select, “keeping them apart from worldly children, and surrounding them with religious emblems”. “Keeping them select” also holds a tincture of pleasure for Johanna. Now she triumphs in the theatre of Sunday Mass, where her claim to a prominent pew speaks of her revenge on the town families and the schoolmates who patronised her in her poorer days. Their daughters attend less prestigious convent schools. Some of these, she sneers, actually put girls forward to sit exams and train as teachers.

As Johanna contemplates her gift of Winnie to God, she is still “a careful woman who graduated the extent of customers’ credit to a pound, and preferred regular payments in full to running accounts, and her own debt to God had at times of spiritual stocktaking, burthened her conscience. Winne’s profession was not exactly the payment in full she had intended, for Kitty was still to be paid in.” Believing that “everything is God’s doing”, she thanks Him for “fixing Winnie’s departure on a slack day when she could give way to pleasant thoughts without any neglect of business”.

The traffic and gossip of the street and the shop fully engages Johanna, and contrasts with the listless atmosphere of the room where the two young women are, according to Kitty, “like dolls, or in a glass case”, entrapped as characters in Dubliners. As they watch the comings and goings from their window, everyone is “either someone we’re not allowed to speak to, or someone who won’t speak to us”. Their confinement aims to keep them passive, ornamental and sexually pure. For Johanna, “sex was not to be spoken of …” but “to be prayed against … to be overcome”. Yet sex, albeit of an unwholesome variety, has seeped into the stuffy room from which the girls emerge only to attend Mass or Benediction. Dandy, lisping, Father Burke is a suave phantom suitor, welcomed by Johanna. He has designs on the more attractive Kitty, who spurns him, while Winnie hurries to hold his ashtray, having adjusted his footstool, in front of a table laden with his favourite cakes. Cakes loom large in the novel, serving as a kind of currency of comfort: Father Burke cheers Winnie up with a reminder that there will be cakes in the convent on feast days. Father Brady comments wryly that Father Burke is the most popular confessor in the parish, because he gives penitents an experience as of “the latest cakes, full of cream and jam” unlike his own dry bread. Winnie is “gone” on Father Burke, but she squares this with her vocation because he has explained to her that theirs is “a spiritual passion”. She judges everything by whether it is “beautiful”. “Do you think I’d allow you to do wrong?” he asks, and  ‑ both before she enters and afterwards ‑ she takes his word for it.

Though Winnie is a more insipid character than Kitty, two brief compelling images dramatise her repressed desire and her undoing at the hands of the predatory Burke. Alone after a tea party, she picks up his cup and “bit into the thin china till it cracked. She didn’t care, she could eat it.” The night after her profession she is found, a ruined heroine of romance, in a faint outside the convent gate, after her seduction by Father Burke. Her soiled and torn slippers sum up what has happened in the presbytery. He is abandoning her ‑ his intrigues having secured him promotion, a post as parish priest in a different town. Though heartbroken, she forgives him, because he is “beautifully” sorry. Both Father Brady and Kitty collude in her concocted story about sleepwalking. Winnie is consoled before long, by redirecting her affections to the beautiful dark eyes of Father Bernardine.

Initially, Kitty is also deluded. She claims to love Doctor Thornton, whom she has seen occasionally from the window but never spoken to. After Father Brady breaks the news that the doctor is engaged to a girl from Dublin, Kitty achieves clarity. She recognises that she can escape from their room only by joining the convent to please her mother or marrying uncouth Joe Duggan to please her father. Tom refers to “these new-fangled times”, when “young girls like to think they have free choice”. He believes that is what he is offering to Kitty. But she comments bitterly “Am I to be bought and sold like a bundle of cloth?” And that is exactly what happens to her. Once she has succumbed to the oratory of Father Bernardine at the mission, she decides that she too will enter the order. At loggerheads with her sister and parents, only her growing awareness of nature ‑ an opening into the larger world beyond the town and the convent ‑ drives her forward.

O’Donovan has us admire how she stands firm about leaving the convent, immediately after being professed. “She was reasoned with and prayed for”, bullied ‑ most strikingly by her mother’s vicious Hiberno-English curse “I hope it’s out dead before my eyes you’ll go.” Kitty has no illusions about the punishment meted out to a spoiled nun. “She’d be like a prisoner let out on a ticket-of-leave with a life sentence hanging over her,” remarks Mother Michael. The town, including the despised Joe Duggan, now successful, will reject and whisper about her. She defies them all: the bishop, her two mothers, the town and the convent. Yet she is not really a New Woman, like the heroines of Ibsen, Shaw and HG Wells. This is partly because, as Chrissie Van Mierlo points out in the introduction to the Handheld Press edition, lmost all Kitty’s life decisions are precipitated by the actions of men: Dr Thornton’s decision to marry another girl, Father Bernardine’s melodramatic sermons at the mission, and the look in the organist George Lynch’s eyes at the lunch for the newly professed sisters.

