I have long been an admirer of Powell and Pressburger’s film, Black Narcissus, with its sumptuous, vivid colours and moments of heightened drama. The movie, which came out in 1947, was adapted from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same name (an instant bestseller in its day, it remains Godden’s best-known work). It’s a glorious book, an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and – perhaps most significantly of all – repressed female desire.
As the novel opens, a small group of Anglican nuns are setting out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains – a place steeped in beauty and mystery. Sister Clodagh – newly appointed as the youngest Sister Superior in her Order – will lead the mission, to go forward where others have failed. (A group of Jesuit Brothers has recently returned from the mountains, having abandoned their plans for a school in the very same location.)
Accompanying Sister Clodagh in her quest are four other sisters, each with their own potential role in the new collective: Sister Briony to run the dispensary; Sister Phillipa to establish a garden; Sister Ruth to give the children lessons; and Sister Honey to teach the young women to make lace.
Roles and responsibilities aside, the various dynamics in the group have the potential to hinder progress. Sister Ruth is unpredictable and strong-willed, likely to cause trouble if not carefully managed. There are question marks too over Sister Clodagh’s abilities – not least from Dorothea, the Mother Superior who has already expressed reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for the role, despite the young Sister’s assurances. Right from the start, there is an air of trouble brewing with this mission, a feeling only enhanced by the strangeness of the location itself. Mopu Palace – the building donated to the nuns for their convent – is the former home of the General’s seraglio, effectively a harem or ‘House of Women’.
At first, the nuns are somewhat daunted by the challenge as they struggle to adapt to the high altitude and new living conditions; nevertheless, they soon begin work to establish their community. Assisting the sisters is Ayah, an elderly lady who keeps house at the Palace. Also of note is Mr Dean, the outspoken British man who acts as the General’s Agent in the area.
Mr Dean is quite a character – not one for holding back on his opinions of the sisters’ ambitions, especially when he foresees trouble with the locals. His forthright nature, strong sense of humour and fondness for drink all come as a bit of a shock to the Sisters, who have led quite a sheltered existence to date. The dynamic between Mr Dean and Sister Clodagh is a fascinating one, the kind of sexual tension that can erupt in a passionate disagreement.
‘You’re –’ she said furiously. ‘You’re – you’re unforgivable.’ Then she said vindictively, between her teeth: You’re objectionable when you’re sober, and abominable when you’re drunk.’
‘I quite agree,’ he said, and taking his pony went down the hill. (p. 121)
That said, Mr Dean is a level-headed man at heart, naturally sympathetic to the Sisters’ situation, and he soon proves highly valuable to the mission, assisting with plumbing, construction and all manner of practical jobs – some of which involve careful liaison with the locals.
As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under Mopu’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. For Sister Honey, it is a longing for a baby; for Sister Philippa, the love of her garden; for Ruth, an ongoing obsession with the magnetic Mr Dean; and for Clodagh it is Con, the childhood sweetheart she left behind in Ireland, back in the days of her carefree youth. In short, each woman must wrestle with her own psychological demon.
Sister Honey stopped in her work to listen eagerly to the children saying their lesson in the next room, as if they belonged to her; Sister Philippa straightened her back from her frozen beds and stared across the garden, seeing it in summer, and Sister Ruth watched and waited for Mr Dean. Sister Clodagh’s face was so softened and changed that Mother Dorothea would not have known her. (p. 143)
As the novel moves towards its dramatic climax, tensions between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth intensify, threatening to erupt at any given moment. Sister Ruth becomes increasingly unstable, accusing Sister Clodagh of harbouring feelings for Mr Dean – an accusation driven by jealousy and a kind of descent into madness.
‘All the same, I’ve noticed that you’re very pleased to see him yourself!’ she flung at Sister Clodagh.
Sister Clodagh’s face blazed. She half rose in her chair and then she sank back into it again, holding her desk.
‘You’re trying to tell me I’m not fit to be a nun,’ cried Sister Ruth. ‘Well, let me tell you that no more are you. You should never have entered either, and you know it for all your honours and success. Wonderful Sister Clodagh. Clever Sister Clodagh. Admirable Sister Clodagh,’ she mocked, ‘and all the time you’re worse than I am and that’s why you’re trying to bully me.’ (p. 127)
Another factor in the novel’s undeniable sexual tension is Dilip Rai, the General’s nephew who comes to the Palace for lessons with the Sisters. While there, Dilip falls for Kanchi, a flirtatious girl who has been pestering Mr Dean, much to the latter’s annoyance. Black Narcissus is Sister Ruth’s nickname for Dilip Rai – a rather dismissive term coined from the women’s perfume he likes to wear. However, it also holds a significance for Sister Clodagh, whose relationship with Dilip can be viewed as a kind of metaphor for her repressed desires.
In terms of style, the novel is wonderfully sensual, rich in detail and imagery – aspects that capture the lush appearance of the surrounding natural world.
Just before Easter the knife wind changed to boisterousness, playing round the trees and rattling at the windows, and snatching at skirts and veils; with its roughness it was warm, scented with the orange flowers from the groves in the valley, a languorous scent blown roughly. The snow was melting and the streams were full; their own stream pelted down the hill, swelling up round the bamboos; over the slopes came a green bloom with a blueness in it like a grape and the rhododendrons opened in hundreds, and the magnolia behind the house budded into thick white flowers. (p. 178)
While the novel is rooted in a very specific time and place, there is a strange, dreamlike quality to the narrative – a little like a fairy tale or powerful spell that gradually works its magic on the unsuspecting reader. It all makes for an evocative reading experience, the essence of which is reflected in Powell and Pressburger’s luxuriant film.
In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, irrespective of your familiarity with the story.
Black Narcissus is published by Virago Press, my thanks to the publishers for a reading copy.