FLEEING from a violent mob of 3000 in November 1857, the nuns of East Grinstead might have been forgiven for doubting their decision to form one of the first Anglican sisterhoods. The motto of their founder, J. M. Neale, “What is possible may be done; what is impossible must be done,” should have given them fair warning.
But they could hardly have predicted the riots or the unremitting grimness of their first few years. Nor, for that matter, could this small group of largely well-to-do women have appreciated just how dangerous their everyday work would be, as they tended to the contagious. Indeed, the riot of 1857 was prompted by the death of one of their own number: Sister Amy, who had stolen away from her disapproving father, become a nun, and then contracted scarlet fever.
This wonderful, well-illustrated book is a tribute to the resourcefulness and determination of the women who helped to establish the Society of St Margaret in 1854, and whose convent still stands in East Grinstead as a memorial to their faith. The sisterhood is no longer based there. It does, however, still exist in England, the United States, Haiti, and Sri Lanka.
Its legacy can also be traced in the marvellous, meticulous embroidery that they produced, and in the life-stories of all the girls that they educated, all the orphans that they cared for, and all the poor and sick people that they tended. Above all, the nuns helped to transform the Church of England. They pioneered High Church practices such as the reservation of the Sacrament. They also established the capacity of women to lead.
Published to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Old Convent in East Grinstead, Kathryn Ferry’s history is equally assured on the important architecture of the place and the significance of its inhabitants. The building is Grade I listed as a perfect example of George Edmund Street’s work as the architect of choice for so many figures in the Victorian High Church.
The convent was, though, always more than just a work of art. Its very existence was a challenge to received ideas about a woman’s place. Not least of the fury directed against the first Sisters was the belief that they were rebelling against their fathers and rejecting normal gender roles. In that sense, this book transcends its apparently local and particular focus and addresses a real revolution in religious life. It is a triumph.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
The Old Convent East Grinstead: John Mason Neale, George Edmund Street and the Society of St Margaret
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