Nearly 200 pages of predominantly prose, with little dialogue and white space, and yet, I could hardly put the book down.
Different to the other Rose Tremain's I've read & loved (particularly The Colour and Music & Silence), the Letters to Sister Benedicta trace the inner rambles of Ruby's fracturing self after a traumatic year bringing her safe, ordinary and quietly unhappy life tumbling down. That destruction ultimately frees Ruby to begin a journey of self-discovery.
We don't get to see that journey, only the events leading up to Ruby's first tentative steps outside the cocoon of her previous life in which she was smothered by personalties far less sensitive and far more selfish than she. Her parents, mean & miserable with their fading memories of previous glory; her urine soaked grandmother in the crumbling manor house; her domineering & unfaithful husband; her ghastly mother in law- an eternal victim; her morally bankrupt children; her weak English lover, supplanted in his wife's affections by a swarthy skinned & passionate foreigner and the ominously silent Sister Benedicta all play their part in deepening the confusion Ruby experiences around who she is and what kind of life she's capable of living.
On the surface, this is a novel of hope, but there's an oppressive thread of melancholy interwoven in this story. Ruby, too, is so passive, so very smothered by her lack of self-love and her desire to please/help everyone but herself that even the beginning of her Great Adventure at the end of the book leaves one with a niggling doubt that, here too, she fell into that path rather than actively choosing it for herself.
This short but complex story has excellent characterisations and provokes deep thinking - Ruby, in her self-destructive passivity, having been so cowed & diminished by the "soldiers" in her life, is the perfect analogy for the countries colonised under Queen Victoria's push towards the Great British Empire: India, in particular, as India is where Ruby & her parents lived, but also Zimbabwe & South Africa, all left with a low self-esteem about their abilities, their true natures and their warm vibrant passions so unlike the cold superiority of the colonising western empire. In Ruby's ambivalence about Leon's dying - her almost unrecognised longing for freedom, buried in her Pavlovian responses of sacrificing her identity & her needs to serve her dying husband, and in her first tentative steps towards an independent self-hood free of the smothering rules and demands so alien to her true nature, I see an echo of the path previously colonised countries had to walk when the conquering soldiers finally left.
Another gem from Rose Tremain, even if its depths are not immediately clear in the quiet ordinariness of Ruby's sad existence.
"Leon had such a sure sense of his own identity and was so absolutely purposeful in all that he did, that within a very short time I had put away most of myself"
"Godmother Louise being “a good Marxist” and found it rather strange. I think I decided that she was only a good Marxist deep down in her soul and that she let the rest of herself be rather a bad Marxist. And the bad Marxist in her kept on and on going to five-star hotel rooms where enormous bouquets arrived “courtesy of the management” and where she sipped away, guiltless, at the finest champagne a bourgeois capitalist society can produce. At least she had been right about India. Her loathing for the idea of empire had been as strong as Queen Victoria’s love of it. She despised my parents for their snobbishness and their loveless ways. It was a kind of sickness, she said, their terrible pride and reserve, and I must be cured of it. I must forget the school for the daughters of the high-ranking officers, no longer think of myself as a daughter of a high-ranking officer, or even as a Catholic, because these were the masks to hide behind and until I threw them away, these masks, threw them away and never put them on again, I wouldn’t know myself. “This is why so many of us are lost, Ruby,” she said, “this is why your mother and father are so lost: they are crouching down behind their masks; they believe they are their masks and without them they will be nothing!”"
"No one in India seemed to have a feeling for helpfulness, only a feeling for what is right, and it took me a long time to see that almost everything they thought was right was actually not all that right, but in fact rather wrong. And this deficiency in helpfulness, I mean, I’ve had it all my life and I blame India, but who can say if it was India or if it wasn’t born in me..."