Religious Eroticism and Pedagogy in Olive Moore’s Celestial Seraglio: A Tale of Convent Life

Benjamin D. Hagen, University of South Dakota

A pause; a quiet survey of the grave faces in the hushed room; a moistening of the lips as the climax approached . . . “You see children, she was blind. God does not forget.”[1]

Though Olive Moore’s Spleen (1930) has been the subject of excellent scholarship over the past decade,[2] her first novel Celestial Seraglio: A Tale of Convent Life (1929) remains out-of-print and (as far as I know) unread, unstudied, and unassigned. Presented in four chapters that Moore splinters into sections and subsections, the short novel employs an ironic free indirect style reminiscent of Joyce, Woolf, and Richardson. It rapidly cuts from character to character and scene to scene, perpetually re-situating its readers and resetting its action every few pages. The following sentences, for instance, drawn from the beginnings of just a few of the novel’s sections, drop us into the middle of schooltime conflicts and experiments for which we have little preparation:

A meeting was called in the old fir tree near the orphanage grounds to discuss what should be done about Tony Grüdel.[3]

It seemed incredible to Mavis that, with the exception of the respite allowed between twelve and one o’clock, she had again not spoken a word throughout the day.[4]

Hard tears of rage shone in Joyce’s eyes as she glared helplessly round the little group surrounding her in sympathy.[5]

Marion’s active eyes sought Sœur Mannes, now fourth from the end.[6]

Each chapter in the novel contains several discrete narratives that interrupt and inflect the dramatic tensions and thematic developments of one another. The sections tied to the passages above involve, respectively, a German girl who has turned too ‘pi’[7] (too pious, too Catholic); another girl who passes time at a silent retreat by flipping through a morbid picture book of martyrdoms; a third, Joyce Carr, who plots her revenge on a teacher who punished her unjustly in front of her class; and yet another who takes up the study of ‘different ways of sticking out a tongue’ when accepting Communion.[8] Overall, the novel glimpses in these and dozens of other scenes the lives of girls and young women—many of them English—who attend a Catholic school in Belgium. Though national and religious differences (European / English; Catholic / Protestant) structure many of the tensions that develop among the school’s students and religious teachers, I want to focus in this piece on Moore’s expression of religious eroticism and religious pedagogy, that is, how her young characters adapt the tools and training made available to them (that is, scriptures, sacraments, parables, ‘a fat illustrated volume on the Lives of the Saints’[9]) to sustain and make sense of the intimate attachments they form and the obscured knowledges they long to acquire.

The title and chapter epigraphs of Celestial Seraglio immediately establish its erotic texture, setting us up to expect a short narrative (a tale) that orients and sequesters the lives of Catholic nuns under the control of patriarchal authority and desire. The term seraglio—a common anti-Catholic figure for a convent—rehearses an orientalist vision of an Islamic / Turkish harem. According to this irreverent figure, the primary role of the devout nun is to minister to the divine, secreted (and sexual?) needs of priests or of Christ Himself.[10] Should we miss the allusion in Moore’s title, she selects four suggestive passages from the Méditations de Sœur Marie Saint-Anselme (c. 1921) for her chapters’ epigraphs, all of which figure the relationship between Sœur Marie and the divine as an intensely male-dominant heterosexual bond.[11] One epigraph expresses pleasure in being filled (« Oh! qu’Il remplisse le pauvre petit vase, qu’Il l’inonde, qu’Il déborde »);[12] another relishes the teasing anticipation of a future encounter (« Il m’a parlé à l’oreille, si doucement, que j’ai cru mourir de bonheur . . . O Jesus [sic], ne retarde plus trop cette heure de notre Rencontre. Ne tarde plus, j’ai tant hâte »);[13] yet another imagines Christ Himself commanding the amorous submission of Marie (« Moi, je t’aimerai . . . Toi, tu me laisseras faire »);[14] in the final epigraph, the Sister pictures her body as an empty vessel or blank canvas best-suited for divine reproduction (« . . . je Le laisse imprimer son image adorée sur sa petite toile blanche. / Pour reproduire ton image »).[15] Three of these epigraphs also repeat the attentive refrain, « Jésus, que veux-Tu que je fasse ? »[16]

Though the title and epigraphs establish the novel’s erotic texture, Celestial Seraglio is nearly (and ironically) devoid of male character or influence. Patriarchal power and authority no doubt haunt its action and inform its religious settings, but priests rarely appear, and the students’ fathers only intermittently interrupt their ‘convent life.’ The most compelling feature of Moore’s title and epigraphs, then, is not just their transparent eroticism but the way the novel undermines the dramatic expectations that the title and epigraphs set up, drawing on expressions of religio-heteropatriarchal desire in order to energise a tale that almost exclusively dramatises relations among girls and women. Though Sœur Marie longs for her imminent encounter with Christ and while many of Moore’s fictional girls and women await divine revelation, what matters most to them in the present are the confusions, lessons, pains, pleasures, and intrigues of their friendships and their mentorships.

