Thursday, December 10, 2015
Quiet as a Nun - Antonia Fraser
Jemima Shore is a television journalist. She presents a program called Jemima Shore Investigates which looks into social issues & public scandals. Jemima is having an affair with a married politician, Tom Amyas, who's also very involved in social issues. At a loose end one night as she waits for Tom, Jemima sees a story in the newspaper about a nun found dead in an isolated tower. Jemima is taken back to her schooldays as she attended the convent school where the nun died. Blessed Eleanor's convent had been founded by a royal patroness, the Blessed Eleanor, who founded the Order of the Tower of Ivory & built a tower as a private retreat in the grounds. It was in this same tower that the nun, Sister Miriam, was found dead. It seems that she had accidentally locked herself in to the tower & starved to death. Jemima not only knew the convent but the nun. Sister Miriam had been Rosabelle Powerstock, a schoolfriend of Jemima's.
Jemima is surprised to be contacted by Reverend Mother Ancilla who asks her to visit the convent & find out what happened to Sister Miriam. The inquest into her death was scathing about the lack of support Sister Miriam received. She had been distressed before her death& there is speculation that she may have starved herself to death deliberately. Sister Miriam was a very wealthy woman before she entered the convent & retained control over a lot of property including the land on which the convent was built. It seems that her family business, the Powers Estate, was involved in a project to evict poor tenants to build a high-rise development. Sister Miriam wanted to change her will & give the convent land to a group who were trying to prevent the development. The protesters, led by the charismatic Alexander Skarbek, had been the focus of one of Jemima's recent programmes. Sister Miriam's death & the disappearance of her new will (if it ever existed) is very convenient for Mother Ancilla. Jemima soon discovers that there is evil in the convent & many secrets. There is also the mysterious Black Nun who is rumoured to be the spirit of the Blessed Eleanor & is seen flitting around the convent at night.
I've read Quiet as a Nun several times since it was first published. I love books about nuns & convents, fiction & non-fiction, & many mysteries are set in convents & monasteries. It's a closed community & the nuns all had other lives & other names before they entered so there's a lot of scope for mystery. Jemima also mentions several times that it's difficult to know how old a nun is because their habit hides the telltale signs of aging at the neck & forehead. Even though I'd read it before, I was still misled & ended up suspecting the wrong person. Some scenes I remembered very well, especially the scene when Jemima goes in to the Tower (alone, of course) & hears a chair rocking in the chamber above. She opens the door to reveal a nun rocking to and fro although it's actually only the empty habit. But someone must have started the chair rocking... There are a few missteps. The ending is tied up a bit too neatly & the sexual politics are very much of their time. Although that's not really a misstep because that's just the way things were, I suppose. It just feels odd for a successful, independent woman like Jemima to be sitting at home waiting for her married lover to turn up. It's a bit of a cliché. On the other hand, there are some genuinely creepy moments when Jemima is in the crypt under the chapel with the coffins of previous Reverend Mothers of the convent, including the Blessed Eleanor, all around her. There's also a funny scene at the school fete where Jemima silently criticises the wife of the local MP for making a mess of her speech. As the former wife of a Tory MP & daughter of a politician, I'm sure Fraser was an expert on stump speeches & opening fetes.