Saturday, 19 April 2014

Easter in the mission field

In August 1948, Joyce Peel wrote her first Annual Letter to the Church Missionary Society in London, outlining her first five months of work in the South Indian mission field. She expressed enthusiasm about the Easter play performed by the children of the mission school at Palamcottah. ‘[A]s they acted that well known story,’ she recalled, ‘something became apparent: the Hero Who never appeared in person but Whose presence was indicated by a movement a look or a hush, was Himself really there. This was no play acting, it was the drawing of the audience into the very presence of their Risen Lord.’ She was surprised to learn, when asking afterwards about the children, that most of them were Hindu. ‘Hindu in name perhaps,’ she told the CMS, ‘but Christian in spirit.’[1]

Easter in the mission field was certainly very different from Easter at home. ‘It seems so queer to have got to the Thursday in Holy Week, and to have seen no sign of Easter – eggs or cards – in any of the shops,’ wrote Dr Hilda Haythornthwaite of St Stephen’s Hospital, Delhi, in 1924, ‘I can’t say I’ve looked for them certainly, but its queer to be in a land that doesn’t keep Easter.’[2]

St James' Church in Delhi

For many women missionaries, however, celebrating Easter in a non-Christian land was a rewarding and heartening experience: a time of joy and hope. Serving in the mission field was tough. Converts were few in number and disappointments aplenty. Promising young Christians in whom missionaries had invested much time, effort, and love fell by the wayside. Sickness, loneliness, and depression loomed. The Easter observances, particularly the celebrations on Easter morning, served to remind missionaries of their purpose, providing much needed spiritual sustenance.

Women missionaries were touched and encouraged by the participation in the Holy Week services of the children and adults with whom they worked. They saw this as a sign that their work had not been fruitless; that, at this time, ‘the teachers and the children’s hearts [had been] touched, by the love of the Lord Jesus.’[3] At the CMS station at Meerut, Miss Tucker reported that pupils purchased ‘The Story of the Cross’ by Laubach to read on Good Friday.[4] This story was re-enacted in churches. On Easter Sunday, baptisms were held and missionaries noted the number of communicants. In her report to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in 1942, Stephanie Broomfield described the little Easter service prepared by children in the village of Yeli, Ahmednagar district. There was a procession, singing hymns and stopping at every house. The children called out loudly: ‘Christ the Lord is risen to-day’ and each householder ‘(duly prepared) popped out with an answering ‘Alleluya’ and an offering of grain.’[5]

Special treats were organised and missionaries’ Indian co-workers enjoyed a well-earned break. The nurses and doctors at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi went on a picnic outing – half the staff on Easter Monday and the other half on Easter Tuesday. This treat was partly financed by gifts from patients. ‘I believe they enjoy it immensely,’ the doctor wrote, expressing regret that she was unable to join her colleagues due to a previous engagement.[6]

The message of Easter and happiness of the mission’s Eastertide celebrations emboldened women missionaries to continue in their difficult daily work. Dr Haythornthwaite concluded her report to the SPG in good humour: ‘The ants are so pleased Lent is over!’ she joked. ‘I was given some sweets in a tin on Easter Day, and the lid wasn’t quite down. When I came back to my room I found a double pilgrimage going on. Their house is apparently on the roof or somewhere, but they were coming all the way down the wall, across my writing table into the tin, and out again, each with a fragment of sugar. One doesn’t realise how far reaching our abstinences are – how many ant homes have been destitute, I wonder!!’[7] India may have been vastly different from 'home' but for women missionaries, the joy of Easter remained the same.  

May you have a happy Easter! And may any eggs or sweets you receive be kept far from hungry ants!  

[1] CMS Archives, Birmingham. Annual Letters. 1940-1949. Joyce Peel, 1948.
[2] SPG Archives, Rhodes House, Oxford. Medical Missions Department. 470. St Stephen’s Hospital, Delhi. Reports, circular letters etc. 1919-1925. Dr Hilda Haythornthwaite, 1924.
[3] CMS Archives. AL 1940-1949.  Miss G.E.G. Tucker, 1945.
[4] Ibid.
[5] SPG Archives. E series reports. E95/12. Nasik. Stephanie Broomfield, 1942.
[6] SPG Archives. Medical Missions Department. 470. Dr Hilda Haythornthwaite, 1924.
[7] Ibid.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

'The land of spices, something understood'

Apologies for my very long absence! I’ve been dashing here, there, and everywhere for work and play. In the meantime, however, I did get around to reading a wonderful book, which I been meaning to explore since attending the ‘Irish women, religion and the diaspora’ symposium in January. The last presentation of the day at the symposium was by Jane Davison of the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on the religious aesthetic of Kate O’Brien. I had never read any of this writer’s works, but I had come across her name once before! As we were reminded, she’s mentioned in the wonderful film, Brief Encounter (1945). Making a trip to the lending library, the bored and lonely housewife, Laura (Celia Johnson) tells us: ‘Miss Lewis had the new Kate O’Brien for me.’ In Liverpool, Jane Davison outlined the author’s life and writings, describing her strong criticism of the restrictions and repressions of the Irish Church, and her opposing affection for the culture of Spanish Catholicism. She intrigued me by quoting from O’Brien’s work about the Reverend Mother of an Irish convent school, The Land of Spices, which upon its publication in 1941 was condemned for ‘immorality’ by the Irish Censorship Board. It is this book that we’ll explore today.

