For those that don't know, the Salon is a lovely group of bookish friends who have met monthly at Hotel Endsleigh for the last nearly nine years I think.. I may be losing count. We are over-subscribed and now closed to new members and just have to hope that not everyone turns up each month. We choose a theme rather than a set book and all love the format, it works wonderfully well because we each talk about our own choice and come away with plenty of recommends.
So the theme for April was Over the Fence and thinking that I had only recently re-read National Velvet and wasn't in the mood for a Dick Francis novel I scoured my shelves for something a bit different. Thinking laterally and obliquely around the theme is encouraged and as I approached my Nun's Corner my eye settled on I Leap Over the Wall by Monica Baldwin...perfect.
When is a fence not a fence...when it is a wall, I could make this fit.
Published in 1949 I Leap Over the Wall is Monica Baldwin's autobiographical account of her departure from convent life after twenty-nine years in an enclosed order. Monica had entered the convent prior to the First World War in 1914 at the age of twenty-one, emerging aged forty-nine in 1941 and in the midst of World War Two.
Born in 1893, the first new fact I discovered was that Monica was the niece of Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister on three occasions during the 1920s and 1930s, and would stay with him and his wife several times after her...well, I suppose it was her release, given that a special dispensation had to be sought from the Pope before Monica could make that leap over the convent wall.
If ever there was a time for the country to change so fundamentally and so rapidly it surely has to be during those years that Monica was 'inside'. Think of the differences in women's lives between 1914 and 1941, in their dress, in decorum and behaviour, in the social hierarchy and in working lives, and there was Monica emerging blinking, vulnerable and defenceless into a clamorous world in the midst of another war. With her lack of worldliness and a very narrow education, unqualified and untrained in anything other than silence and the effacement of personal thoughts and the self at all times, it is little wonder that Monica struggled. With the outlook and emotional maturity of a pre-1914 schoolgirl, Monica, naive, vulnerable and impressionable, must learn how to use this freedom to be herself and do what she wanted whilst also mastering the art of getting on with people and establishing relationships with them.
Trained for naught, I lost count of the number of jobs Monica either interviewed for and didn't get, or those she did but only lasted a matter of weeks, or the number of long-suffering friends or relatives that she would stay with a for a few weeks before some sort of argument erupted and she had to move on. I got the impression Monica could make two concrete blocks have an argument, and there was something infinitely sad about her inability to fit in. She was sensitive and inhibited, and though calling herself a 'failed nun' continued to look at everything from the perspective of the religious life, never losing her faith it would seem. just her vocation yet constantly defending the enclosed life once people discovered her past.
There is some interesting reference to the books that Monica read during this time...
Mackerel Sky ~ Helen Ashton
As We Are ~ E.F.Benson
The Brontes Went to Woolworths ~ Rachel Ferguson
and she was extremely impressed by Challacombe, a radio play by a new and unknown writer, Frank Baker (he of Miss Hargreaves maybe) As an aside I now discover that author Frank Baker was, for some time, the organist at St Hilary Church...the little Cornish church that Bookhound and I visited to see the Lamorna artists paintings.
Monica Baldwin said of her own life that it was as if the beginning of a film had been clumsily spliced onto the end whilst leaving out the middle, and by her own admission she went into the convent 'young and good-looking,' and emerged 'elderly and plain'. It bothered her that she could no longer turn heads, something she finds humiliating, and there will be some darks nights of the soul, coupled with depression and a sense of inadequacy for Monica as she comes to terms with the fact that her life is dry and depleted and she feels repressed and unused. All this passed me by at sixteen when I first read I Leap Over the Wall, when I seem to remember having nothing but admiration for this woman...can I say that this time around Monica ever-so slightly got on my nerves.
And then I would feel bad when I read something like this...
'To know that there isn't a corner on earth where you are wanted or even needed - endless wandering...'
Having leapt over the wall, such solitude, loneliness and isolation out in the world must have had Monica frequently yearning to leap back in again surely.
My impression was of a very difficult, dare I say selfish woman and I wonder whether the complete self-absorption and constant examination of self, whilst acceptable within a convent, becomes something else entirely on the other side of the walls, and maybe something impossible to see in oneself. Assessing the people around her as dreadfully selfish and possessive...go-getting...take-all...give nothing...grabbing for themselves it isn't hard to see why Monica's wandering sofa-surfing life continued at least until, in the late 1940s, she finally secured the cottage of her dreams at Lamorna in Cornwall. I wonder if she met Dame Laura Knight...apparently Lamorna Birch would give her painting lessons but found Monica irritating.
Interestingly there is no mention of Monica's parents or her background in the book and I was keen to know more, so I am grateful to Pauline Annis of the Stourport Civic Society from whom I ordered a copy of her booklet Searching for Monica Baldwin. It certainly filled out much more detail and I can highly recommend it if you read I Leap Over the Wall.
But ultimately all is sadness.
I Leap Over the Wall concludes with Monica finding the cottage of her dreams in Lamorna and the reader supposes life-long happiness on the Cornish clifftops, except sadly the magic dissipates along with the money and a succession of moves around the country follow. It was whilst staying with Angela Thirkell that Monica Baldwin started writing this book which would eventually resolve her money issues, but it would seem nothing was going to dispel her personal demons. The last days of her life were spent in a residential home in Suffolk where, having fallen out with the owners and other residents and been given notice to leave, Monica took her own life using a combination of alcohol and barbiturates. Friendless and alone I can only imagine how desperate she must have been. If anyone is near Clare in Suffolk apparently Monica is buried in the public cemetery there, though I can find no picture of her grave.
So a good Nun Read this one, do you have any others to recommend??
It is a while since I have read In This House of Brede and The Black Narcissus both by Rumer Godden, and maybe it is finally time I read The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, but there must be plenty more.