It is hard to repeat a success. Rumer Godden's earlier novel, "in This House of Brede," was both as a book and as a television film, a remarkable study of the life of a talented, mature woman of the world who chose to become a cloistered nun. It was remarkable because it revealed so clearly that such a life is neither escapist nor wholly peaceful, but, rather, arduous in spiritual struggle, in the pursuit of scholarship, and in the demand for adjustment required of women living in community. It was also an absorbng and interesting story.
This time Godden has chosen to write of a different kind of religious life -- that of the Sisters of Bethanie among whom her heroine, Lise, former prostitute and madam, finds her life. "at first lise could not take that in. "You mean someone . . . a criminal, a murderess, a whore like me . . . could become a religieuse, a nun? It seems impossible.'" The Sisters of Bethanie work among hardened and desparate women in the streets and in prisons. Some of those to whom they minister, like Lise, "La Balafree, the Scarred One," are eventually accepted as one of themselves -- and in the practice of the order today no one knows which sister has a past and which came straight from school to the novitiate.
The story possibilities are obvious, the material titillating, and Godden makes full use of both. There is, for example, the contrast between the small failures confessed to in the traditional convent practice -- "I lingered in the garden . . . I was rude." -- and the terrible admissions these same sisters hear in the course of a day -- or have made themselves:
"She wouldn't stop crying so I stuffed my handkerchief into her mouth, down and down until . . ."
"He came in drunk, the third time that week. He sat down and vomited all over my clean table and his food . . . I took a kitchen knife -- it wasn't big . . ."
"Very well then, if you want to know. I went to bed with five boys in one night. Why shouldn't I? Every one at College did it."
They were only echoes, as the author says, and only for the few, but all the more reason for the Sisters of Bethanie's understanding of "the creeping power of sin; if you allow the least crack."
The subordinate theme -- that of how Lise, once a naive and proper English girl called Elizabeth, was introduced into the brothel -- is also rich in potential. The life of the prostitute is as mysterious in its appeal as is that of the nun. And the author does not shirk her material. Lise tells how she was dealt with by the brothel owner, who had seduced her, on the occasion of her one attempt at escape with the help of a priest:
"When it was over he had knocked her on to the floor -- she, proud, poised Lise, covering and bruised. "You'll not be fit to be seen for a good few days" said Patrice, "but if you like, go and show yourself now to your holy man.
"You could have, said Soeur Marie Alcide.
"I was too -- ashamed . . . The Sister studied Lise's bowed head. 'Was it because . . . you liked it?' asked Soeur Marie Alcide.
"The head came up and Lise looked Soeur Marie Alcide full in the face. 'It was ecstasy,' said Lise."
And yet Godden escapes the banal and the lurid for the most part because of her superior technique.
In the end, however, this book is in no way as good as "In This House of Brede." In "Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy" the meat of the story lies in the past. Even a prison gang attack on the convent and murder in the chapel do not comped our interest in the same way as the story being unfolded by flashback. It takes a very good novelist indeed to handle such strong material via reminiscence and conversations and still make the characters and their present lives as real and interesting. Runner Godden almost succeeds, but not quite.