Flirting for Jesus: Anything ordinary becomes extraordinary when done by a nun. But should Sister Wendy really do all this - get paid by the BBC, eat in posh restaurants, enjoy her fame quite so much?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SISTER WENDY does not lunch incognito. The waitress brings a glass of champagne, compliments of the management, which presents Sister Wendy with a slight dilemma, since she is not fond of fizzy drinks. To decline would be rude, so too to leave it; she will be rather forced to gulp it down.

She chooses a bottle of wine, but with reluctance; she still smarts after being criticised once for not choosing a cheaper bottle in similar circumstances.

We look at the menus. She says: 'Will you be masterful?'

SISTER Wendy Beckett is a nun, and spends most of her time alone in a caravan in Quidenham, Norfolk. She has been a nun since the age of 16 and is now 64. She gets up at 3am. Her daily basket of food contains a roll, salad, skimmed milk. She has so punished her knees through prayer that they have become something of a medical curiosity - camel's knees, says Sister Wendy.

But since the mid-1980s, Sister Wendy Beckett has been a writer and television broadcaster. There are five books, the most recent being the BBC's Sister Wendy's Grand Tour, which accompanies the second of two television series on art, now half-way through its run.

So Sister Wendy's solitude is now sometimes interrupted. Her life includes occasional visits to London, where she sees her publishers, her television people, her literary agent, her friend Delia Smith. Someone perhaps takes her to lunch at Clarke's or Bibendum or Orso. She will stay in the Tara hotel in Kensington, and visit the antique shops on Kensington Church Street. She will ride in taxis, and people with portable phones will look after her and buy her presents. She will go to exhibitions, and perhaps write about them for a magazine. She will eat and drink and tell very funny stories. She will not for a minute imagine that her responsibilites as a nun include spurning Sancerre or feigning ignorance of or lack of interest in A Question of Sport.

As can be seen, Sister Wendy leads two lives, or leads her life in two very different places. This contrast may partly - some would say wholly - explain her great media success. Although we can put Sister Wendy in the television tradition of the sparky, older woman enthusiast - Barbara Woodhouse, Fanny Cradock, Nanny (Knows Best) - she is also the archetypal Incongruous Nun, mainstay of British television commercials and sitcoms, a kind of rarefied version of that ubiquitous literary prat, the country bumpkin in town. It is with awe and great amusement that we see a nun drive a Fiat Uno.

This may be patronising, but it can launch a career. It is fair to say that it was Wendy Beckett's occupation that prompted the journalistic commissions which immediately preceded her television career. Karen Wright, now editor of Modern Painters, where many of Sister Wendy's articles appeared in the 1980s, says: 'This piece came in by a nun. I said, 'It's a nun, let's use it]' ' She adds: 'But she's the most professional writer I've ever used.'

Later, Sister Wendy came to the attention of the BBC, who knew a good gimmick when they saw one. In 1992 they made a series called Sister Wendy's Odyssey; they filmed her emerging from her caravan as if for the first time; within each 10-minute slot, she was kept on screen for as long as possible, all billowing black-and-white against Old Master colour; and she was never shown with anyone else for fear of damaging the mystique . . . Now, in the titles for the new series, Sister Wendy moves menacingly through Stansted Airport in a way that the programme's executive producer, Nicholas Rossiter, has to acknowledge is designed to suggest that she is gliding on rollers. ('They're really pleased with that,' says Sister Wendy with slight impatience. 'They think it's really witty.')

And there's the sex. It has often been remarked how the paintings in Sister Wendy's programmes feature a lot of flesh. She has amazed audiences and colleagues by her uninhibitedness. Her observation that a tuft of Stanley Spencer pubic hair was 'soft and fluffy' is now legendary. Six or seven paintings are shot for each programme; three, usually, are used. That editing, we are assured by Rossiter, is not made on a breast-count basis, and he will not quite acknowledge that a sexual frisson between a virginal presenter and dirty paintings contributes to the programme's success, or is part of its marketing.

Sister Wendy, of course, lives in Publicity Paradise: the abnormal things about her - the bizarre clothes, the celibacy, the solitude - make good copy; but the more ordinary things about her - her wine, her food, her willingness to use the word 'testicle' on national television - make even better copy. It's like those 'Queen boils a kettle' documentaries.