 The Land of Spices excited me from its very first line – always a good start!

‘The chapel was warm, although it was early October. Reverend Mother hoped that no one would faint...’

For any churchgoer, this (vain) hope is sure to conjure a wry smile of recognition! Add in the reception of three postulants and benches of overexcited schoolgirls, and a fainting is guaranteed! And so we are introduced to the Reverend Mother, the Compagnie de la Sainte Famille, and their school in Ireland.  

When the novel begins, it’s 1904, and the Reverend Mother, Mère Marie-Hélène (or Helen Archer, as she once was) is suffering a crisis of spirit. After joining the Order at the age of eighteen – an old girl of one of its schools, she has risen rapidly through its ranks, becoming Assistant to the Mother General in Brussels, and then Provincial of its English Province and headmistress of its large girls’ school in the Irish countryside. Helen’s background is intriguing, however. O’Brien tells us that her decision to become a nun was the product of no long-held vocation, but a ‘rash decision’ made in shock ‘for a reason admitted to no other human being.’ It was a decision that hurt and bewildered her father, who brought her up. Once within the convent, however, Helen was rewarded by an increase in faith, and found security and defence in the vows of poverty and chastity, although her intellect continued to struggle with obedience. When we meet her as Reverend Mother, she is not unhappy in her chosen life, but English-born and European in temperament, she is unhappy in Ireland.

The Reverend Mother feels respected in her position, but disliked. She fears that she is seen as cold and aloof and foreign. Through her eyes, and through the eyes of O’Brien, we are presented with the narrowness of nascent Irish nationalism in the Church. O’Brien describes Reverend Mother’s repeated contretemps with the young nationalist priest, Father Conroy, over the teaching of Irish language in the school and the European character of the Order:

‘Bruges is not a “barbarous” place, Father Conroy – and our novitiate there is one of the most beautiful religious houses in northern Europe.’
‘No doubt, Reverend Mother – but it isn’t Irish. Is it, now?’
‘No; it isn’t Irish.’ 

On Sunday of the Rosary, Reverend Mother can take it no more. Making the Sign of the Cross to assemble her thoughts, and wiping away tears, she sits down at her desk to write in French to the wise Mother General, describing her unhappiness and the ‘gulf’ separating her from ‘this mysterious country.’ O’Brien details her woes like a litany:

‘That she was maimed, that she was sick here in this deepening exile where she could not pitch a tent; that, misunderstood, she was becoming incapable of understanding; that, branded alien, her spirit took the brand; that invalidishly she had dreaded now the restoration in her of a loneliness and mercilessness which once had made her father shudder...that God had withheld the grace for this too arid phase of her vocation...that she was at the end of self-control, hated Ireland, hated being hated; that she must feel the dew of grace again, feel it tenderly in her heart – at home under skies that loved her.’  

Yet, this letter is never sent; its sending forestalled by a glimmer of such grace. At the ‘reading of Marks’ for the schoolgirls that evening, it is the turn of the Second Preparatories to recite a poem. The Reverend Mother’s attention is diverted by little Anna Murphy, the youngest girl in the school by several years. Only six years old, Anna has been taken on as a pupil as a kindness to her mother, an old girl, who is struggling with an alcoholic husband. Too young to join the others in the performance, Anna is unconsciously reciting the poem alongside them. The Reverend Mother comments on this: ‘Have you taught yourself any poems, Anna?’ Thus prompted, the little girl begins to recite ‘Peace’ by Henry Vaughan:

My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,

This poem touches a chord deep inside the Reverend Mother. It was one taught to her as a child by her father. She feels ‘an assault’ – ‘a storm break in her hollow heart.’ She is confronted by a rush of memories and feels once more ‘the dark convulsions and intersections of the paths that lead innocence to knowledge and desire and dream to reality.’ She sees part of Anna in herself. Strangely heartened and comforted by incident, she tears up the letter.

The novel goes on to trace the Reverend Mother’s continued headship and Anna’s school career. The nun observes the little girl growing up from a distance – her cleverness, increasing self-possession and reserve. In the day to day business of the school, their encounters are fleeting. It is not until Anna is almost grown up and ready to leave Sainte Famille that they are brought closer together once more, and the Reverend Mother directly intervenes in Anna’s life to ensure her future happiness.

Kate O’Brien’s depiction of life in a convent school – of the petty snobberies, passions, and trickeries of its girls (and indeed their parents) – is convincing and extremely witty. She captures the cadences of adolescent chatter. When rehearsing for the Chaplain’s concert, Bernadette asks the wild and exotic Pilar:

‘...How many languages can you make love in, Pilar?’
‘Spanish is best,’ said Pilar dreamily.
Anna climbed down from her last gaselier.
‘Have you made love often, Pilar?’ she asked in straightforward wonder.
Pilar opened wide grey eyes at her.
‘Por Dios, no!’ she said.

The characterisation of the nuns is also entirely believable from the gentle and lazy Mère Martine, to the old and grand Mother Eugenia, to the clever but cruel Mother Mary Andrew, who unfairly denies Anna her first ‘Emulation’ – a day off in reward of good work. O’Brien’s real triumph, however, is the character of the Reverend Mother herself. She is no caricature, but a complex and truthful human being. Outwardly chilly, but with great inner warmth; authoritative, yet also indulgent of her charges; extremely capable, but plagued with self-doubt: Helen Archer is at once, fascinating, likeable, and understandable.

