Nuns and Crinolines

Tommasini by MK Richardson

aka To Grow Holy Merrily

published 1960

Tommasini 1

[1850s: Marietta, a young Italian nun, is in New York state, and needs to put on secular dress to travel into the city]

Marietta’s eyes ranged along the hooks, passing over the older, more sober dresses and halting at the crinolines. Why not be fashionable for once in a way? She unhooked the largest crinoline. Her black habit’s full skirt would serve as petticoat… Regretfully, she resisted the brighter [dresses] and took a pale grey silk one.

[They walk out to the bus stop] The bus drew up, fortunately, she noted, with few passengers in it. The driver whipped up and they set off. Marietta stood in the middle of the bus between the rows of seats. How did you sit in a crinoline? Every time she gingerly approached the seat, it was as if a palisade cut off her movement. She found herself held upright, willy nilly… Passengers getting in looked at her with surprise.

‘There’s an empty seat, Ma’am.’

‘Thank you,’ said Marietta. ‘I prefer to stand.’

How long was the journey? Would it never end? So they must have felt in the pillory, a laughing stock that could not move… There was a sudden jolt as the wheel passed over a rut. Marietta was thrown off her precarious balance and landed on the seat. Up went the crinoline and she sat there in all the glory of her black habit framed in the uplifted circle of grey silk.

tommasini 2
commentary: This must be one of the most unusual books I’ve featured on the blog – both in how I found it, and in its concept.

Back in March I did a post on the book Helen’s Babies by John Habberton, which I had found via a description of it in George Orwell. In the comments, blogfriend Lucy Fisher spoke of a book ‘about a nun where she has to go undercover wearing a crinoline she's not used to. Fine until she sits down suddenly on a bus...’ Obviously I had to order this book immediately – at this stage I had no idea even what genre it was.

When my copy arrived (you can find them around, but it is not a widely-available book), I opened it, and it gave me quite a turn. This copy was owned by a convent in Liverpool: A convent that was right next door to the school I attended there - they were our closest neighbours, even closer than the boys’ school.

Tommasini 3

That at least reassured me that the book was of a respectable nature…

As far as I can tell, it’s a mixture of autobiography (though written in the 3rd person) and biography: the story from childhood of an Italian woman, (Mary) Cipriana Stanislas Tommasini, born in Parma in 1827. She became a nun and travelled all over the world helping to found convents and schools for her order, the Society of the Sacred Heart. Early on in her career, she had to escape from strong anti-religious feeling in Italy, moving between cities and eventually to Paris – she had to wear secular clothes then, too, to stay safe, but in the incident above it was merely to ‘avoid hurting Protestant susceptibilities.’ From the USA, she moved on to Cuba, Canada and Mexico. She died in New York state in 1913. Her death was reported in the NY Times, although they spelled her name wrong, assuming it is correct on her gravestone. Not very impressive.

It seems that she wrote an autobiographical account of her life: she died before it was finished, and I presume that MK Richardson completed it for her. In America the book is known as To Grow Holy Merrily (a surprisingly awkward phrase – you can see what was meant, but it’s not a good combination of words.)

I suppose her words were too holy to mess about with – what the book really needed was a good editor. It jumps around all over the place, and it is very difficult to work out what is going on some of the time. Most of the details I give above were not gleaned from the book, which is extremely vague about dates, and facts, and about her exact progress towards becoming a nun. But it is at times entertaining and funny. When a nun becomes very ill Mother Tommasini organizes prayers to help her. When she gets better, she says ‘Prayer has saved her!’ at which the doctor grumbles: ‘You nuns, you never want to give the doctor credit for anything, poor fellow.’

She witnessed such exciting times in her life: it’s a pity there aren’t more details. Of course it is a story about a holy nun, but it is not off-puttingly pious. Or only occasionally.

Strangely enough, there is a whole tiny sub-culture of crinoline myths apparently – although these days you will find debunking more than the original stories. I suppose as with any very popular fashion, people like to make contemporary jokes, and later generations aren’t always aware these are jokes.

