Philobiblon: Leaping out of the nunnery

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Leaping out of the nunnery

Continuing the Catholic theme, and prompted by a discussion of nuns over on C-18, I've dug out an amazing little treasure of a book that I picked up on a 10c stall: "I Leap Over the Wall: A Return to the World After 28 Years in a Convent", by Monica Baldwin (a relation of Stanley), who came out of the convent on October 26, 1941.

She had an experience as close as anyone has ever known to travelling a time-machine, and finds the wardrobes, manners, language and behavouir of 1941 those not so much as of another race as another species.

Some examples:
"An object was handed to me which I can only describe as a very realistically modelled bust bodice. That its purpose was to emphasize contours which, in my girlhood, were always decorously concealed was but too evident.
'This,' said my sister cheerfully, 'is a brassiere. And it's no use looking so horrified, because fashions to-day go out of their way to stress that part of one's anatomy. These things are supposed to fix one's chest at the clasic angle. Like this --' she adjusted the object with expert fingers. 'There - you see the idea?'" (p. 9)

Shops: "Gone were the frock-coated myriads of shopwalkers who had once thonged one's path like obseqious black-beetles; gone were the satin-gowned moddoming ladies with swishing trains and incredible coiffures. Instead, a few rather disdainful elderly women and scornful blondes in their teens had taken over." (p. 19)

London: "the 'leisured classes' - as I remembered them -- had completely disappeared. I've never been able to discover what has become of them. Like Atlantis and the dodo, they have simply vanished away. In their place, London was thronged by what looked like the lower-middle and working class - a vast multitude with strained faces and tired, blitz-haunted eyes." (p. 20)

After various unsuccessful attempts to find war work, she ends up as a matron in a women's hostel for munitions workers. The manageress tells her: "They're an age-group, so are, of course, consripted from different surroundings. You'll find servants, shop-girls, flower-sellers, laundry-hands, quite a lot of mixed Irish, some thieves, a lady or two and several prostitutes. Most of them belong to what are called the working classes. One has to try and handle them according to their kind." (p. 152)

No summary could do justice to her account of this experience.

(My copy is Pan 1957; first published 1949.)


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