The Reverend Mother’s struggle to finally confront and come to terms with her reasons for entering the Religious Life is a central theme in the novel. Her father’s imminent death ultimately forces her re-examine painful and long-suppressed memories. 

If you haven't read the book and want to avoid spoilers, please skip to the last paragraph! 

During childhood and adolescence, following her mother’s death, Helen had enjoyed an extremely close relationship with her father. He was a scholar and taught her literature and history: ‘Without mercy, he fed and loaded her mind.’ Yet, a rupture had occurred when she was eighteen. One evening, she had popped home unannounced to collect some roses from their garden for the school chapel. In the hope of seeing her father, she had gone into the house and peeked into his study. To her shock, she found her father and a young student, Étienne, ‘in the embrace of love.’ She had fled from the house and retreated from life, finding refuge in the convent.

The reference to Henry Archer’s homosexuality caused Land of Spices to be banned upon its release. O’Brien’s nuanced depiction of the Reverend Mother’s struggle to come to terms with her discovery is noteworthy. At first, Helen is profoundly shocked and shuts her heart: ‘She found more specifically, that she hated her father. For many years she was to feel – without sign, without word – that hate.’ Interestingly, Helen is not so much appalled at witnessing the homosexual act itself but at the shattering of her perception of her father. Certainly, she believes she has witnessed ‘what she saw as the devilry of human love’ but she seems more upset by her former blindness to her father’s true self:

And she who believed she was the centre of her father’s heart, who felt his love for her as sweet and certain as her own for him, who held him for a saint – by his own rules – but still, a saint!

She feels jealous and betrayed. She has lost the security of her father’s human love and it is this that compels her to enter the Religious Life, seeking safety in divine love and service.

O'Brien does not portray the Religious Life as simply a retreat from modern life - a way out for those unable or unwilling to confront human relationships and sexuality. Perhaps a place for 'surplus spinsters'? To her, the Religious Life is no stagnant state, but a constant, evolving pathway. The Religious Life does not offer Helen complete peace until she has confront her past in the light of growing wisdom and spiritual understanding. It is through deepening understanding of the nature of divine love that Helen overcomes her hatred and pain. When her father is dying, she is unable to stop the past flooding into her brain and re-visits in her mind her teenage discovery. This brings an unexpected calm. She recognises her father as a sinner, but she feels herself to have been lacking in mercy: ‘she saw her own sin of arrogant judgement as the greater, in that it was her own... And she saw its insolence, not merely against God but against His creature.’ She opens her eyes once again to his goodness and his love for her and starts to forgive. O’Brien does not explicitly pronounce on the morality of homosexuality. Through the Reverend Mother, however, she does strike a note of caution against human judgement, implying that it is far more merciless than God’s.

The release that the Reverend Mother finds from confronting her past is fully demonstrated in the closing chapters of the novel when she intervenes to help the young Anna Murphy shape her own future. Anna wins the County Scholarship to the University, but her grandmother refuses to allow her to attend, feeling it to be unnecessary for a girl to engage in further study. Far from being a detached ‘cold fish’, the Reverend Mother passionately springs to Anna’s defence, skilfully exploiting the old woman’s snobbery to ensure Anna is allowed to do as she wishes. She is determined that Anna should be able to pursue her dreams; that her experiences do not lead her to become merciless and embittered like the young Helen Archer.

At the end of Land of Spices, the Reverend Mother and Anna have a final meeting in the gardens of Sainte Famille:

‘It is a very hard thing, I suppose,’ [Anna] said impulsively. ‘It is a very hard thing – to be a nun.’
‘I think so,’ Reverend Mother said.
‘I – I thought of it sometimes this year – but not properly. Not for holy reasons. Only because I was frightened.’
‘I know. Holy reasons are the only ones – and they are hard to be sure about, and hard to sustain.’
‘I don’t think I could possibly be a nun!’
‘You are young, Anna.’

This exchange is emblematic of the Reverend Mother’s journey throughout the book. Helen Archer became a nun because she was frightened. She was consequently frightened of Ireland, fearful of her own abilities and worth as a nun. At the end of the novel, however, the Religious Life is no longer simply a refuge to her, nor is it a burden. Her encounters with Anna, in whom she recognises herself, have helped her to reconcile the child she once was, with the woman she became. She has come to a greater understanding of God’s mercy. She has found the beauty in Ireland and a peace within herself. When we leave her, she is poised for a greater challenge... 

The Land of Spices is a rich and compelling book. It's a school story and a convent story. O'Brien is eloquent on so many subjects from Irish Catholic snobbery to vocation to sexuality. The novel's real strength, however, is as a sensitive, moving and very believable account of one woman's spiritual and emotional journey. I highly recommend requesting it at your lending library!  

All quotations in this blog are from the Virago Modern Classics edition of The Land of Spices. First published in 1988. Reprinted in 2007. 