So an example is this photo, which was plainly a faked setup – women being made to remove hooped petticoats before getting on a bus - but apparently has been treated as factual in the past:

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See this blogpost here. And there are other similar stories if you Google ‘crinoline myths’.

So with all that, I knew that there must be endless Punch omnibus cartoons with ladies in crinolines, and I knew Lucy would approve, so have picked out two of them. These are from the 1850s.

All over the blog there are plenty of pictures of nuns and posts about nuns in books – including this article I wrote for the Guardian on the subject. And this book was another biography of a saintly nun. St Therese of Lisieux.


  1. Not one for me, so I guess I'll be nun the wiser.....absolutely awful, but hey

    1. As long as we're punning...

      I swear this is true. Sister Blanding Segale, a member of the Sisters of Charity working in Colorado and New Mexico in the 1870s/80s, got the nickname 'the fastest nun in the West' for saving a man from a lynch mob.

    2. "Blandina". Curse you, autocorrect.

    3. Going to have to go and look up her story...

    4. Blimey! She lived till 1941...

  2. That certainly does sound unusual, Moira. And what a small, small world it is, isn't it? Fascinating story of how you got the book. And this sounds like a very good reminder that any work can use a good editor. Not sure this one would be for me, but the crinoline story? That's a good one!

    1. It was so strange to have a reminder of schooldays turn up like that. And I can forgive the book a lot for the sparky moments like the crinoline story.

  3. I read your Guardian piece - fascinating. I would have added Diderot, The Nun, but I see someone else did in the comments. I wrote about it a while back- pretty fierce indictment of convents. The Magdalene Sisters comes to mind as similarly critical.

    1. I read the Diderot a long time ago, and know that it made an impression at the time, but can't remember much about it. Nuns (and convents) range in character as widely as any other people and organizations, bad and good. I always have a soft spot for them, because the ones I knew tended to be nice. But the horror stories abound...

  4. "Try sideways, mum, try sideways!"
    "Lor bless yer, young man, I ain't got no sideways!" (But I think she was just large.)

    More I remember from the book: Sister T achieves something she thinks she'll be praised for, and the Mother Superior summons her to her office. Only to tell her "You are PUFFED UP with pride!"

    Sister T music-directs an important service, with lots of lovely singing. Mother Superior: "All those endless amens have tired everyone out and given them headaches!"

    Yes, I remember that attitude. Those were our nuns! The order was founded to give posh girls a good education. The education part had wilted a bit by the time I got there.

    More nun books? I Leap Over the Wall by Monica Baldwin (which I read while staying with a modern nun), and Karen Armstrong's autobiographies. Both describe shock at leaving the order and finding that fashionable clothes are now little more than undies... (20s and 60s)

    1. Yes, it was full of entertaining and unlikely anecdotes, she was forever being told she was too perky, too full of herself, her singing was too lovely...
      I particularly liked I Leap Over the Wall. And also have a soft spot for The Nun's Story, which you must have read.

    2. Tragic that Monica Baldwin didn't just walk out 20 years before they let her out.

    3. I know, I remember being horrified by that aspect when I read it as a teen. I have a lot of time for nuns, but some of the stories are sad and not sensible. Talked with an old schoolfriend about the Carmelite monastery mentioned above (we were taught by nuns but not enclosed ones) and I said how strange it was - we had nothing to do with them, whereas you'd think there could have been wholly beneficial links with our school if only the rules weren't so blank and total.

  5. Very interesting information about crinolines here. I never thought wearing crinolines would be fun, but I never thought of them as particularly unwieldy either, not any more than a lot of other fashions.

    1. No, I know what you mean. I have heard claims that they were relatively light and freeing compared to other arrangements of the time. I always remember Scarlett O'Hara in the film of GWTW, not supposed to dance because she was a widow, but hiding behind her stall and moving her legs and petticoats...


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