This haunting tale of shame and redemption is the story of Lise Fanshawe, prostitute and brothel manager in postwar Paris, murderer and prisoner, and, finally, a Catholic nun in an order dedicated to serving people on the margins of society. Rumer Godden, author of the masterwork In This House of Brede, tells an inspiring and entirely convincing conversion story that shows how the mercy of God extends to the darkest human places.
Sister Lise Fanshawe isn’t your typical nun. She wears a habit, lives in a convent, and spends several hours a day in prayer, but her work is very specialized. Her order, the Sisters of Bethany, is dedicated to serving prisoners, prostitutes, and other outcast women. What’s more, Lise herself was once one of these outcasts. She was first a prostitute, then a brothel manager, and finally a murderer. Lise served a long sentence for her crime in a French prison, which is where she encountered the Bethany nuns.
Lise is the central character in Rumer Godden’s Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, a somber but inspiring tale set in mid-twentieth-century Paris. Lise, who is English, arrives in Paris as part of the British army and witnesses the liberation of the city at the end of World War II. She is caught up in the wild celebration of the time and becomes attached to a charming criminal named Patrice. She begins working in Patrice’s brothel, and soon she is running the place. Lise’s hatred for her life (and herself) deepens. One day, desperate to keep Patrice from abusing a young woman, she kills him.
Lise is converted in prison through the selfless example of the Bethany nuns. There’s a convincing symmetry to her conversion: she chooses to follow one man, Jesus, instead of another, Patrice. She exchanges the harsh rules of the brothel and prison for the spiritual rules of her community. She replaces the twisted love of sex for money with the boundless love of God. There’s blessed irony in Lise’s conversion. She had been enslaved by the false freedom of sexual autonomy and is liberated by the apparent restraints of religious life.
There’s irony too in Lise’s ministry as a nun. She tries desperately to save one girl and fails. She rejects another girl but becomes, despite herself, a saving spiritual model for her. Lise’s ministry is fruitful, but in the end it takes a tragic turn. Rumer Godden has no illusions about what it means to serve God. Her story shows how God’s mercy extends to the darkest human places. God’s love brings light and healing, but often it comes through suffering willingly embraced.
Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is a darker story than In This House of Brede, Godden’s other classic tale of nuns. Nonetheless, it is a story of hope. The title of the book is a reference to the mysteries of the rosary: five are sorrowful mysteries, while ten are joyful and glorious. Sorrow is very much present in this story, but in the end joy prevails.
About the author: Rumer Godden, a prolific and eclectic novelist whose fiction explores the wonders of childhood, the diversity of India, and the mysteries of the religious life, was born on December 10, 1907, in Eastbourne, England. At six months of age she was taken by her parents to India, where her father ran a steamship company in the Bengal Delta. Apart from some schooling in Britain, she lived the first half of her life on the subcontinent.
Godden’s first novel, Chinese Puzzle, was published in 1936. Her first success came with the novel Black Narcissus (1939), which was a best seller and one of her nine novels to be turned into films (others include The Greengage Summer and In This House of Brede). She returned to Britain after the Second World War and turned out a steady stream of novels to increasing attention and acclaim.
Altogether she published more than twenty novels, including The River (1946), Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953), An Episode of Sparrows (1955), Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy (1979), The Dark Horse (1981), Coromandel Sea Change (1991), and Cromartie v. the God Shiva Acting through the Government of India (1997).
Rumer Godden also published poetry, translations, a biography of Hans Christian Andersen, and two autobiographies: A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987) and A House with Four Rooms (1989). She wrote many books for children, including The Doll’s House (1947), The Mousewife (1951), and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (1961). In 1972, she won the Whitbread Award for The Diddakoi.
Godden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1968. In preparation for writing In This House of Brede (1969), about life in a Benedictine monastery, she lived for three years at the gate of Stanbrook Abbey, a Benedictine foundation.
She died in Dumfries, Scotland, on November 8, 1998, at the age of ninety.