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Spinsters on the silver screen: Heaven Knows, Mr Allison

Ever since I was a little girl and saw her in The King & I, I have been a great admirer of Deborah Kerr. She was an actress of tremendous sensitivity, grace, and style. As Brian Baxter attested in her obituary in The Guardian in 2007: in 45 years on film, ‘...she seldom, if ever, gave a weak performance...’[i] Nominated six times for an Oscar; she finally received an honorary statuette in 1994.

Miss Kerr was a beautiful romantic lead, entrancing the likes of Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and David Niven. If you haven’t seen the gorgeous An Affair to Remember, you really should. Her raunchy – for 1953 – love scene on the beach with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity became the stuff of cinematic legend. In real life, she was twice married with two daughters and a stepdaughter. Yet, she was also famous for playing the spinster. Indeed, she was rather in the habit of playing nuns! In 1947, she portrayed the restless Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus – a book and film which I will explore on this blog at a later date. Ten years’ later, she played the much sunnier Sister Angela in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison. I’ve wanted to watch this latter film for ages and finally, last Sunday evening, I got around to it.

Based on a book by Charles Shaw and directed by John Huston, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison bears a strong resemblance to the latter's earlier film, The African Queen. Funnily enough, Deborah Kerr’s second husband, Peter Viertel, contributed to the screenplay of the Hepburn and Bogie hit! In Heaven Knows, we meet an equally unlikely couple in similarly strange circumstances. Rather than a Methodist missionary and a drunken boatman journeying down the African river rapids, we are now introduced to an Irish Catholic nun and an intrepid US marine stranded on a Pacific island. While Hepburn and Bogie were under threat from Germans, Kerr and her co-star, Robert Mitchum, must face the Japanese.

If you haven’t seen the film and you’re not a fan of spoilers, I recommend that you go away now and watch it, then come back here! The story goes something like this:

Separated from his submarine due to a Japanese attack, Corporal Allison of the US marines is left drifting on a life-raft in the Pacific. Eventually, he washes up on a remote and seemingly abandoned island. Exploring the island’s deserted settlement, he comes to the church where he finds Sister Angela, a young nun. She arrived on the island a few days previously with her colleague, Fr. Philips to evacuate another priest, only to find the Japanese had already been there. The native crew who had brought them to the island left in fright, leaving them marooned. The shock was too much for Fr. Philips, who was struck down by a stroke and died.    

Allison and Sister Angela befriend one another. When Japanese forces bomb, and then reoccupy the island, Tuasiva, they hide together in a cave, with Allison making dangerous forays into the Japanese camp to scavenge for food. Soon, he finds himself falling in love with the young nun. He begs her not to take her final vows but to marry him instead!

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison. 1957.
Copyright Twentieth Century Fox. 

The film is particularly fascinating, because this island love story does not play out as one might expect.

Circumstances bring together two creatures from very different worlds. As Allison and Sister Angela get to know each other, we learn that he was an illegitimate child, brought up in an orphanage with minimal religious instruction until he escaped at the age of fourteen. As he puts it, before becoming a marine, ‘...I seen the inside of more houses of correction and jails than I did churches.’ As for God Himself, Allison assures his companion: ‘Oh sure, anyone with any sense believes in God,’ but admits he admits he has never prayed. Religion is alien to him. Yet, while he cannot comprehend why a beautiful woman should want to be a nun, Allison does have a vague notion of vocation. He describes his commitment to service as similar to Sister Angela’s calling to be a religious. Unlike his colleagues, many of who have wives and children, his entire identity is derived from the marines: ‘Me, I got the corps, like you got the church.’

Sister Angela, we learn, is due to take her final vows the following month. When she explains to Allison the consequences of breaking these vows, the difference between them is underlined:

Worse, much worse.
They wouldn’t shoot you?
We would lose our immortal souls.
Allison is no intellectual. He describes himself as ‘dumb,’ but he’s quick-thinking enough on a practical level, whether foraging for food or cleverly disarming the Japanese weapons. He’s a straightforward man – caring, honest, and loyal. He carves a wooden comb for Sister Angela, wrapping it in a palm leaf and decorating it with a flower – a touching and truthful gesture. Yet, of the doctrine and dogma which have defined Sister Angela’s life, he knows nothing, nor does he share in her interior, spiritual life. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr perfectly demonstrate this. Mitchum is earthy, always moving. He’s largely the one who deals with their practical needs for survival. Kerr is serene; save for a brief interlude, she projects a sense of inner calm. And she prays. He’s the body; she’s the soul.

They’re a team and together, they ensure one another’s survival. Matters come to head, however, when Allison declares his love for Sister Angela.

Allison, it must be admitted, is the most gentlemanly of gentleman. Despite his growing attraction to Sister Angela, their living at extremely close quarters, and his frustration about her choice of the religious life, he never lays a finger upon her. There is no sense that she sees him, even in the beginning or when drunk, as a physical threat. When they dance together following the Japanese evacuation of the island, it’s a spontaneous expression of joy – more brother and sister than lovers. When she falls sick, he cares for her, even undressing her from her wet clothes, but he never takes advantage. Would this be the case if the film were made today, one wonders?

The very fact that Allison’s love for Sister Angela is chaste, however, underlines its genuineness. He might not understand her calling, but he understands its importance to her. He respects her and wants to look after her. He’s unhappy when she doesn’t consent to marriage, but he accepts this.   

