Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nuns, monks, priests and believers: writing about spiritual matters in English historical fiction

I once told a friend that it was impossible for me to write a novel without a nun or a priest in it. In my household this has become a bit of a joke; my husband likes to say, “Oh you wouldn’t like this book or movie! No one’s searching for God!” Well, sometimes it is true.

I am myself a church mouse; I can hardly pass an old church or chapel in England without slipping inside. Oh the history! Sometimes a thousand years or more in one church. Women were praying for families seven hundred years ago in the very spot where you stand.

Roughly I can put the nuns, priests and devout characters in novels in three categories: sleuth, spiritual seekers, and secondary characters who slip in and out of pages baptizing and burying (in the many periods of historical fiction, religion was a major part of one’s life.)  And of course the first two categories intermingle.

There are so many such novels or series that I can mention only a few. The sleuth nuns in both THE CROWN by Nancy Bilyeau and the Margaret Frazer DAME FREVISSE series; the monk in Ellis Peter’s BROTHER CADFAEL mysteries.  All are wonderful portraits of sleuths who are devout as a matter of course as they try to bring a little justice and grace into the world and find the inevitable murderer. On the other hand, Margaret of Ashbury in Judith Merkle Riley’s A VISION OF LIGHT is not a sleuth. She does not need to pursue spiritual light; it overcomes her, and she has no idea why. On page 121 in a poor parish church, Margaret sees “something very strange, like a veil of light…I was seized with inexpressible ecstasy.” I was reading this fascinating book and came across these pages. I had found one of the truest descriptions of spiritual ecstasy not in my shelf of books of theology and sermons, but in a historical novel. I was spellbound and cheered.

I would like to depart the shores of England for a moment and mention that, though this novel is set in Germany (her previous was set in England), I felt a deep spiritual sense in Mary Sharratt’s writing even before she decided to tackle the medieval nun Hildegard of Bingen. I read ILLUMINATIONS with great fascination. To write a historical novel with no central love story, indeed where the love story is for a true realization of God, is a very brave thing and she succeeds beautifully.

It is difficult to write about spiritual matters. They are the most intimate of our feelings and more difficult to express in words than physics, which is most deeply expressed in mathematics. And words are all we have as novelists. Yet a good historical novel can transplant a reader to spiritual places and feelings which a theological book can seldom do. Novels can be a gate to “thing that are unseen.”

My own most spiritual novel NICHOLAS COOKE is about an Elizabethan boy who grows up as an actor, soldier and physician and longs to be a priest and serve God but is always in too much trouble; it was published in the 90s by W.W. Norton and is now available on Kindle. I was involved in my own intense spiritual search when I wrote it but even with that, I can’t say where it came from. The spiritual parts of the writing descended on me as the light does in Riley’s novel. “I have never once seen God, and yet I feel Him more intensely than I feel you. It burns inside me so fiercely that it should kill me.” Library Journal called it “An exquisitely drawn portrait of a robust age and a complex man at war with himself.”  I was astonished when the novel was featured in People Magazine. Of all my books!

I’ll end with an absolute favorite, now out of print but so much loved by me! A novel of John Donne, TAKE HEED OF LOVING ME, by Elizabeth Gray Vining. Pure poetry! (Donne is the author of the words “No man is an island” and James I made him Dean of St. Paul’s in 1621. You can find his statue there in his shroud, one of the few things which survived the 1666 fiery destruction of the earlier St. Paul’s.)

Please do leave comments about your favorite English historical novel with a nun, priest, monk or spiritual seeker as protagonist! Also rabbis! I will buy more books!


Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell writes about English history and historic people in the arts. She is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart (which debuted as an opera/play in NYC this past December) and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com


  1. I enjoyed this look at Historical novels and Spirituality. I enjoy reading three historical mystery series that include a spiritual sleuth. I like your point about putting spirituality discussions or dialogue in books being difficult because its deeply personal.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thursbitch, by Alan Garner, falls at the outer edge of your request for books as while it contains a great deal that is spiritual, it is not a Christian spirituality but something much more pantheistic and closer to my own atheist/animist feelings. It's a brilliant novel set in the English pennines in the C18th and in modern times. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thursbitch
    The best way I can describe it is, if he had written The Owl Service for grown-ips it might be like Thursbitch.

    The odd title is the name of the valley where its set.

