How do you solve a problem like Maria? So asked the nuns of Nonnberg Abbey in The Sound of Music. (Pause, please, in remembrance of Christopher Plummer RIP.) As all Sound of Music fans will know, Maria was ill-suited to the job. Depicted as impulsive, irresponsible, slightly reckless and passionate, she was quite the opposite of William Wordsworth’s “quiet as a nun”. Furthermore, she didn’t have the dedication required to Stick At It. The Mother Abbess, of course, recognising this, sent Maria off to act as the governess to Captain von Trapp. And the rest is history.
The Sound of Music demonstrates the endurance of religion as a marvellous marketing machine. Inject God – or a nun, monk, or abbot – into your plot, and you’re not likely to hurt your chances at hitting big (not that they’re ever a sure thing in publishing).
Chaucer understood this, and included both The Nun’s Priest’s Tale and The Monk’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales. Novelists – from Trollope to Dan Brown – and poets have continued to mine a rich seam of religious characters and institutions.
One of the bestselling books of all time is The Name of the Rose, the 1980 novel by Italian author Umberto Eco. This monastic whodunnit is set in 1327 during the reign of Pope John XXII, and combines medieval detective fiction with a gripping story about religious greed, heresy and corruption. After it was translated into English in 1983, it went on to sell over 50 million copies worldwide, and was ranked 14th on Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century list.
Eco was a university professor, philosopher, medieval historian and literary critic. But you needn’t have any such qualifications to top the charts. Take David Yallop, author of the 1984 bestseller In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I. Yallop is a British journalist turned EastEnders scriptwriter. The book alleged that John Paul I was poisoned by masons inside the Vatican. Despite lacking much credible evidence, the book held the top spot of the New York Times bestseller list for 15 weeks, sold over six million copies and has been translated into more than 30 languages.
But it’s not only the pope that pushes sales. Consider Victoria Glendinning’s 2018 novel The Butcher’s Daughter, which follows heroine Agnes Peppin in 1535 as Henry VIII proclaims himself head of the Church of England and violently dissolves the monasteries.
Recently, Catholic convert Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel Black Narcissus was reimagined as a BBC TV series. Prior to that, the book, which follows a group of nuns travelling to a small town at the tip of the Himalayas, was made into a film which won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.
Looking forward to September, Pulitzer-nominated author Lauren Groff is publishing a new historical nun novel, Matrix. The plot promises “currents of violence, sensuality and religious ecstasy in a mesmerising portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith and a woman that history moves” as it follows 17-year-old Marie de France, sent to England to become the prioress of a 12th-century impoverished abbey.
To be honest, working for a Catholic magazine can occasionally feel a little like being a nun at a medieval convent fallen on hard times. With church congregations limited, Catholic print journalism is under siege. Unlike Maria (no judgement here), we are – for now – blessed with the tenacity to Stick At It.
I suppose the reason for the success of these religion-themed books is that they allow us not only to escape but also to live in a parallel, better world where good and evil actually mean something. Time and again, these religious stories succeed in distracting us from our drab lives in an increasingly Godless world.
When I asked historian and bestselling author Alison Weir why she liked to set her novels in the Tudor era, an age of faith and belief, she said: “I find that it’s wonderful to escape into another world, and historical fiction offers opportunities for this. And, of course, the novelist’s treatment of the subject offers endless opportunities for lively debate. I don’t know where I would have been without history during this pandemic.” Amen to that.
Constance Watson is assistant editor of the Catholic Herald
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