Victoria Bennett: Get me to a nunnery

She doesn't own a TV and isn't religious, but that didn't stop her agreeing to spend six weeks in a convent under the glare of the cameras. The star of 'The Convent' tells Anthony Barnes how it changed her outlook
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The Independent Online

Victoria Bennett does not own a TV. She has never seen a reality show. Yet she is about to become the star of The Convent, the follow-up to the BBC's most unlikely reality-show success of last year - The Monastery.

Bennett is not a nun, but a volunteer who for six weeks lived in a largely silent order as she contemplated her life under the gaze of TV cameras, the "big sister" to provide a meditative foil to the aggressive swear-athon of Channel 4's Big Brother, against which it will go head to head each Wednesday for the next four weeks.

Despite her "old-fashioned" lack of interest in a device that almost everyone in the UK takes for granted, the 34-year-old poet and publisher felt an instant draw to the show - or at least the opportunity for some peaceful contemplation. "Something inside said, 'I've got to do it'," she said. "I just followed my instinct. I decided that I needed a leap of faith and needed to trust in it, really.

"I've never had a television. I don't want one ... If there is anything I need to know, I can get it through newspapers or the internet. I'm a reader. If you had asked me about reality television, I would have had deep suspicions, but for some reason this seemed very real. It is a documentary rather than anything cheesy."

Filmed over a period of 40 days and nights, the series tracks four women who were allowed into the Convent of the Poor Clares in Arundel, West Sussex, and lived as nuns, followed by an all-female film crew. It is a natural successor to The Monastery, which drew audiences of 2.5 million as it traced the spiritual journeys of five men serving a stint in a monastic order.

Recruited through adverts, 500 volunteers offered to take part in The Convent, a series they were told would allow them an opportunity for quiet reflection. Bennett, who lives in the Lake District, got in touch after spotting one on a website for the artistic community.

"I had no preconceptions about what I would get out of it. I just knew it was the right place for me to be. I didn't go in there thinking 'I can explore all my deep stuff', but I did want some space away from my ordinary life," she said.

For Bennett, the series was a chance to work through more than just life's usual clutter. Like nearly a quarter of a million women in the UK each year, in 2003 she suffered a miscarriage. She got "pretty sick" and is still undergoing tests to establish whether she can have children.

"The miscarriage brought on a lot of questions about life and truth and what was going on. Ending up in a convent was part of that journey. As a creative person, the impact of having a miscarriage was a strange one - the idea of being a creative woman, yet not being able to create.

"I wasn't expecting it to come out in the convent, but within a few hours of being there, the tears were flowing. It brought home to me the need to have that space - the opportunity to honour that experience and share it.

"It did help a lot because I was able to talk through a lot of things. It helped me release a lot of anger. And I realised I wasn't wrong to feel a lot of grief."

Unlike the other three participants, Bennett had no ties to any faith. "I don't adhere to any organised religion or dogma, but I'm quite a spiritual person. It's a matter of intuition and being open to following a path, wherever it takes me. It's a very personal thing. I suppose, being a creative person, it is linked in with the idea of inspiration. I do believe there is something greater than our own human understanding of things but I wouldn't put a name to that. I'm not arrogant enough to say there's nothing.

"In the programme I am described as atheist. I was raised that way, but maybe a better term would have been to say agnostic. I'm on the fence."

Bennett has been married for seven years. She and her husband, Adam, met when they were 15 and have been a couple for the past 14 years. It is not a conventional relationship; the BBC, in its pre-broadcast publicity blurb, talks of it as an "open marriage".

She is reluctant to go into details but says hesitantly: "I think honesty is the thing that underpins our marriage - we don't keep each other in one place. We made a commitment to love each other for the rest of our lives. That accepts that we grow and expand and change, and we grow together. There have been other people that I have loved, but I don't agree with the term open marriage. I do believe that people should be open to experiences of sensuality and that shouldn't be something we feel guilty about."

Her spell in the convent was "life affirming" but not life changing, she said. "It didn't change me or my beliefs, but what it did do was allow me to sit with myself and accept myself and get to know what was good or beautiful or strong. It affirmed my love of life."

It also gave her a new creative focus. Each day she wrote a poem, and these will be published by her company, Wild Women Press, in a collection called Fragments. As a result of her experience of miscarriage, she is also to launch the Rowan Project, which will use poetry and video to help others cope with losing a child during pregnancy.

During her time in the convent she formed a strong bond with another recruit, Angela Dickson, a former recruitment consultant who went in to reflect on the broken relationships in her life. Now the two of them are considering setting up their own spiritual retreat at a derelict house in Italy, owned by Dickson.

"The support I got from that friendship was so much part of that journey - even if we do come across at times as very adolescent," said Bennett. "When I met her, I mentioned that I had always had this dream to set up a creative retreat. We got talking about it and decided that, somehow, we would like to put our two dreams together and find a way of raising the money to renovate the house and run it as a retreat centre. This wouldn't be a religious retreat, but a spiritual and creative one."

Bennett said that her spirituality was still a very personal thing. "But I have a stronger faith in my path and in following it wherever it takes me. I also have a much more open-minded attitude towards organised religion. I have just been down to visit the convent because I now count them as my friends. Never in my life would I ever have thought I would have friends who were nuns and friars."

'The Convent' begins on 14 June at 9pm, BBC2

Back Story: In pursuit of the creative spirit

BORN: 28 Sept 1971 in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Her family, including five older siblings, moved to Switzerland when she was a baby, but they returned to Oxfordshire when she was five. Her father is an engineer and her mother an artist.

EDUCATION/CAREER: Attended a liberal Catholic school in Leamington Spa. Students were on first-name terms with the teachers, and self-expression was encouraged. Left school at 16 and worked as a secretary until she went to Portsmouth University at the age of 20. An English and creative studies graduate, she runs creative writing workshops with local groups near her home in Cumbria.

WHAT'S NEXT? As well as jointly renovating fellow Convent inmate Angela Dickson's house in Tuscany to create a retreat centre, she will continue to run poetry projects with her publishing group, Wild Women Press. The Rowan Project, set up to help men and women dealing with pregnancy loss, will also contribute to her publishing house.

BELIEVES IN: Free expression. "It encourages creativity and creativity encourages us to grow and expand, and get to know who we are."

Sara Newman

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