More interesting, perhaps, is the question of whether Sister Angela feels the same. When Allison first asks if there’s a chance for them together, she makes it clear that she does not regard herself as a spinster, but as a married woman: ‘No, Mr Allison, you see I’ve already given my heart... to Christ our Lord.’ She shows him her ring and quietly, her eyes full of sadness, explains how she will wear a wedding ring, once she has taken her final vows.

The real climax of the film is when Allison gets drunk on Japanese rice wine and gives vent to his despair, bemoaning his luck in falling in love with a nun. Sister Angela tries to change the subject. He smashes Fr Phillips’ old pipe on the floor: ‘What good is it without tobacco?’ and tells her that they will be stranded on the island for years and years. ‘Now what’s the point of you being a nun if we’re all alone, answer me that? You can’t, can you? ‘Cos there ain’t no point... We don’t belong to nothing but this island. All we got is it and each other. Like Adam and Eve. Like we was the first two people on earth and this was the Garden of Eden!’ Sister Angela bursts into tears and he grabs her to comfort her, but she escapes from his grip and runs out into the pouring rain.

Why is she upset by this speech? I think that Sister Angela does love Allison, but her love is very different to his. Unlike her companion, she does not see the possibility of any future for them as a couple. She has made her choice to become a nun, and this will prevail, however attracted to him she may be. It is not that this choice is without difficulty or temptation, but ultimately, she believes it will give her ‘greater happiness than anything else.’ When he gives her the comb, she is flattered and blushes prettily, but she takes it as a ‘keepsake’ – something to remember him by, once their adventure is over. It makes her sad that he wants what she cannot give.

Allison’s speech, however, does cause her to doubt. As she later admits, ‘I was running from the truth. There was a great deal of truth in what you said.’ I don’t think she questions God, but I think she questions what He wants from her, from them. Fr Phillips’ smashed pipe is a metaphor for her world turned upside down. For the first time, she begins to fear that they will not be imminently rescued. If she and Allison are to be left on the island together for years and years, would it not be wrong for him to be unhappy and her to insist on following her, as yet, incomplete vows? Would that be pursuing her true vocation?

Once Sister Angela wakes from her illness, caused from running away in the rain, all has not become clear but she has renewed confidence that God will make the way ahead known: ‘Perhaps God doesn’t intend me to take my final vows. We’re living from hour to hour. Only he knows what’ll happen to us.’ It is significant that she makes this very frank, honest admission, a recognition that the future is uncertain, while she lies vulnerable, just awoken from illness, and wrapped only in the sheets that Allinson has stolen for her from the Japanese camp. This is the only time in the film where she does not wear her habit and wimple.

From this point, however, nun and marine return to living in easy companionship. While Allison doesn’t stop loving Sister Angela, he makes no further attempts to convince her to marry him. Instead, he reaffirms his commitment to being a marine, albeit a more godly one. He feels called by God towards a dangerous mission to disarm the Japanese in advance of a US invasion. Sister Angela, dressed once again in her habit, returns to praying for their deliverance. I'm not going to give away the end, but I think you can probably guess... For once in Hollywood, happily ever after might mean something different...

Ultimately, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison is a fascinating exploration of vocation: What does it mean to be faithful to one’s calling? How can one be sure that that calling is genuine? It’s a story of faith, love, and bravery. The chemistry between Kerr and Mitchum is fantastic. Both actors give great depth to their characters, making them far more than caricatures. I heartily recommend giving it a viewing. It’s pretty easy to find either on DVD or via download, or if you’re in Oxford, you can borrow my copy! I’d love to know what you think about this encounter between nun and marine. I've been mulling it over all week and it's certainly a film that I'll be watching again and again. 

[i] Brian Baxter, ‘Obituary: Deborah Kerr’ in The Guardian (Friday 19th October 2007).

Sunday, 19 January 2014


Yesterday, I attended a fascinating symposium organised by WOIRN (Women on Irish Research Network) on ‘Irish women, religion and the diaspora’ at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies. You can find the programme here. This was thanks to an invitation from my wonderful school-friend, Claire, whom I first met in maths in year eight, and who studied at the Institute. While she used to steal my textbook so I had more time to chat and less time to do algebra, in our comparative old age, she’s now expanding my intellectual horizons!  

I know very little of Irish history. When beginning to research my doctorate, I toyed with the idea of comparing British women missionaries’ activities in India with those of their Irish counterparts, particularly nuns of the Loreto sisters whose hill-station schools were populated by children of the Empire. Yet, due to the constraints of time and the availability of sources, I chose to concentrate upon British women alone – women who did not go to India to serve the Raj, but whose nationality inevitability tied them to the imperial regime. Yesterday, however, I found that there were many similarities between the experiences of Anglican women missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Church Missionary Society and those of their Irish Catholic sisters.  

There were eight papers, covering subjects including female philanthropy, the importance of ‘faith’ to voluntary action, emigration, place, and the construction of identities. Two papers were especially relevant to a scholar of spinsters!

Susan O’Brien of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, spoke of her research on Irish members of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. This was a French order, founded in the seventeenth century for the care of the poor and sick, and it continued to have a strong French identity. Between 1855 and 1940, over 1000 Irish born women belonged to the British mission, and from 1885, province of the Company. Although houses were founded in Ireland, the majority of these sisters lived in Britain itself. The Company’s Father General was based in Paris, however, and all sisters undertook formation there, learning the language. Susan argued that these Irish sisters, domiciled in Britain as members of a French order, developed a distinctive, transnational ‘Vincentian’ identity. Her research suggests that Irish sisters were not treated any differently than their British and French colleagues. Although when the British province was established in 1885, the figures of authority were English upper-class women, an Irish sister was elected head in 1925.