So this Incongruous Nun has been the subject of many fond, punning, newspaper articles. But the two lives of Sister Wendy have also been a source of mistrust, even among those who have no argument with her (narrative-based, moral) style of art appreciation. Her passage through London, where she was promoting last week, is positively regal; traffic slows, everyone smiles, men and women - mostly of about Sister Wendy's age - shake her hand and praise her in slightly overstretched language.

But there are those who tut, and they are prompted, you imagine, by a sense that this Incongruous Nun is no longer properly incongruous - but has become at home in the once unfamiliar environment. The bumpkin sets up home in the city, joins a club.

That could merely describe an admirable escape from stereotype. Sister Wendy was never a bumpkin, and never pretended to despise the modern world. She has a First from Oxford University, she reads newspapers. But there is a section of her audience that feels itself a victim of fraud or fakery. These people see the sometimes silly presentation of her by the BBC, and wonder about her complicity. They notice she wears a habit, when no one is forcing her to do so. They read about the wine, the hotels, the BBC trips to Europe, and suspect great worldliness.

The Spectator last week argued that Sister Wendy 'seems like a nice old bat'. Other papers have done the same - have patronised in language that you suspect would never be used to describe any secular woman talking in an engaging, intelligent way about paintings for a few minutes each week. Irritation often slips into mockery, but cannot find a major focus of complaint. People want to find one, and when discussing her with sceptics ('She's a menace . . . '), you find yourself forever returning to the same questions; there is a kind of mythology of suspicion around her.

The questions are these: Is Sister Wendy really a nun? Is Sister Wendy allowed to do this? Does Sister Wendy really give all the money to the Carmelite nuns? And isn't Sister Wendy enjoying her fame and comfort enormously, in a most un-nunnish way? To which the answers are yes; yes; yes; and - she insists - no, absolutely not.

SHE KISSES me. We first meet at an antiques fair held in Chelsea Town Hall, where Sister Wendy is to be filmed by a documentary crew from the American television network, NBC. She says hello, makes a teasing joke, and initiates - oh] - a double-kiss embrace of fine choreography and swiftness.

The NBC crew is filming Sister Wendy 'at leisure', a scene to insert into a longer documentary about her. She must walk flowingly through the antiques stalls, talk to dealers. She is brilliantly, bafflingly impressive to watch at work. Her language is a little fluffy - 'Oh] it is so sweet . . . so beautiful . . .' - but her enthusiasm is infectious. She can improvise immediately, react intelligently. She always knows where the camera is, and she holds herself, and porcelain ornaments, accordingly.

She is strange mixture of sturdiness and frailty. She has a weak heart, and was quite ill around Christmas. On her grand tour last year, she used a wheelchair to reconnoitre the galleries visited. She now seems strong, but then sometimes needs to take an arm, or a hand.

'She's absolutely wonderful. Absolutely wonderful,' says the American producer, Christine Gurstin, who seems to be left with little to do: between them, Sister Wendy and the cameraman are managing just fine. 'Is that what you wanted?' she can be heard saying. From another American TV crew, Sister Wendy has learnt the nickname of the (tall) cameraman - Stretch. He is charmed.

Her manner might be described as Flirting For Jesus. You pause in the middle of a question, trying to think of the right word, and she'll say, smiling, eyebrows raised, 'What is the noun going to be here . . ?' In the corridor of Chelsea Town Hall, an American woman - a fan - says that her son is a lobbyist in Washington.

'The lowest form of human life?' Sister Wendy asks sweetly.

'She's always taking the piss out of me,' says Sean Moore, her editor at Dorling Kindersley, who has known her for several years. Is she a flirt? He laughs. 'She is. She'd probably admit it herself.'

The problem in Chelsea, a minor one, is that Sister Wendy will look at the camera. She is entirely at ease with filming (her BBC nickname is 'One-Take Wendy'), but she is not accustomed - or suited - to feigning the camera's non-existence. So chats with stall holders turn into little lectures; Sister Wendy's body slowly swings round and we find that she is now smiling at Stretch, inviting an icon dealer to 'say that again in language the viewers will understand.'

This could be vanity, or ambition, or inexperience, but it could also be connected to what Sister Wendy has always said about her media career. She does not enjoy it. It is not for fun. By turning to the camera, the conceit of Sister Wendy at play is disrupted, and she returns to lecture mode - the Sister Wendy of the Grand Tour, the one with a moral purpose.

