Work in Progress: The Nun and the Crocodile

A first look at The Nun and the Crocodile: The Stories Behind The Nun’s Story

by Debra Campbell, Colby College

In the past decade, I have become increasingly interested in what we can learn from life writings, especially personal narrative. My current project focuses upon a well-known but rarely studied book: The Nun’s Story (1956) by Kathryn Hulme. The book was an immediate success—on the best-seller list for a year–and inspired Fred Zinnemann’s blockbuster film (1959) starring Audrey Hepburn. Both Hulme’s book and Robert Anderson’s very faithful screenplay examine the life of Sister Luke, who joined a Belgian congregation of nursing sisters in 1927 and departed in the autumn of 1944 to work as a nurse in the Belgian Resistance.

The Nun’s Story takes a close—even an intimate—look at one woman’s experience of the religious life from her first day as a postulant until her departure from the religious life seventeen years later. It examines in painstaking detail her protracted decision to leave the convent. It explores the difficulties and complexities that Sister Luke encountered when she tried to do justice to her three-fold obligation: to obey her superior, fulfill her duties as a choir sister, and provide her patients with the best possible care. Needless to say, this was controversial subject matter for postwar Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic. (At the Eighth Triennial Conference on the History of Women Religious held in Scranton in June 2010, discussions with fellow Catholic Baby Boomers confirmed my memory that the film version of The Nun’s Story was not considered family entertainment in the average parish. Catholic parents and priests were not aware that the screenplay had been scrutinized by a team of Dominicans appointed by the Vatican film office and Harold Gardiner, SJ., literary editor of America. ) This does not mean that Catholic readers and moviegoers were not a pivotal factor in the commercial success of The Nun’s Story in both genres. It does mean that to this day, Catholic readers/moviegoers and Catholic historians alike have trouble knowing what to do with The Nun’s Story. Like most contemporary reviewers of the book and film, we do not quite know how to read and evaluate a narrative that feels like fiction but claims to be “true in its essentials.” Do we dare to treat The Nun’s Story like an authentic life-writing, even perhaps a personal narrative?

My current work in progress answers this question in the affirmative. It examines the stories behind The Nun’s Story in a joint biography of Kathryn Hulme and her dear friend, Marie Louise Habets (1905-86), the “real Sister Luke.” Hulme and Habets first met in June 1945 in an UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency) training camp on the Normandy Coast. They came from two different worlds. With the exception of the previous year when she served in the Resistance and in a British field auxiliary caring for casualties of the war in her native Belgium, Habets had spent her entire adult life in the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. She had extensive training as a nursing sister in her congregation’s facilities for the mentally ill, tuberculosis patients, and Belgian colonials in the Congo. She had virtually no experience of life as an adult outside of the convent. Hulme was a professional writer and adventurer who had worked as a factory operative before traveling the world in the 1920s, in search of material to write about. In first half of the 1930s, she settled on the Left Bank of Paris on the margins of a tight-knit community of literary women (primarily lesbians), including: the New Yorker columnist Janet Flanner, the former National Geographic writer Solita Solano, and the co-editors of the avant-garde literary journal The Little Review, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson. The real draw for Hulme, and a few of the others, was the mystic and popular religious teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949), who assembled a tiny, invitation-only, all-female spiritual community called The Rope, a group that transformed Hulme’s life. The spirituality was eclectic, incorporating Gurdjieff’s own idiosyncrasies and tailored toward the needs of each individual seeker. (Gurdjieff gave each woman a spiritual name that functioned as a mantra: Hulme’s was Crocodile.) Gurdjieff’s teachings blended Christian, Hindu, ancient Egyptian, Mexican, and Masonic sources, with a touch of alchemy thrown in for balance. The Rope disbanded with the first rumblings of World War II. After Pearl Harbor, Hulme worked the swing shift as a welder building Liberty Ships at Kaiser Shipyards in San Francisco. In 1945 she joined the first generation of administrators at UNRRA, founded to care for (and eventually resettle) an estimated nine million displaced persons who had been forced to work for the Nazi regime.

Gradually, Habets came to trust Hulme enough to tell her about her past life. Hulme kept the secret until the early 1950s, when they were living in Phoenix, Arizona. Habets lost a nursing job when the administrators at St. Joseph’s Hospital discovered that she was an ex-nun. She suggested that if Hulme were to write her life story “a bit fictionalized,” it could “do some good” (Hulme, Undiscovered Country, 303). Hulme was ecstatic, for she knew that this was the gift of a lifetime for a writer like her whose special talent lay in the area of non-fiction. She also quietly embraced the opportunity to make The Nun’s Story an account of her own spiritual pilgrimage as well as Habets’s. On the first page of her memoir Undiscovered Country, published in 1966, Hulme recounts how, after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, she began to look for a new spiritual home. In 1951, after a month of frank and wide-ranging discussions with a Jesuit in Phoenix, she was baptized into the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly Hulme responded positively to the Catholic Church, in part, because she saw how important it was to Habets, but her stated reason for her conversion was that the Catholic Church’s “voice of conscience” was the only one that “made sense” to her in the light of her training with Gurdjieff. Hulme maintained that “between the lines” of the Nun’s Story she inscribed an account of her “own years of inner struggle with the ‘Gurdjieffian’ work aim.” Historical narratives written by members of The Rope suggest that it is not far-fetched to treat the group as a kind of novitiate under a very demanding novice-master.

In THE NUN AND THE CROCODILE, I explore how the lives of Hulme and Habets intersected during the UNRRA years and how the life experiences and spirituality of both women came to be expressed in The Nun’s Story. I examine how the popular reception and commercial success of The Nun’s Story affected the lives of Hulme and Habets and their perceptions of the Catholic Church. In the process of unraveling and examining the stories behind The Nun’s Story, I have come to see the Catholic Church of the 1950s in a new and invigorating light. This project has confirmed for me why we need more life studies of twentieth-century Catholics and how the study of personal narrative takes historians of Catholicism to places that we could reach in no other way.

Debra Campbell is Professor of Religious Studies at Colby College. Besides the forthcoming The Nun and the Crocodile, she is the author of Graceful Exits: Women and the Art of Departure (Indiana University Press, 2003) and numerous articles on American Catholicism, women and Catholicism, and the American laity.

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