I was particularly interested by a point Susan made about the backgrounds of the Irish Vincentian sisters. Many seem to have had aunts and sisters already in convents in Ireland. By becoming members of a French order, indeed an order with annual rather than perpetual vows, they were breaking from family tradition.

Grainne O’Keeffe-Vigneron of Université Rennes 2 also spoke about nuns – this time, Irish nuns in a religious order in France itself. She had carried out oral research amongst a French congregation, examining Irish sisters’ reasons for joining, their experiences of migration in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and their adaption to their new lives in a foreign country. I was amazed to discover that there were approximately 19,000 nuns in Ireland in 1967! Again, by choosing to leave to join a French order, the women interviewed by Grainne had been more adventurous than their peers.

When Grainne explored these women’s decision to become nuns, I found there to be many parallels with my own work on SPG and CMS recruitment. While it is true that becoming a nun brought employment and security for ‘surplus’ spinsters, compensating for a lack of eligible bachelors, it is important not to underestimate the genuine sense of vocation felt by recruits. Like the majority of British women missionaries, the nuns spoke of feeling a distinct ‘call’ from God to service and a pressing desire to help those in need and to sacrifice themselves for others. Unlike the middle-class recruits of SPG and CMS, however, many of the nuns were from poor rural backgrounds. Donning the habit gave them the status to carry out the social work they desired. For one nun in particular, who expressed a wish to work with children, it was less limiting than becoming a wife and mother at home. She could become a mother to many more children in need.

Interestingly, Grainne suggested that for many of the nuns, the decision to join a French congregation might have been simply an accident rather than a sign of adventurousness or rebellion. Mother Superiors and special ‘recruiting nuns’, chosen for their ability to communicate, were sent from France to Ireland on recruitment drives. Young women were simply attracted by their words, and tales of the order’s work, only discovering later its location overseas.   

Grainne spoke of Irish recruits’ sense of displacement upon arrival in France – everything was different, the language, the regimented daily life, the dress, the food. Great efforts were made to suppress recruits’ previous identities, cultivating a congregational identity above individualism. Indeed, being forced to speak in a new, foreign language made the expression of personality especially difficult. Family members, close friends, and women who had grown up together in the same parishes and villages in Ireland were placed apart in separate congregations in France to avoid the development of ‘special’ or ‘particular friendships,’ which distracted from community life and reminded recruits of their previous existence.

The dangers of ‘particular friendships’ were also identified by mission societies and this is a theme I will explore further on this blog in later weeks. They were seen to be as detrimental to life on a remote mission station as they were to life within a religious community. If two missionaries alone on a station were to develop a strong attachment to one another, it could limit the efficacy of the work. If two out of three missionaries on a station had such a relationship, all kinds of hurt, hostility, and jealousy could ensue.

Following the papers, there was a period of general discussion, during which I took the opportunity to point out all the similarities to my own research!

I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into Irish history and am keen to explore further the backgrounds and motivations of Irish nuns and their transnational encounters. I’ve made a note of several books to hunt out in the Bodleian, but any recommendations would be much appreciated!  

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Happy New Year! Working in the missionary archives has introduced me to some fascinating individuals. Let's begin 2014 by putting one remarkable woman in the spotlight... 

WOMAN OF THE WEEK: Miss Eva Fiennes

Eva Fiennes in November 1954
Archives of St Stephen's Community, Delhi
Miss Eva Fiennes was a handful. Stubborn, self-denying, tireless, and fiercely-independent, she was at once an exceptionally effective missionary, an extremely generous philanthropist, and an extraordinarily difficult colleague. Her companions in St Stephen’s Community in Delhi (an association of single women missionaries allied with the high-Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) regarded her with a mixture of frustration, admiration, bewilderment, and awe. ‘I, for one, always felt rather breathless and inadequate when from time to time, I shared some piece of work with her,’ admitted Cecilia Norris, a former Head of the Community, when writing Eva’s obituary for the Delhi mission news in 1963.[1] 

For the vast part of her missionary career, which began in 1904 when she was thirty-one and finished with her retirement in 1961 at the age of eighty-eight, Eva Fiennes worked as an evangelist in remote Indian villages surrounding Delhi. Quite often, she lived in a ramshackle Indian house alongside a smelly buffalo, and spent her days trekking through the fields to teach Indian village women and children. Her energy, intrepidness, and personal austerity were infamous. ‘She worked and lived utterly regardless of physical ease or comfort and drove herself to the limit of human endurance, sometimes beyond it,’ Miss Norris recalled.[2]