The filming over, she joins NBC for a glass of wine, and makes jokes at the BBC's - and her own - expense. 'So parsimonious. The hotel was like a youth hostel . . .'

THE NEXT day, before lunch in Kensington, we meet at the National Gallery.

'I'm not sure,' says Sister Wendy, 'that the second series will be a success, because you can't go on and on being intrigued. The people who've been watching this because they're flabbergasted - nuns can speak] - will by now have got used to it. I wouldn't be surprised if not many people watched it, having seen it once.'

She sits in the cafe, dressed as a nun, and people come to say hello. ('I just wanted to say how wonderful we think you are . . .')

Does she ever feel she is being exploited by the BBC, by their publicists?

'No,' says Sister Wendy. 'I think they are entitled to use what little attractiveness there is, in other words the habit, as a kind of gimmick to get people interested. But it wouldn't last - so I also have a duty to sell their books and their programmes, and that's not exploitation. I did say to Toby (Eady, her literary agent), if I sign a new contract, can it say 'No Promotion'? He said 'No'.'

I mention the BBC's press releases, which seem to make mileage out of the juxtaposition of Sister and sin.

'I have told them that this is pointless because that's so minimal an element of the picture I'm looking at. They say, this might get people to watch it . . . This distresses me, as when they talk about it as if it was only an entertaining programme. I really haven't made this big sacrifice and gone on television just to make people laugh.

Is this a sacrifice?

'Sacrifice,' she says, 'is too big a word, much too pretentious a word. But it is. To leave solitude for anything is a sacrifice.'

You don't have to do it . . .

'I feel I do have to do it, because this is something that at the moment nobody else is doing. If somebody else turned up who could do it I would withdraw immediately and then I wouldn't have to do it.'

What is it that needs to be done?

'The speaking about art in terms that are immediately comprehensible to the ordinary person and that shows them that they are able to appreciate the great art of the world.'

So she doesn't enjoy this part of her life?

'Only in the most relative terms . . .'

Sister Wendy takes me around the National Gallery's new exhibition of Zurbaran's Jacob and his Twelve Sons and gives a running commentary. She has a sharp comparative eye, a Casaubon-like access to Biblical and classical mythologies, and a nice line in picture sound-bites. In front of Zebulun, a glum, impressively-clad figure, she observes quietly: 'That's a man who's not enjoying his trousers.'

A few brothers on, we are in front of Joseph, a man who did. She talks of Thomas Mann's Joseph novels, and reveals she has read 'all of Mann several times' Then she says: 'Is there not a rather popular semi-opera on this? Which I'm sure you've seen.'

How much does Sister Wendy know? She knows enough to know this is a dig; 'semi-opera' is a joke, you are sure. But, in its ironic form or not, such High Court judgery is rare. She seems to take intellectual pride in a functioning familiarity with popular culture and modern mechanisms. She does not know about Wendyburgers. But she knows about McDonald's and Neighbours and Ruby Wax and William Waldegrave.

This sometimes allows you to forget a lifetime's limited access to the world. But it has been limited: when she remarks on standing in a queue in a gallery in Spain, you ask if that was her first ever queue, and she stops, pauses for a long time, and then remembers, no, there was one other in her life, once. Sean Moore, her publisher, remembers a tea-making crisis in Quidenham: she was certain the kettle's ON switch said NO, and so declined to press it.

I ask her if her use of modern idiom, a phrase like 'Renaissance soap opera', for instance, isn't a kind of seduction . . . (At the appearance of this word, she makes a wonderful mock-shocked Dick Emery sort of face, mouth pursed, eyes very wide behind her spectacles) . . . in, ah, the broadest sense of the word.

'I was accused of being flirtatious on the Terry Wogan show, so I'm sensitive about this. They said 'You were the only woman with three men. You were being rather flirtatious, Sister,' but I wasn't really aware they were men, they were human beings . . . I suppose I am always looking for a way to share an experience and I'm trusting that my subconscious is going to bring up the most appropriate words to share with . . .'

No one said anything about a vow of silence; Sister Wendy talks a lot, and well. When I ask her if there is such a thing as a religiously persuasive painting, she takes me to Velasquez's Christ after the Flagellation, also in the National Gallery. In front of it, her commentary slows, almost stops. For the first time, there are long pauses. Later, she explains. She says she was being drawn into prayer - the Norfolk life was breaking into the London life.

