ordinariness that suggested I was mistaken in interviewing them. These were precisely the women who often leave very little trace in archival documents and whose oral testimonies reflect lived and subjective experiences that complicate an institutional top-down narrative which identified a sense of progress seemingly implicit in the renewal of religious life. 24
Oral testimonies have multiple layers. To focus on subjectivities, the meanings, emotions and attitudes so central to the construction of self, requires being alert to more than just the ‘facts’. 25 Interview
situated her research in the emerging histories of gender and emotion
which ‘increasingly assert that change in twentieth-century Britain
should be viewed as part of a longer-term continuum’. Her work
demonstrated that there was no sudden movement away from a ‘ghettoised’,
coercive form of Catholicism in the sixties as Hornsby-Smith suggested.
Harris’ emphasis on what she termed the ‘longue durée
relationships were secondary. Such individual self-control, in theory, distanced family and friendship relationships and allowed the channelling of emotions to a higher cause, the spousal relationship with Christ. This love was spiritual rather than sexual, and indeed genital fulfilment would have led to a transgression against the vow of chastity. Emotional detachment was intended as sacrificial and suffering was a laudatory consequence. Submissiveness was not simply obedience to authority; it incorporated cooperation, a working together with women of (potentially) different
Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Southwark
no longer wore elaborate bridal attire. Novices of the Daughters of the Heart of
Mary stopped wearing white bridal attire in their clothing ceremonies in 1869.
RSM Bermondsey: ‘Bermondsey Annals’, 1859, p. 28; DHM: C3 ‘Provincial
Council Meetings’, 26 January 1869.
Forming a novice
unfavourably upon the prospect of our classes opening.’45 The Notre Dame
sisters did wear their habit to Sunday Mass, and Sister Clarie observed that
‘We were edified on leaving church to see these good people observe us and
weep with emotion
psychological reflex, a spontaneous and essentially physical response
that was distinguishable from the emotion of love. Consequently, the
commission involved single women in its considerations, as well as
commenting on previously uncharted topics such as female masturbation. 13 Hornsby-Smith described
Catholic institutions as ‘lagging behind the rest of society’ in their
stances towards women’s changing sexual status in the 1960s. 14
but this does not make their interpretations any less insightful. The
tone, mood and emotions that accompanied the interviewees’ recollections
of early life offer an insight into how this life-cycle stage was
experienced at the time, as well as the interpretive filter they
This chapter begins with a discussion of the sexual
education that was available to Catholic women in the
Robyn Fivush, ‘Gendered narratives: elaboration, structure, and
emotion in parent-child reminiscing across the preschool years’, in
Autobiographical Memory, p. 80.
22 Margaret MacCurtain, ‘Recollections of Catholicism’, in The Field
Day Anthology of Women’s Writing Volume IV, p. 570.
23 McKenna, Made Holy, p. 45.
24 David Morgan, ‘Introduction’, in his Religion and Material Culture:
The Matter of Belief (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), p. 4.
25 Notebook describing childhood of Mary Margaret Murphy, Clifton,
Co. Cork, 1857–86. MS 19441, NLI. Cited in Women in
’ sometimes overbearing religious presence
in their lives. The early memories of Moira Verschoyle, born in Limerick in 1904 to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, depict her
feelings for her mother as obsessive. Her description of her mother’s
behaviours highlights both passionate love and abuse:
Mother’s was the only personality that I felt, that interpenetrated
my being. Her love encompassed me like the air that I breathed –
it was both a cushion and a shield … . My mother’s love was not,
thank goodness, the serene, controlled emotion which is such a