To the villagers of Rohtak and Gurgaon, Fathepur and Shahabad, Miss Fiennes must have seemed an extraordinary specimen! Certainly, her first appearance in an unknown village could be a tremendous shock. On one occasion, Cecilia Norris recounted that Eva’s ‘large, khaki solar topi, her deep voice and manly stride’ sent the village women scattering, covering their faces in terror. “Main log’ai hum, log nahin” cried Eva (“I am a woman, not a man”)! Panic over, the village women gathered round the missionaries and she began to teach, singing bhajans and explaining their Christian message.[3] Indeed, once initial introductions had been made, Miss Fiennes appears to have been outstandingly effective at winning villagers’ trust, attention, and affection. She had a keen memory, becoming familiar with the intricacies of their family histories and their educational progress. She prepared many villagers for Baptism and Confirmation, and helped them to find work. They called her the ‘Bari Missahib’ and constantly asked of her whereabouts on the rare occasions when she was absent from a preaching visit.[4]

While the Indian villagers grew accustomed to Miss Fiennes, however, the members of St Stephen’s Community found her a continuously tricky co-worker! A much younger colleague, Violet Hayes wrote at length of her experiences of preaching expeditions alongside the indefatigable Eva in her autobiography, Sent Out To Serve. At the time, Violet was twenty-seven, and Eva, sixty-six:

‘‘What are you running for?’ she would shout back over her shoulder. ‘Only to keep up with you,’ I would pant... Lunch did not happen at all... As the hot weather approached, I asked Eva if we could take a flask of water with us... But only after many pleadings would she agree to such pandering to the flesh and she stopped on the long and baking hot walk back to the car, only just long enough to take a sip.’

Poor Miss Hayes was so famished after a few days’ itineration with Eva that she instructed her colleagues to raid the larder of St Stephen’s Home upon her return to Delhi![5] Into her late seventies, Eva continued to walk 4 ½ miles from Mehrauli to Fathepur, and back again, in one day to visit and teach the villagers.[6]

The humble, self-sacrificing manner of Eva’s existence in India was in stark contrast to her origins. She was not the typical missionary recruit: daughter of a middle-class cleric. Instead, she came from a large aristocratic family with a long tradition of clerical and military service, whose present-day descendents (including the explorer, Ranulph, and the actor, Ralph Fiennes) continue to populate the pages of Burke’s peerage and Who’s Who. She was born, The Honourable Eva Caroline Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, in July 1873 in London to Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Ivo de Vesci Edward Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes of the 9th Lancers, and his wife, Isabella Emily Gregg. Her father was the third son of the 10th Baron Saye and Sele of Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire. He died when she was just two years old.[7]

I know almost nothing of Eva’s childhood. She had an older brother, Bertram (who died aged twenty-one), an older sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, Nathaniel. She was educated at private schools in Ipswich and Bournemouth, and trained for the mission field at St Denys’ Deaconess House in Warminster. Interestingly, shortly before she began her training, her mother had married Eugene Stock, the hugely-influential editor, mission historian, and administrator of the Church Missionary Society.[8] Of the foundational experiences which might have inspired Eva to offer for missionary service, however, we know little. Her letters in the archives of the SPG are characteristically practical and direct – devoid of reflection and reminiscence.[9] She seems, however, to have been determined to use her personal wealth for the well-being of others.

Rather than receiving a stipend from the SPG like the majority of her colleagues, Eva’s personal wealth enabled her to offer for missionary service as an ‘honorary’ missionary. She financed her entire missionary career, paying for her outfit, passages, and daily maintenance.  As her colleague, Barbara Goucher recalled, ‘she could not bear to spend any money on herself,’ and would spend long train journeys sleeping upright on a hard wooden seat in third class. She devoted the rest of her money to sponsoring the schooling of Indian children at the mission’s village schools and helping the destitute, even giving away her own clothes and blankets.[10] In 1920, feeling very strongly the shortage of missionary evangelists in the Rohtak district, she also offered to pay for SPG to send out an additional worker to help.[11]

Eva’s disregard for herself and her independent nature made her very difficult to control. To those in authority in the Community of St Stephen, she could be a nightmare! On one fateful preaching expedition with Violet Hayes, she collapsed by the roadside, unable due to illness and exhaustion to continue. She refused to let Violet fetch help, however, insisting that her colleague continue to the village of Bagroula to take the lesson. After struggling back to her house, she also forced Violet to promise not to inform any of the Community in Delhi of her condition. Although Violet did her best to avoid her colleagues on her return, the Head of the Community noticed something was up. She and another senior member caught the next train to Gurgaon, determined to bring Eva to be treated in hospital. They returned empty-handed, however, as the formidable Miss Fiennes refused to admit defeat![12]

Eva with her St Stephen's colleagues in the early 1950s (she is second from the right in the second row)
Archives of St Stephen's Community, Delhi

On some occasions, the Community tried actively to restrain her, feeling she was more a hindrance than a help. In 1947, amidst the violence and chaos of Independence and Partition in Delhi, the Head of the Community, Evelyn Ashdown, informed the SPG: ‘We hope Nora and Barne and Ruth will have the pluck to come, we need reinforcements, but not Eva.’[13] In another letter, she explained, ‘The Bishop is determined to send her [Miss Fiennes] as far as possible from Delhi, and wisely I think. I am sorry for her, but at her age [seventy-four] she is not likely to change her methods, and she will be a real danger if she goes on as she did.’[14]

Ultimately, Eva Fiennes was a maverick! She was a wealthy English woman, who chose to live in poverty, far from home. She was difficult to work with, yet extraordinarily generous towards those amongst whom she worked. She was a highly-effective missionary, yet broke all the rules in the book. A woman to be reckoned with – to be feared and yet, admired.    