'I WISH I could get under the table and eat this privately. It's lovely, but I'm unable to get it elegantly into my mouth.'

Over lunch in a good, expensive restaurant - liked by Sister Wendy, but suggested by her publicist - Sister Wendy Beckett talks about her childhood; when the food gets especially complicated, she suggests I ask the question and answer it myself. She was born in South Africa in 1930. The family moved to Edinburgh shortly after, while her father trained in medicine. They then returned to the Eastern Province. Her younger sister was born in Scotland, and now lives in South Africa with her husband and Wendy's mother, now 89. A younger brother is a businessman in Johannesburg. He does 'something in insurance, I don't really understand'.

Wendy knew early that she wanted to be a nun: 'To me it was a perfect childhood. I was very fond of my parents, and they left me alone. They didn't interfere, always my ideal of human relationships. But I was a difficult child, I believe . . .'

She would come home, greet her parents, then go to her room to read. She remembers, at the age of about nine, bringing a friend home to play. She assumed that this meant reading, privately, in separate rooms: 'My mother, to her horror, heard me say, 'Mummy, this is Shirley . . . Shirley, this is your book - and this is mine.' '

She was occasionally forced into a degree of sociability by her cousin, Catherine Chapman, who lived with Wendy's paternal grandparents, and was almost exactly the same age. Catherine is now Sister Catherine, and lives on the Notre Dame convent in Oxford. The adult Sister Wendy is sometimes said to be fairly skilled at getting her own way, and so was the child. Sister Catherine says: 'We loved cardboard cut-out dolls, Wendy and I. There was a set of quintuplets. Wendy wheedled one after another out of me.'

Catherine gave up four, but would not give up the last. Wendy tried everything, and failed.

At last Wendy said: 'I'll give you anything you like.'

Catherine thought, then asked: 'Will you give Pam to me?'

Wendy said: 'All right, you can have Pam.' Wendy handed over her baby sister, and got the doll.

At school, says Catherine, Wendy was 'very clever, very popular. She was a great actress. We used to do operetta and Wendy always had a main part - and did it superbly of course.' In her television career, suggests Sister Catherine, you see 'her intelligence, but also her art as an actress'.

Wendy became a nun - became Sister Michael - in 1947, and Catherine two years later. Wendy joined the Notre Dame teaching order, coming first to the order's novitiate in Sussex, then studying English Literature at Oxford. She was a student at St Anne's, but lived in the same Notre Dame convent where her cousin now lives. In accordance with house rules, she barely spoke to other students.

She did teacher training in Liverpool, then returned to South Africa, to teach in the Notre Dame convent school, Kroonstad, in Orange Free State. Coleen Murray (nee Melass) was a young pupil of hers in the mid-Fifties, and is now an aromatherapist living in London. (In between, briefly, Mrs Murray was a nun.) 'Sister Wendy - Sister Michael - she was not like the other nuns. When you become a nun, your individuality is taken away from you whether you like it or not. People can become mass-thinking and lose their humanity. I know. I had to get out. She never lost her temper, she never showed she was angry. She seemed to understand us. She was never nasty. We were horrible to her. I feel terrible about that now.'

Wendy's parents would visit once every month. Did they feel they had lost you? 'My mother said to me: 'Paradoxically, you keep the child that becomes a nun.' No other emotional relationships are going to come first. Your parents are always your family . . . But my father had just come back from the war, he was a doctor with the air force. So he comes home in early '46, and I'm going off to be a nun. He did say to my mother, 'Wouldn't it be better if she went to university first?' and she said, 'Well, in theory, Aubrey, but she's an odd child, and she's set her heart on this', and of course it worked for me perfectly.'

She never felt she was missing out. She was already prepared for an adulthood without close friends (now, she says, 'God occupies the whole centre'); and sex, says Sister Wendy, has not been an issue.

'Nuns differ. Some have found this a big struggle. They have a natural longing to have a partner, to have children, and they feel their need to live this life is sufficiently intense to be able to sacrifice that longing. Others don't feel the longing at all - not many I should imagine. I certainly have never felt that - so that's something I've never given to God, it's always been given to me.'

THE WAITRESS, according to Sister Wendy, looks like a 'proud-stepping Arab horse'. She fills our glasses.

