DOI: 10.1111/1468-0424.12759 ISSN: 0953-5233

Sister acts: Nuns in Rumer Godden's Black Narcissus and at the Loreto Convents in India

Yashaswini Chandra, Alexandra Verini
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • History
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Gender Studies


This article draws into comparative conversation Rumer Godden's 1939 novel about nuns in the Himalayas, Black Narcissus, and the records of real‐world nuns from the Loreto order in India. Through this comparison, we shed light on the under‐studied field of nuns in India and on the intersection of gender and colonialism during the later period of colonial rule. Reading fiction against historical archives, we find that a novel that has been lauded for its anti‐imperialist stance in fact retains elements of orientalism that dovetail with a misogynistic outlook. Meanwhile, an order that exhibited racist and colonialist tendencies also, despite and because of these, engineered a project with significant feminist purpose. This juxtaposition of Godden's novel and Loreto's internal archives reveals the ways in which white feminist goals can be at odds with anti‐colonialist ones, but it also shows how the standard portrayal of nuns – represented by Godden's novel – as regressive and lacking agency does not hold up in the face of the historical record.

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