[1] Delhi. 1963. p.10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. pp.10-11.
[5] USPG, Rhodes House. X1254. Sent out to Serve by V.M. Hayes. p.13.
[6] Delhi. 1963. p.10.
[7] Author’s biographical database of women missionaries. Compiled from, The Times Digital Archive, Who’s Who etc.
[8] Ibid.
[9] USPG, Rhodes House. See papers of the Committee for Women’s Work (CWW).
[10] Delhi. 1963. p.11.
[11] USPG, Rhodes House. CWW 142. Original Letters Received: Assam, Bombay, Calcutta, Chota Nagpur, Lahore, Lucknow, Madras, Nagpur, Rangoon, Tinnevelly. 1920. p.74. 
[12] USPG, Rhodes House. X1254. Sent out to Serve by V.M. Hayes. pp.13-14.
[13] USPG, Rhodes House. E95/5. Delhi. 18th September 1947.
[14] USPG, Rhodes House. CMD 106: Letters received from Delhi during the 1947 disturbances. October 18th 1947.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Introducing the ‘surplus’ spinster...

Today’s Guardian bemoans ‘the price of being single.’[i] From gym membership to aeronautical travel to car insurance, the necessities of life are more expensive as a singleton. Should the single person even dream of seeing an actor as popular as Daniel ‘Harry Potter’ Radcliffe on stage, they risk utter ostracism! When theatre seats are limited, it seems they are only sold in pairs. Though, as one commentator helpfully points out, most of the problems identified in this article can be overcome if one has friends (!), this is undoubtedly annoying. I would not have been pleased to have been barred from the front row of Hay Fever or Handbagged for lacking accompaniment.  

Outrageous as they may be, however, the iniquitous policies of ticketing websites and budget airlines are not the subject of this blog. Instead, we will explore the lives of women for whom ‘the price of being single’ was far more severe – women who couldn’t possibly imagine visiting the theatre sans chaperone. We will examine the lot of the ‘surplus’ spinster.

The 'surplus'spinsters of St Stephen's missionary community in Delhi, c.1914.
Photograph copyright of St Stephen's Community, Delhi. 
Thanks to the work of Virginia Nicholson[ii] and Ruth Adam[iii], amongst others – and also to thanks to popular period dramas like Downton Abbey – it is well known that the death of nearly three-quarters of a million soldiers in World War One led to a ‘Mutilated Society’ in Britain. The 1921 Census revealed the existence of one and three-quarter million ‘surplus women’ in the population. For many women, therefore, singleness was not a choice, but an inevitability. As Lady Sybil puts it, ‘Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.’[iv]

It is much less appreciated, however, as the historian Kathrin Levitan notes, that the problem of a surplus of women already existed, and was anxiously discussed, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.[v] The Census of 1851 fuelled this debate, asking for the first time about respondents’ marital status. It showed that in a national population of twenty million, there were 500,000 more women than men, and two and a half million unmarried women.

The existence of these ‘redundant’ women challenged the Victorian middle class ideal of a fulfilled woman as a dutiful wife and mother, who occupied a well-managed domestic sphere to which her husband could retire after his day in the public sphere of work. It was feared that in their spinsterhood, such women were failing to be useful to the nation. They posed moral and economic problems due to their dependence upon their male relations for support.[vi]

'There will be a certain sum for each of you on your wedding-day, but there’s no question of either of you bein’ able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible...’  Lady Isabel warns her daughter, Alex, of the consequences of remaining single in the 1890s.
E.M. Delafield, Consequences. (London, 2000). p.227.     

The fate of the ‘surplus’ spinster was discussed in newspapers, pamphlets, instructional manuals, and popular novels. All manner of commentators from politicians to doctors to playwrights proffered lamentations, advice, and mockery regarding her plight.

The ‘surplus’ spinsters themselves also refused to be quiet. In search of purpose and respectability, they became pioneers in the fields of education and medicine, establishing girls’ schools and women’s colleges, training as nurses and even as doctors. Some engaged in philanthropic work; others entered into religious service, founding sisterhoods and Deaconess orders. A minority went to live and work in the British Empire, often as missionaries. It was on these latter that my doctoral thesis was based.  

This blog will investigate these single women’s experiences in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries  – their struggles for professional and personal fulfilment, their hopes, their fears, their joys, and their sorrows. It will draw largely from my doctoral research on Anglican women missionaries in India, but will also consider their sisters at ‘home’. I am keen to explore any source about the single woman – autobiographies, diaries, letters, novels, films etc. I seek to show that for all its disadvantages, for many ‘surplus’ spinsters, singleness offered opportunity and adventure!   

[i] Emma Lunn, ‘The price of being single,’ The Guardian website. First posted Friday 22nd November 2013.
[ii] Virginia Nicholson, Singled Out. How Two Mission Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. (London, 2007).
[iii] Ruth Adam, A Woman’s Place, 1910-1975. (Guildford, 2000).
[iv] Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey The Complete Scripts. Season Two. (London, 2013). Episode One. p.21.
[v] See Kathrin Levitan, ‘Redundancy, the ‘Surplus Woman’ Problem, and the British Census, 1851-1861,’ in Women’s History Review, Vol.17, No.3., (July 2008), p.363-364.  
[vi] Ibid.