I am trying not to buy books at the moment, as my house is sinking into the ground. The ground floor is already like a basement flat and it is only a matter of time before I have to leave via the upstairs window. However, when you see books like this it's impossible to resist:
I saw this in a charity shop last week and would have bought it just for the gaudy, sensationalist 1950s cover. It's an added bonus that this is a well-written, fascinating memoir of an extraordinary woman.
Born in 1893, Monica Baldwin was the niece of the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. In 1914, at the age of 21, she entered a convent and for the next 27 years was completely cut off from the outside world, apart from the occasional visit from 'Uncle Stan' and other family members. Baldwin was barely aware of the First World War and monumental events like the General Strike and votes for women passed her by.
In 1941 she decided to leave her convent (sadly she doesn't say why) and this memoir is an account of her struggle to adapt to a society that had changed beyond all recognition. What makes it such a fascinating read is that Britain in the 1940s is almost as alien to her as is to us and she observes fascinating details that her contemporaries would probably regard as barely worth mentioning.
Here is her account of a train journey:
I studied my fellow travellers. There were some soldiers, rather red about the ears and smelling of beer and hot khaki, and two or three hatless young women with padded shoulders and purple nails. All had cigarettes between their lips. I had never seen a woman smoke in a railway carriage before. Their skirts were of a shortness which still shocked me a little; but then, my own were, after all, nothing to boast about, if it came to that.
Staying with her aunt in Sussex, Baldwin is determined to get to grips with the modern world and spends her days either listening to the wireless or reading. Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags made her 'gasp and wonder what the world was coming to'.
But I Leap Over the Wall isn't just an outsider's account of Britain in the 1940s. It's also, in the author's words, an attempt to 'write accurately and fairly about life in an enclosed convent' and counter some of the 'fantastically wrong ideas about nuns and convents'.
Like too many good books, Baldwin's memoir is out of print (unless you include an expensive, hardback reprint). Fortunately, because this was a bestseller in its time, it's easy to obtain secondhand copies of I Leap Over the Wall from the usual sources. If you particularly want the wonderful Pan cover, look out for the 1957 paperback edition.