Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nuns, monks, priests and believers: writing about spiritual matters in English historical fiction

I once told a friend that it was impossible for me to write a novel without a nun or a priest in it. In my household this has become a bit of a joke; my husband likes to say, “Oh you wouldn’t like this book or movie! No one’s searching for God!” Well, sometimes it is true.

I am myself a church mouse; I can hardly pass an old church or chapel in England without slipping inside. Oh the history! Sometimes a thousand years or more in one church. Women were praying for families seven hundred years ago in the very spot where you stand.

Roughly I can put the nuns, priests and devout characters in novels in three categories: sleuth, spiritual seekers, and secondary characters who slip in and out of pages baptizing and burying (in the many periods of historical fiction, religion was a major part of one’s life.)  And of course the first two categories intermingle.

There are so many such novels or series that I can mention only a few. The sleuth nuns in both THE CROWN by Nancy Bilyeau and the Margaret Frazer DAME FREVISSE series; the monk in Ellis Peter’s BROTHER CADFAEL mysteries.  All are wonderful portraits of sleuths who are devout as a matter of course as they try to bring a little justice and grace into the world and find the inevitable murderer. On the other hand, Margaret of Ashbury in Judith Merkle Riley’s A VISION OF LIGHT is not a sleuth. She does not need to pursue spiritual light; it overcomes her, and she has no idea why. On page 121 in a poor parish church, Margaret sees “something very strange, like a veil of light…I was seized with inexpressible ecstasy.” I was reading this fascinating book and came across these pages. I had found one of the truest descriptions of spiritual ecstasy not in my shelf of books of theology and sermons, but in a historical novel. I was spellbound and cheered.

I would like to depart the shores of England for a moment and mention that, though this novel is set in Germany (her previous was set in England), I felt a deep spiritual sense in Mary Sharratt’s writing even before she decided to tackle the medieval nun Hildegard of Bingen. I read ILLUMINATIONS with great fascination. To write a historical novel with no central love story, indeed where the love story is for a true realization of God, is a very brave thing and she succeeds beautifully.

It is difficult to write about spiritual matters. They are the most intimate of our feelings and more difficult to express in words than physics, which is most deeply expressed in mathematics. And words are all we have as novelists. Yet a good historical novel can transplant a reader to spiritual places and feelings which a theological book can seldom do. Novels can be a gate to “thing that are unseen.”

My own most spiritual novel NICHOLAS COOKE is about an Elizabethan boy who grows up as an actor, soldier and physician and longs to be a priest and serve God but is always in too much trouble; it was published in the 90s by W.W. Norton and is now available on Kindle. I was involved in my own intense spiritual search when I wrote it but even with that, I can’t say where it came from. The spiritual parts of the writing descended on me as the light does in Riley’s novel. “I have never once seen God, and yet I feel Him more intensely than I feel you. It burns inside me so fiercely that it should kill me.” Library Journal called it “An exquisitely drawn portrait of a robust age and a complex man at war with himself.”  I was astonished when the novel was featured in People Magazine. Of all my books!

I’ll end with an absolute favorite, now out of print but so much loved by me! A novel of John Donne, TAKE HEED OF LOVING ME, by Elizabeth Gray Vining. Pure poetry! (Donne is the author of the words “No man is an island” and James I made him Dean of St. Paul’s in 1621. You can find his statue there in his shroud, one of the few things which survived the 1666 fiery destruction of the earlier St. Paul’s.)

Please do leave comments about your favorite English historical novel with a nun, priest, monk or spiritual seeker as protagonist! Also rabbis! I will buy more books!


Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell writes about English history and historic people in the arts. She is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart (which debuted as an opera/play in NYC this past December) and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com