1. Rumer Godden. She did not convert to Catholicism until the year she turned 61 but she continued to publish novels for almost 30 years after that. Included in her post-conversion writings are two famous novels about women’s religious communities: In This House of Brede (Benedictines) and Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy (Dominicans). Both are beautiful stories, both provide a glimpse of traditional communities touched by the first tremors of the cataclysmic changes that followed Vatican II in large sections of the Church. Earlier novels with significant Catholic themes include: The Lady and the Unicorn (about a struggling Anglo-Indian Catholic family), The River (the wise nanny is a Catholic), A Candle for St. Jude (mostly about ballet), and An Episode of Sparrows. Among her wonderful-to-read-aloud children’s books, The Kitchen Madonna has a Marian icon as its centerpiece.
2. Isobel English. Her novel Every Eye was reprinted by Persephone, an intricate little labyrinth of a book, in which alternations between memory and present experience lead at last to understanding and acceptance of the past — though the novel’s climax, in a weird and holy place, is approached only with trepidation. The beautiful prose sets a slow, attentive pace for what turns out to be a pilgrimage. Of her other novels, I have not been able to locate The Key That Rusts but I look forward to reading Four Voices someday soon.
3. Antonia White. Her quartet of autobiographical novels holds a special place in my heart. Nanda/Clara, the central character, deals with being a convert’s daughter, convent school (a world in itself and a lost world today), becoming a writer and the trauma of having her early work grossly misunderstood, tense and complex relationships with her parents, growing up an only child, the pull of the old pagan religion, catastrophe, violence, Bohemian life, invalid marriage and annulment, mental illness/madness and hospitalization. This is not St. Paul’s list of trials. However, I found it powerful to see, amid challenges in large part specifically modern and characters thoroughly, humanly, weak, a vision of the unchanging Faith. And Clara, by being nearly completely broken, in the end is more than conqueror.
4. Alice Thomas Ellis. She died in 2005. Her style combines delightfully sharp satire with equally delightful lyric moments and the most exquisite hint of Welsh magic. Her lampooning of the modern world is balanced by a shrewd and ultimately loving insight into human nature. My favorites are The Inn at the Edge of the World, Fairy Tale, and The Summer House. The Inn at the Edge of the World and Fairy Tale I love for their juxtaposition of the discontents of today’s world with the world of ancient (sometimes benign, sometimes threatening) magic. The Summer House I love for the voices of the women who tell it and for its courageous and beautiful treatment of the sensitive topic of sexual abuse.
5. Caroline Gordon. So it may not be fair to call Caroline Gordon’s books (or any of the above, really) “chick lit.” We read her stories in grad school alongside Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty and the most famous of American Catholic writers, Flannery O’Connor. I recently read The Strange Children. Here we have an almost uninterpreted story, near raw experience, with the advantages and disadvantages of a child’s viewpoint, in which the lives of skeptical intellectuals contrast with the “lower” culture of Protestant Christians who pray by the river, theatrically seek miracles for the sick, and handle deadly serpents. Into this world, the lone Catholic comes as a sign of contradiction. The South appears with a truth that only fiction can utter. I’ll want to be reading The Women on the Porch next.