The Nun’s Story, by Kathryn Hulme
The Nun’s Story is based on the life of a former nun, Mary Louise Habets by name. Mary Louise had been a nun for 17 years and had gone by the name of Sister Marie Xavérine during her religious life. She had befriended author Kathryn Hulme after leaving the convent, when both women were working at a refugee camp. Kathryn found Mary Louise to be very shy and hesitant to talk about her past life, but over the course of their friendship, her incredible tale came out bit by bit. Kathryn had already written a book or two about her own vivid life, and decided that Mary Louise’s life needed to be told as well.
The Nun’s Story quickly became a bestseller when it was published in 1956, and after reading the book myself I can certainly see why. It’s a shame that this has fallen out of print because it is a very captivating read. If you’ve seen the film then you know exactly what to expect, because screenwriter Robert Anderson stayed very true to the book, even taking large chunks of the book’s dialogue verbatim. Unlike a lot of bestsellers in its time, The Nun’s Story doesn’t stagnate or get dragged down in its own story or fall into the trap of moral posturing. It seems rare because it tells Sister Luke’s tale in such a quiet and straightforward way while still staying fresh and alive to readers 50 years after the fact. You could still see this story unfolding today.
Gabrielle Van der Mal is just preparing to enter the convent as a postulant when the book opens. She has some quiet internal struggles because her father, a well respected doctor, doesn’t fully understand why she feels compelled to give up a promising nursing career to enter into her vows. There are a few hints at a failed relationship as well, but from the beginning it’s made perfectly clear that this is what Gabrielle wants more than anything, even more than a medical career, which she has always held dear to her heart. It’s also clear from the beginning that Gabrielle, soon to be Sister Luke, has trouble suppressing her natural self and conforming her mind to the standards of the order.
The book is a fascinating study of convent life in every detail, from the different habits nuns wear in their levels of commitment, to their bedding, eating habits, and even schooling. It’s very humanely written and never seems to speak harshly of the religious order or the sacrifices that the women make on their roads to spiritual perfection. In one instance Sister Luke is asked to deliberately fail her medical examinations so that an older (and jealous) nun may return to her post in the Congo, the one place Sister Luke has felt called to since the very beginning. Can she really ever fully stifle her old self and live solely for the community? This question and internal struggle is constant throughout the book. Sister Luke faces situations that we can’t possibly imagine, and takes them in stride in a calm, collected way we could never muster, and yet that struggle still persists inside of her. While the life is a nun is something that possibly none of us will ever experience, let alone truly understand, The Nun’s Story opens the door of that world to us, and shows the underlying humanity and dignity in a life of sacrifice that is too easily forgotten, then and now.