Imagine a reader asking “Why on earth would an author choose the subject of a nun who leaves the church?” In reply I would explain that “The Pink Slippers” is based on the Cinderella myth.
From the moment that the nun, Beatrice, puts on the fluffy pink slippers lying next to the bed of a maternity patient, her life changes as radically as Cinderella’s when she puts on the glass slippers. Beatrice then leaves the church, marries her Prince Charming, has a family, grows and develops spiritually into her old age.
The novel is based on a true story given to me by a friend, Sandy, whose father was a country doctor in the Eastern Cape. He often consulted at the hospital attached to the convent and church of the Augustinian Sisters of Mercy of Jesus. Here he met Beatrice (her name has been changed), one of the nuns who worked as a nursing sister in the maternity ward of the hospital. She was present when his wife gave birth to Sandy and was the one who sat at her bedside waiting for her to come round after being sedated following a difficult birth.
I was attracted to the Cinderella aspect of Sandy’s story as well as the religious aspect in the form of Catholic ritual which I had experienced as a child at the Loreto Convent in Cape Town, part of Mother Theresa’s order, as I discovered later on.
The Cinderella aspect of the story is universal, an archetypal myth. We all know about Cinderella, how she’s transformed from kitchen maid to belle of the ball. The minute she puts on the glass slippers, she becomes a princess fit for the Prince Charming. But the magic only lasts until midnight when she goes back to her old life of poverty and drudgery. And yet a small window of opportunity has opened for her in the form of the glass slipper which she inadvertently leaves behind on the steps of the palace in her hurry to go as the clock strikes twelve.
Through the actions of her fairy godmother, she is given the opportunity to grow, to transform and to fulfil herself. The fairy godmother represents that part of her personality which allows her to move beyond the limitations of her dreary, everyday life, just as long as she has the courage to take the opportunity. Once she has taken the first step, the step in the right direction that is the one involving the glass slippers, she’s well on the road to transforming her life. Similarly a passive and brow-beaten Sister Beatrice is transformed the moment she puts on the fluffy pink slippers which represent a wonderfully frivolous and endearing symbol of femininity.
Of course she could ignore and suppress her feelings of rebellion and daring and continue her life as before. But she has the courage to pursue a break-away and is brave enough to face her cruel stepmother, the formidable Mother Superior, to announce her intention to leave the church. The time frame is also significant: she’s of an age when the maternal clock is ticking and ready to strike midnight as the end of her biological cycle and ability to have children. She’s thirty years old and the clock has already started to chime.
The Cinderella story is so critical to the theme and focus of the novel that I have included it in different forms for emphasis and amplification. The conventional fairy tale with the glass slipper and Prince Charming is dramatized by Bea’s reading to her grandchild Chiara. Then she reads the version by Rossini as dramatized in his opera “Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant” which is a little different and dramatises a cruel stepfather instead of a stepmother. Instead of the fairy godmother, the Prince’s tutor visits Cinderella and conjures up a magic box with ball-gown and accessories for Cinderella’s debut at the palace. The Prince finds the elusive Cinderella by means of a matching bracelet instead of the glass slipper. It’s intriguing to note that fulfilment comes in two’s – the pair of slippers, two bracelets and the betrothed couple.
Rossini’s version also paves the way for a third version, Bea’s own story in which she is transformed from the sullen Muriel to the Beatrice of beatitude or sainthood.
There’s something self-sacrificing and destructive about Sister Beatrice’s selflessness, especially as time goes by and she becomes more and more cut off from the abundance, colour and sensuousness of nature’s seasons. She’s no longer a young Cinderella but even so she experiences maternal longings and nurturing instincts in her interaction with the mothers and babies in the sanatorium. Things come to a head the instant she slips on the pink slippers. In a moment of truth, she consciously realises that she has to fulfil herself as wife and mother. Painful as it may be and the upheaval and thought of life in the outside world is daunting, she’s compelled to go. She dare not ignore the voice that prompts her. She dare not remain because her current situation can only lead to death and destruction.
There’s a choice between being obedient to her cruel stepmother, Mother Martha, the Mother Superior as representative of the Catholic Church or of following her intuition which, as we know, can be in direct opposition to the outer, collective, prescribed world or, in this case, to the demands of the church. In the conflict between the needs of the individual and the demands of society or religion, it’s essential for the human psyche to grow and develop. Bea cannot deny her biological urges, so that ultimately once her children are grown up and particularly after her husband Matthew dies, she can move to the next stage of her life cycle which is mainly cultural and spiritual.
As her name Beatrice suggests, she is privileged, blessed and fortunate enough to get help along the way of her journey into the secular world. At the boarding house in Cape Town, Brenda takes the role of a young fairy godmother, introducing her to the social life of the city, lending her suitable clothes and presenting her to a circle of friends and acquaintances which include her husband-to-be, her Prince Charming, Matthew Bosworth.
Throughout her journey through the years, she is given a guide, a fairy godmother, an advisor, helper or mentor. Back in Genadendorp, her old school friend Marietjie welcomes her and helps her with the domestic aspects of her life, spouse, children, cooking, furnishing and entertaining. Grandmother and mentor, Jean Jacobs, local Doctor Jacobs’ wife, guides her through the unknowns of baby and child rearing. Bettie Armstrong helps her to set up the nursery for son Andrew and takes her shopping at Van’s Outfitters.
Chapter 19 of the novel entitled “Cinderella, the woman sidelined” takes up the theme of the Cinderella daughter who’s taught to be obedient, dutiful and limited in her lifestyle and activities. In short, she allows herself to be dictated to, to remain powerless to change the course of her life. Bea then looks back at her own life in the paternalistic church in which as a woman she played an essentially subservient or Cinderella role.
Fortunately Prince Charming in the guise of her husband Matthew rescues her from the cinders. A self-secure man, he doesn’t feel threatened by Bea. As a result she is free to develop her own interests and personality.
By contrast her friend Bettie confesses that she allowed herself to be dictated to by a mean and domineering husband. Like Cinderella, she was forced to cook and clean, fetch and carry for her husband and sons. She never learned to be independent, and assumed that this was her lot in life. So when her husband died quite young, she was needy and terrified. She couldn’t fend for herself, didn’t even know how to change a light bulb. Moreover she was left almost destitute since her husband had not provided for the future and made some shaky investments.
Out of sheer necessity Bettie managed to change from sidelined Cinderella to an independent individual earning her own living and empowering herself. She and Bea discuss the modern generation of women, their daughters or daughters-in-law and their relatively more emancipated situation with regard to family, children and career.