Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Karen Armstrong, writer and former nun

I became a nun at the age of 16

I haven't been a Roman Catholic since 1974. I used to consider myself profoundly irreligious; now I would say that I am a religious person but can't see any of the major religions as superior to the others. I'm a freelance!

My parents were Catholic but not particularly devout; they went to church on Sundays because it was a mortal sin not to. I only went to one school, the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus in Edgbaston, Birmingham. It was a real undertaking to get me to this place; we lived out in Worcestershire and it took about an hour. It was fee-paying and run by the order of nuns I eventually joined.

As a school, it was not bad, not terrific. They certainly nurtured things you could do - I learnt to read very quickly and won prizes for English - and I was an actress: Puck, Mrs Malaprop, Everyman. But I couldn't do sums and they couldn't cope with that. A few years ago a friend put me through some remedial tests for children and was white-faced with shock when I couldn't do them. It was a school which ruled by naming and shaming, and I think I was frightened off maths. I was alternately bored and terrified, gazing at the clock in the class and thinking the lesson really couldn't go on any longer.

I did seven O-levels and then A-levels in English, history and Latin, with two distinctions and a C. I loved the work in the sixth form, although I don't think we were very well taught and I realised that if I was going to get to Oxford, I was going to have to work on my own.

The headmistress was a nun but there were also secular staff. There were morning prayers, and at 12 the bell would ring and we'd all kneel down for the Angelus ("the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary"). There were loads of processions during May, the month dedicated to her.

At the beginning of my second year in the sixth form, I decided to enter a convent. At 16 I was too young for that kind of decision and my parents were horrified but were impressed because, though a biddable child, I argued with them.

I became Sister Mary Martha. We did almost no academic work at all for the first three years. Then, as I was going to be a teacher, I moved to the Catholic House of Scholastics in Holland Park, London; I was sent to a crammer for two years and went up to St Anne's, Oxford, in 1967. I felt I was being pulled in two directions. At the university I'm expected to criticise Milton and Shakespeare and argue with my tutors; then I go back to the convent and clash with the Reverend Mother. I broke down at the end of my first year and left the convent in the following January, on the day I heard I'd won a university prize.

I couldn't cope on the social side [at university]; friendship had been discouraged in the order. I didn't know who the politicians were and I hadn't heard of Vietnam. Larkin wrote that sexual intercourse began in 1963: I had entered the order in 1962. I did well on the academic side and got a "Congratulatory" First. Then it was downhill all the way. I started a thesis on Tennyson's poetic style. After four years I finished it but the examiner wrote about four lines saying it wasn't a suitable subject for a thesis; it failed. The faculty told him he had failed as an examiner. And that was the end of my academic career: four years down the drain. It was dreadful at the time but I now take quite a delight, when people in America call me "Doctor", in saying, "No, no, I'm a PhD (failed)."

jonty@jonathansale.com

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