[Separate descriptions taken from throughout the book]
…I had long suspected that women who go in for nunnery had some melodrama about them. The early rising, the lying prostrate on stone floors, not to mention the glamorous costume – for who would not look dashing swathed in snowy white and with her neck hidden?
…‘Everyone looked exactly the same,’ she said. ‘Well, we always do apart from height and shape, especially from the back. And even from the front at a distance…’
…Again it struck me that I was most unobservant when it came to the clothes of the sisters. I should have noticed that ordinarily their belts were hidden by an over-tunic… It was a testament to the success of their habits, I supposed. One simply saw a mound of black with flashes of white and all one really noticed were their faces.
….Through yet another door we came upon the children themselves. About fifty of them, from toddlers with bars across the front of their chairs to girls and boys of fourteen or so. There were two nuns, each with a capacious white apron, tied over her black habit…
….As he spoke, I caught sight of Sister Anne, with a rough apron covering her habit and her veil pinned back between her shoulders. She was still winter-pruning…
commentary: A friend, discussing literature with a nun, complained about a book that had too many characters in it, hard to distinguish among them. The nun replied that she would have no problem with such a book: nuns living in communities learned to handle large groups of characters in real life, she said, so books held no fears.
I thought of that while reading this book – there is a large number of nuns in it, but McPherson does a good job of keeping them clear. Names are very important in the book.
I love Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver , and I love books about nuns, so this was a guaranteed success – click on the labels below for many many previous entries on both.
This one has Dandy and Alec visiting a most exciting spot: a small village containing both a convent that caught fire, and a lunatic asylum facing a mass breakout, all on Christmas Eve. (As ever, the book is set in 1920s Scotland.) The Mother Superior dies with an intriguing last message on her lips – always a favourite device in crime stories, and one that makes the reader perk up. Alec wants to prove that his sad wartime fellow-officer is not to blame. The two institutions, and the village in between, are all shown in all their absurdity. When the full story emerges at the end you think that no-one could ever have guessed it (and indeed I’m not entirely sure of every detail even after all the explanations) but it has been highly entertaining, and there were plenty of clues along the way – one of the joys of reading a Dandy book is seeing how neatly you were offered information all the time, and failed to see it.
As ever it is both sharp and funny. One of the troubled asylum inmates is described thus:
‘He would be quite incapable of following instructions. He gets himself up in the morning, looks around, decides what needs doing – usually in the grounds – and gets on with it. If he smells food he searches it out and eats and when he’s tired he bathes, undresses and goes to bed again.’Dandy’s reaction is ‘He sounded just like Hugh’ – her very posh husband, part of the land-owning gentry.
A pity there wasn’t more of Grant, Dandy’s lady’s maid, in this one, but when she showed up she was as good as ever. Author and sleuth have a brave and mostly happy go at dealing with the Catholicism of the nuns, though ‘We have the Angelus and Consecration, then Lauds at half-past five, private prayer until seven, Terce until halfpast seven prayers’ is hard to parse as the nuns’ timetable, and if a boy is sent to be educated by ‘the Jesuits at Ampleforth’, the first thing he will learn there is that they are actually Benedictines.
In fairness, you always feels McPherson does know her stuff, and has done the research, and you do get a feel for the time and the place amid the surprising events. One thing I very much admire her for is that while Dandy discusses and considers the attitudes of the time, she does not (unlike so many historical heroines in books written now) hold views that would have been very very unlikely. You can see what so many authors are trying to do with their left-liberal ladies, all very keen on women’s rights, full of compassion for mental health problems, terribly terribly tolerant of every kind of minority – but you do get tired of them, and they do lack conviction.
Dandy Gilver is a really splendid, well-rounded person.
Nun by a lily pond is from the National Library of Ireland, taken in 1926.
Nuns, children and a grave is from the National Library of Scotland, around 1918.