Patricia Craig

  • Breaking silence: Lesbian Nuns on Convent Sexuality edited by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan
    Columbus, 371 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 86287 255 3

Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan (a well-named pair) have assembled the testimonies of a lot of naughty American nuns and ex-nuns who chafed under the restrictions of convent life. One restriction in particular galled them all: the embargo on sexual activity. Few nuns, it seems, are natural celibates. Fewer still are heterosexual. An attraction to girls and women propelled them in droves into convents all over America, and out again when they found their inclinations didn’t tally with the requirements of the Church. As in the schoolgirl stories of Angela Brazil – who innocently named one of her heroines Lesbia – many of the friendships described in Breaking silence ‘flamed to red heat’. Angela Brazil perhaps didn’t understand the implications of the ardour she evoked. Neither did another children’s author, Elsie Oxenham, take full cognisance of the impulse that carried her characters, cheery adolescents all, into one another’s bedrooms and beds. You aren’t, with the Oxenham stories, invited to attribute anything but cosiness to the set-piece cocoa-drinking session which typically takes place at midnight with a special friend. Nuns, too, gaily visit one another’s rooms ‘to chat and hug’, or crawl through the window of a dormitory in which some irresistible confrère is sleeping. Indeed, the world of postulants and novitiates is very like the world of school and bosom friendships c. 1930, with young nuns arranging assignations in the convent broom cupboard or tub room. Delectable silliness and excitements are there in plenty. But the knowing modern nuns of Breaking silence are fully aware of what they’re up to – and once their passions are aroused, there is really no holding them: ‘Grope and fumble just would not do.’

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