Out of 'sheer stupidity', Sister Wendy had joined a teaching order. She did not enjoy teaching; it was a distraction from prayer. She became ill, and had what she tentatively calls a nervous breakdown. In 1970, after some years of asking, it was agreed she could leave the Notre Dame order, to take up a contemplative life. The Carmelites at Quidenham in Norfolk would 'assume the role of being my order, but I wouldn't join them'. She is now a kind of freelance nun, as if in an order of one, for which there are some, but not many, modern precedents; her topographical position in a caravan in the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery properly reflects her bureaucratic one. When asked her nunly status, 'I now answer very rapidly I'm-a-Consecrated-Virgin-living-under-the-protection-of-the-Carmelites. And they kind of stagger back . . .'

She divides her day into seven hours of prayer, two of work. Money needs to be brought into the monastery. For many years, Sister Wendy's work was to translate Latin for publication. In 1980 she asked her Prioress if she might divert her attention to the study of art, 'and I added the fateful phrase, with a view to publishing a book'. She began to cadge catalogues and postcards, beginning a vast correspondence with curators around the world, conducted in a minuscule hand that maddens her friends. Contemporary Women Painters was published in 1986, the journalism and television followed. It was with her Prioress's encouragement that Sister Wendy made her first 'adventure' abroad, in 1989, to interview the artist Helen Frankenthaler in the United States.

Her fellow nuns do not disapprove, says Sister Wendy. A television was brought to Quidenham for a screening of the first series. The Sisters clapped at the end.

'My Sisters are very trusting. They're happy that I should do it.'

There have been rumours of awkwardness. 'Inevitably, there's a tension between a hermit and the community he or she lives in,' says the Catholic writer and broadcaster Richard Coles, 'a tension not helped by the considerable media success of the hermit.' He adds: 'Once those hermits get on the Late Show, it can be very hard to get them back into the hermitage.' But if there is disquiet in Quidenham, or the wider church, it remains private. Besides, says another Catholic authority, 'There's a feeling that nuns are nuns, and you can't control them anyway.'

Outside the church, she has become accustomed to criticism. Germaine Greer has charged her with 'girlish vim', and connected a 'belittling' type of criticism with carnal ignorance. (The kind of charge to which Sister Wendy tends to reply with reference to Jane Austen's virginity.) There are people at the BBC who call Sister Wendy the 'Mr Blobby of arts broadcasting'. According to Nicholas Rossiter, Sister Wendy can be 'very, very, very hurt' by these criticisms, but she will not answer back. She would no sooner ascribe ill-will to a critic than she would publicly object to a painting.

'I'm hurt by people saying things about me that wound me. I'm not above it, but I don't think they're doing it to wound me. They probably think that only a very vain person would mind. I think people's minds are a complete mystery, they're even a mystery to themselves. And what motives are, I don't think anybody can say. I've always been convinced that I became a nun because that's the thing I wanted most in the world and that it was because of God. To me that's the whole of it. But it could well be that that's just a part of it, and part of it is also a very plain and unattractive girl wanting to hide away from future rejection. I'm not saying that's . . . but it could have been. We don't know what our motives are.'

AT THE end of a long, jolly meal, the conversation turns to the television quiz show, A Question of Sport. After the glasses of champagne, the bottle of Pouilly Fume, the baby leeks and parmesan shavings and chargrilled chicken pieces, we are now wondering who is the finer quiz captain, Bill Beaumont or Ian Botham. Sister Wendy Beckett says: 'The one who always loses. The one with the long thin sweet face.' And then she praises the recent Question of Sport performance of a bowls player whose name we cannot remember: 'He looks a little bit like me. A big, fat, puddingy, rather unintelligent-looking face. He's completely unexpressive in the matches, but on that show he showed a most delightful wit.'

The waitress comes and goes. Sister Wendy rummages deep in her costume and produces a container of sweeteners and puts three into her coffee. We share a lemon tart ('I'll have a mouthful or two, and then the lemon will not have given up its life in vain . . '). And then we leave the restaurant and with a fair amount of wine inside us, we wander into Kensington Chruch Street to handle very expensive ceramics. In one shop, Sister Wendy picks up a large porcelain figure. 'She really is a charmer. Sally Gunnell. No. Nancy Kerrigan] But Nancy hasn't got the soul of this girl.'-

(Photograph omitted)