A niece of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Monica Baldwin became a nun just before World War One.
The walls of the monastery were thick and hardly a shred of news filtered in from the shellshocked world. ‘Now and again a nun would be sent for by Reverend Mother and told that some relation had been wounded or killed; but I can’t remember reading a single newspaper during the whole four years.’ One day, after the bells were rung in celebration, the Reverend Mother told them the war was over. They sang Te Deum. ‘That, for me, represented World War Number One’.
Baldwin left her cloistered life on 26 October 1941, and couldn’t have chosen a worse moment for a re-immersion into the outside world. Friends were shocked. ‘What with clothes coupons, food rationing, travelling restrictions and the appalling rise in the cost of living, how on earth – they asked – did I imagine I should ever be able to cope?’ Food rations made sense, but there were more intricate modern issues to be explained. In her only book, published in November 1949, Baldwin grappled with the problems posed to an ex-nun. Most frightening was what lay beneath.
The crescendo of shocks which awaited me began abruptly with my first introduction to up-to-date underwear. Frankly, I was appalled.
The garments to which I was accustomed had been contrived by thoroughgoing ascetics in the fourteenth century, who considered that a nice, thick, longsleeved ‘shift’ of rough, scratchy serge was the right thing to wear next to your skin. My shifts, when new, had reached almost to my ankles. However, hard washing and much indiscriminate patching soon stiffened and shrank them until they all but stood up by themselves. Stays, shoulder-strapped and severely boned, concealed one’s outline; over them, two long serge petticoats were lashed securely round one’s waist. Last came the ample habit-coat of heavy cloth, topped by a linen rochet and a stiffly starched barbette of cambric, folded into a score of tiny tucks and pleats at the neck.
So, when my sister handed me a wisp of gossamer, about the size and substance of a spider’s web, I was startled.
She said, ‘Here’s your foundation garment. Actually, most people only wear pants and a brassiere, but it’s cold to-day so I thought we’d better start you with a vest.’
I examined the object, remembering 1914. In those days, a ‘nice’ girl ‘started’ with long, woolly combinations, neckhigh and elbow-sleeved, decorated with a row of neat pearl buttons down the front…
Next came the modern version of the corset. It was the merest strip of elastic brocade from which suspenders, in a surprising number, dangled. I thought it a great improvement on the fourteenthcentury idea. The only drawback was that you had to insert your person into it serpent-fashion, as it had no fastenings.
What bothered me most were the stockings. The kind I was used to were enormous things, far thicker than those men wear for tramping the moors and shrunk by repeated boiling to the shape and consistency of a Wellington boot. The pair with which Freda had provided me were of silk, skin-coloured and so transparent that I wondered why anyone bothered to wear the things at all.
I said firmly, ‘Freda, I can’t possibly go out in these. They make my legs look naked.’
She smiled patiently.
‘Nonsense,’ she said. ‘Everyone wears them. If you went about in anything else you’d collect a crowd.’
One further shock awaited me.
An object was handed to me which I can only describe as a very realistically modelled bust-bodice. That its purpose was to emphasize contours which, in my girlhood, were always decorously concealed was but too evident.
‘This,’ said my sister cheerfully, ‘is a brassiere. And it’s no use looking so horrified, because fashions to-day go out of their way to stress that part of one’s anatomy. These things are supposed to fix one’s chest at the classic angle. Like this –’ she adjusted the object with expert fingers. ‘There – you see the idea?’
Now we were on the threshhold.
As I crossed it, two thoughts occurred to me. One was that the door, which at that instant was being locked behind me, was not a door but a guillotine. And it had just chopped off from me, utterly and irrevocably, every single thing which, for twenty-eight years, had made up my life. Henceforward I was a being without a background. And no one who has not actually experienced that sensation can know how grim it is.
The other thought flashed in upon me with the urgency of a commandment:
Thou shalt not look back!
And I knew instinctively that, if I wanted to keep my balance on the tightrope stretched before me, I must slam the door behind me and keep on looking straight ahead. Otherwise I should have to pay the penalty.
I crossed the courtyard and went out into the pale October sunshine.
For good or ill, I had leapt over the wall.
– I Leap Over The Wall: A Return To The World After Twenty-Eight Years In A Convent