  3. I am an enthusiastic fan of Judith Rock's mystery series set in the 1680's, featuring Jesuit schoolmaster/dance instructor/choreographer, who interacts with the court of Louis XIV. About to read the 3rd novel in the series.

  4. Margaret, that's a new one for me! I also just discovered Cutler's A Keeper of Secrets. Thursbitch sounds fascinating.

  5. I write historical romance and believe that if you are to show the people and passions of the era you are writing about you have to reflect at least some aspect of their faith, particularly if (as in the medieval period) everyone was very aware of the church and God. Your novel NICHOLAS COOKE sounds like Augustine's path in life--and fascinating.


    1. Actually, Regan, when I was first trying to sell NICHOLAS and it had not entirely "formed" yet, an editor who almost bought it, said, "This reminds of of Augustine." And I shaped it more that way...Nicholas has to mess up a lot of his life before he finally is able to serve God. NICHOLAS is the first of a trilogy; the second book won an American Book Award. I hope every year to finish the third book! Soon! Thanks!

    2. Regan I absolutely agree. It's not just the medieval period. The church was an enormous part of life in the Regency for example but characters in regencies rarely go to church. I've just written a regency with a hero who has a very strong faith and it struck me as I was writing it that what seemed totally natural to him, doesn't happen in other books. It's not an "inspirational" by any means but it is a reflection of the life and times.\

      And Stephanie, I can rarely go past an old church in England without popping my head around the door for exactly the same reasons as you. So much is invested in the emotional fabric of the building.

  6. It was a joy to watch Margaret Frazer's Frevisse grow spiritually and personally; one of my favorite original historical fiction characters ever! I also very much appreciated the dimensions of spirituality that Sharan Newman explored through her inclusion of very well-drawn, multi-dimensional Jewish characters from the 12th century in her Catherine LeVendeur series.

  7. Stephanie,

    Thank you for this post. I found many points interesting, causing me to reflect. I can’t imagine writing a novel without weaving spirit into the work, as we are spiritual creatures on a human journey (one can/maybe be an atheist, because even if you don’t believe in something larger than yourself that does not negate what is), and as historical writers we are writing about life journeys of the past through our characters. And the journey and spirit are one of the other: one. Spirit expresses and manifests tangibly through the visual arts, music, writing, so, I believe Stephanie your other books “Marrying Mozart” and “Claude and Camille” are very spiritual too--- expressing the deep, deep, deep need, desire, spontaneity to create which is spiritual.

    “Claude and Camille” touched and resonated with me profoundly. I came away from the book believing one reason Camille loved Claude and gave up the comforts of her privileged birth was because she longed deeply to create art, but instead she lived vicariously through Claude’s creations and passion. But she had the profound passion within herself to commune with this infinite creative energy. Instead, she created children (a magnificent artistic creation in itself, but common and accessible to many) and in her case this inhibited her from realizing her core desire: to make art, be it visual or in the written word. I identify with this longing as I believe when we are creating art we are our closest to God, to the essence of spirit ̶ to rapture. And when rapture’s essence is captured and depicted in a work of music, visual or written art, one, the masses, can repeatedly experience this fleeting moment of ecstasy through the work again and again, and this is reason the world loves it so.

    Well, this is becoming lengthy for a blog post comment, thank you again for writing this post, I loved it.


    Stephanie Renée dos Santos

    1. "(one can/maybe be an atheist, because even if you don’t believe in something larger than yourself that does not negate what is)"

      I would have to say that believing in, or rather accepting the existence of, something larger than yourself is quite common to atheists! Happens everytime I look at the night sky. The only difference is, I don't believe there is anyone looking back at me.

    2. Wonderful, I don't believe there is anyone looking back at me either, I just believe in infinite energy!



    3. What a beautiful post, Stephanie! Thanks for your very kind words and insightful comments. My personal feeling is that Camille did not have the patience it takes to be a writer or actress, to endure the hundreds of rewrites and hundreds of lost auditions. The arts are extremely hard work and few guaranties...so she lived through Claude's art which was also a wonderful thing, because people who create need people standing by them. In my life, I do both...which is very fulfilling. I really love it.

      Thanks to everyone for your reading suggestions! I will follow through!

  8. The Ramsay Scallop by Frances Temple. It's a children's/YA book that centers around a pilgrimage -- a lovely story.

    Also, The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, another children's/YA.


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