The move into the convent setting enlivens the story. O’Donovan’s analysis of priests’ characters is harsh; of nuns’ more varied and comical. From Chaucer to Diderot to Muriel Spark, nuns have exerted a certain fascination for writers, with Gothic, humorous and salacious colours. These are faintly present in Vocations. The convent bubbles with conflict, suffering and resignation. Kindly, sceptical, sanctimonious, infantile, conspiring or crazy, the nuns have found ways to adjust to their condition. O’Donovan makes of the Reverend Mother a wistful figure (“I always knew I wasn’t fit for my office”). She lets the rival factions, supporters and opponents, “carry on sparring past her”. And together with Father Brady, Mother Michael and a nameless lay-sister ‑ she has yet the generosity to be moved by Kitty’s decision to leave.

Sex stalks the convent, in Winnie’s clumsy midnight assignation with Father Burke, some leering comments at the celebratory lunch, the overheated atmosphere. In The Land of Spices, the senior pupils’ flirtation with a young cleric is depicted with gentle humour, but here the comedy is broad, verging on the grotesque, as crushes on “particulars” extend to include rival young male saints. “Sister Sebastian is in love with St Aloysius and fights with others who dared to pray to him.” His followers will “have no truck with St Stanislaus”. Newly professed, Kitty anticipates a future spent listening to such “jabber” forever. “Wasn’t Father Burke a duck?” “I wouldn’t give one finger of St John of the Cross for all the St Teresas in the world.” And ‑ another manifestation of Cardinal Cullen’s devotional revolution – “When I’m in good form I can say thirteen Hail Marys in a minute.”

More troubling episodes stay on the margins. Smug Father Burke reflects briefly on an earlier victim. “Ah, there was that, of course! He blanched a little, and the bougie he held shook in his trembling hand. That was the nearest squeak he had ever had. Poor Sister Christina. It was horrible to think of her on the streets of Liverpool. Though she had been horrid to him she had never let out a word ... If he only knew as much as he knows now, the accident wouldn’t have happened ... Still, she went off quietly without anyone suspecting anything … He mustn’t think of her any more ... the child being brought up in such immoral surroundings, too.”

O’Donovan’s treatment of priests’ vocations is coloured by his stance as a hurt and angry insider. In the set piece of the presbytery dinner, three out of the four priests present are repulsive in their cynicism, self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. Father Brady is (at times too insistently) the voice of the author. He speaks most harshly of manufactured ignorance, of concealment. “Instead of knowledge, ye feed (young women) with hints and insinuations.” Gruff and plain-spoken, he is a male counterpart of Mother Michael. Both take seriously Kitty’s burst for freedom, though both also fear for her. It is a mark of Father Brady’s integrity that his soutane is “green with age and full of holes”, whereas Father Burke carefully calculates “the effect of his silk top hat and his handkerchief scented with eau de cologne on the naive young women of Dunbawn, and particularly Winnie Curtin”. O’Donovan is unsparing of Burke – “an average prudent man of the world who managed a small business with care. His vow of celibacy was merely a stepping stone to a living.” “His carefully graduated series of affairs ranging from the holding of hands to adultery, never resulted in scandal.”

For Winnie, appearance is everything: how well does her habit suit her? Kitty, too, sets store by good looks: she rejects Joe Duggan as much for his ugliness as for his gauche manners. At another set-piece, the celebratory lunch after their profession, the greedy and vulgar bishop snubs Winnie and invites the more attractive Kitty to sit beside him.

In The Nun (La Religieuse, 1796), Denis Diderot combines two well-known plot devices from the scandalous nun literature. His heroine, the hapless Sister Suzanne, is helped to escape by a priest who aims to seduce her. The ending of Vocations apportions to the Curtins, (sisters in both senses), these two outcomes by placing debauched Winnie in the convent, and unspoiled Kitty on the road to Dublin. In their last conversation, Kitty’s comment that “we never got a chance” brings a puzzled resentful response from Winnie: “A chance of what?” “Of knowing ourselves, life, anything – the beauty there is in the world.” The union with nature here, as elsewhere, remains vague. Though slightly hurried, the final epiphany of the novel, with Kitty laying claim to a future away from Dunbawn, is convincing if tentative. As she faces into the promise and the menace of the city, she knows her father will “always have her back”, and “Bessie Sweetman would know lots of nice men”.

1/11/2018

Pauline Hall is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books. Her most recent novel is Eoin Doherty and The Fixers (2016).

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