Kate O’Brien: The Land of Spices (1941)

Land of Spice

Back in August, I participated in All Virago/All August, not taking it literally, which means that I didn’t dedicate the whole month to reading only Viragos. I made a small list and read a few books but there were still some more left. One of those was Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices.

The Land of Spices tells the story of Sister Marie-Hélène, the Reverend Mother of a French order located in Ireland, and a young Irish girl, Anna Murphy. When the book opens, little Anna, who is only six years old, has just joined the convent, which is also a boarding school for rich girls. She is the youngest child who has ever been accepted and Mère Marie-Hélène whom everyone calls “cold” is surprised that she reacts so strongly to this little girl. Not only does she feel she has to protect the girl, but she also feels some a kinship. This kinship triggers memories of her own childhood when she too joined the convent as a boarder. Back then, she lived in Brussels with her parents, although they were English.

Since her childhood she always felt much closer to her father and when her mother died, when she was only twelve, they grew even closer. But something happened. Something that made Marie-Hélène not only become a nun but flee her father. While this isn’t something she has repressed, she has repressed the memory of a wonderful childhood and the relationship with her father which once meant the world to her.

All through the book, there are allusions to what happened and I was a bit afraid, we wouldn’t find out what it was. I actually feared that it was something quite different and once the truth is revealed I was relieved. However, at the time when this is set, before WWI, Marie-Hélène’s discovery would have come as a shock. Let’s leave it at that or I’ll spoil the book.

The presence of Anna and the strong feelings she triggers, make Mère Marie-Hélène remember.

The book follows the lives of these two women until the day, when Anna graduates and Mère Marie-Hélène is finally granted her wish to go back to Brussels.

I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. It’s so subtle and rich and the depiction of convent life is detailed and intriguing. Kate O’Brien captures both, the sister’s religious life and their “human” lives. Many of these sisters are less than holy but selfish, jealous and unjust. There is even a scene reminiscent of Jane Eyre. Only mother Marie-Hélène who people call “cold” is never unfair or unjust. Marie-Hélène is a fascinating character. Intelligent, introspective, fond of poetry. Through her eyes we discover the more contemplative side of her life at the convent. It’s important to say, that this isn’t a contemplative order. The sisters here are similar to those in Call the Midwife. Only they aren’t midwives but many teach in the convent school.

The descriptions of life at the convent were fascinating and because Kate O’Brien is so good at capturing people’s follies and foibles, this is also a very funny book. There’s a chapter dedicated to a concert that made me laugh so much. I can honestly not remember having read anything this funny in a long time. It reminded me of similar moments in my childhood, when people who were a little too full of themselves made total fools out of themselves and you had to pretend what they were doing was great and try not to laugh. The whole chapter dedicated to this concert is a tour de force of witty characterisation.

While it had funny aspects, it’s not a humorous novel per se. It’s the story of a very unusual life. A life that could have gone a very different way, especially since Marie-Hélène initially didn’t join the convent for religious reasons. Nonetheless, she makes the most of her career choice, strives for goodness and fights hard for her faith.

The foreword points out that this is also a rare study of a world in which the hierarchy is almost purely female. Yes, there are priests and bishops visiting, but those in charge in the convent are women. And the successor of the Mere Générale, the head of the order, will be named by a woman.

Since the main protagonist is English and the book is set just before WWI, Home Rule and the Irish’s fight for independence are very important topics.

The Reverend mother often thinks she’s an outsider because she is English, but the novel shows us that she might just be one of those people who will always be outsiders. She’s too easily wounded and that’s why she’s built a wall around herself nobody can break through.

When the book was published in 1941, it caused a bit of stir as there was a scene that was considered risqué. It’s not risqué at all because all it says is that the narrator saw someone in an embrace. Nonetheless, Kate O’Brien had a hard time getting other books published and this one was condemned by the Censorship Board. Possibly however, as the foreword says, this was far less because of the sexual allusion but because she poked fun at convent hierarchy and criticized the sisters, depicting them in a very realistic, not exactly saintly way.

As I said before, I loved this book. I found the atmosphere soothing, the characters so well described and it had one of the funniest scenes I read in a while.