Despite harsh pedagogical exercises in discipline and punishment—cruel tales of divine retribution[17]  as well as instances of solitary confinement,[18] family separation,[19] physical assault,[20] public humiliation[21]—the young students in Celestial Seraglio develop a range of ways to value, to work within, and even to agitate against religious instruction that structures their daily lives. In response to the rigid, coercive pedagogy of their Catholic institution, the girls try to acquire knowledge of sex and sexuality, furtively discussing incestuous biblical stories and ‘Solomon’s Songs’[22] with each other and misapplying the phrase ‘John the Beloved’ to the attractive Père Jerome.[23] Moreover, the girls develop a practice of claiming favourite teachers or fellow students as their flammes[24] and forging intensely passionate friendships that molecularize rigid instruction and devotion. The complexity of ‘convent life’ in Moore’s novel has much to do with how improvisational the dynamic becomes between teachers and students as well as between students of various ages—a dynamic Celestial Seraglio captures in modernist flashes, fragments, and often moving (even if ironically conveyed) scenes of youthful, tearful love.

I’ll conclude with a more focused example: Sœur Imelda, a favorite teacher of many students, must improvise a pedagogy, more than once, that is flexible enough to intervene in the strategies of the young. At one point, she convinces a young girl, upset that her best friend had been called home from the school, that she probably shouldn’t try to make herself ‘dangerously ill’ by lingering near ‘bad drains.’[25] And in an earlier scene, drawing on memories of her own traumatic family separation years earlier,[26] she mentors Mona (who had taken Imelda as her flamme) and tries to counsel her not to rush into ‘tak[ing] the veil.’[27] Mona expresses a desire to stay at the convent with Imelda ‘for ever and ever.’[28] ‘But I shall have you,’ she tells Imelda, ‘I shall not need the outside world.’[29] Against this passion (part of the relational repertoire the students have developed among themselves to make sense of their sequestered world), Imelda has little recourse to doctrine or tradition (which forced her long ago into a life of religious service). Instead, she improvises a teaching that patiently and sympathetically addresses the needs of a student who has tried to acquire knowledge of pleasure and pain—a knowledge that exposes the often unacknowledged proximity of religious pedagogy and passion.


[1] Olive Moore, Celestial Seraglio. Collected Writings (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1992), pp. 1–107, p. 4.

[2] Moore scholars have investigated the intersections of maternity, sexuality, nationality, as well as disability in her writing (and in modernism more generally). See Renée Dickinson, Female Embodiment and Subjectivity in the Modernist Novel: The Corporeum of Virginia Woolf and Olive Moore (New York: Routledge, 2009); Matt Franks, ‘Mental Inversion, Modernist Aesthetics, and Disability Exceptionalism in Olive Moore’s Spleen.’ Journal of Modern Literature 38.1 (2014): pp. 107–27; Jane Garrity, ‘Olive Moore’s Headless Woman.’ Modern Fiction Studies 59.2 (2013): pp. 288–316; Erin Kingsley, ‘“In the centre of a circle”’: Olive Moore’s Spleen and Gestational Immigration.’ Feminist Modernist Studies 1.1–2 (2018): pp. 138–56; Maren Tova Linett, Bodies of Modernism: Physical Disability in Modernist Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016); and Johanna M. Wagner, ‘Unwomanly Intellect: Melancholy, Maternity, and Lesbianism in Olive Moore’s Spleen.’ Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 64.1 (2017): pp. 42–61.

[3] Moore, Celestial, p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 33.

[5] Ibid., p. 46.

[6] Ibid., p. 99.

[7] Ibid., p. 21.

[8] Ibid., p. 99.

[9] Ibid., p. 34.

[10] John Dryden makes this association in his play The Assignation; or, Love in a Nunnery (1673) when Prince Frederick acquires a copy of the key that will give him access to Lucretia (‘a Lady design’d to be a Nun’): ‘This Key will admit me into the Seraglio of the Godly.’ The Dramatic Works, edited by Montague Summers, vol. 3, New York: Gordian Press, 1968), pp.–267–342, 280, 312. Susan Gubar picks upon the historical link between ‘nunnery and seraglio’ as ‘common euphemisms for whorehouse’ in her analysis of feminist misogyny. Critical Conditions (New York: Columbia UP, 2000), p. 141.

[11] Christian writers have unironically employed erotic language for centuries to depict the relationship between the human and the divine. See the chapters ‘Feminist Studies in Christian Spirituality’ and ‘Sexual Desire, Divine Desire; Or, Queering the Beguines’ in Amy Hollywood, Acute Melancholia and Other Essays (New York: Columbia UP, 2016).

[12] ‘Oh! that He fills the poor little vase, that He floods it, that He overflows . . .’ (my translation). Moore, Celestial, p. 3.

[13] ‘He spoke to me privately and so softly that I thought I was dying of happiness . . . Oh Jesus . . . do not delay the hour of our Meeting too much. Do not wait any longer, I cannot wait’ (my translation). Ibid., p. 63.

[14]As for me, I will love you . . . as for you, you will let me do it’ (my translation). Ibid., p. 33.

[15] ‘I let Him print his adored / beloved image on his little white canvas. / For the reproduction of your image’ (my translation). Ibid., p. 91.

[16] ‘Jesus, what do you want me to do?’ (my translation). Ibid., pp. 3, 63, 91.

[17] Ibid., p. 3–4.

[18] Ibid., p. 23–26.

[19] Ibid., p. 7.

[20] Ibid., p. 46.

[21] Ibid., p. 48.

[22] Ibid., p. 6.

[23] Ibid., p. 18.

[24] Ibid., p. 29, 30, 41.

[25] Ibid., p. 51.

[26] Ibid., p. 7.

[27] Ibid., p. 10.

[28] Ibid., p.  7.

[29] Ibid., p.  8.

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