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At sixteen, Isabella Milburn’s world has been destroyed. Pregnant as the result of a brutal rape, her deep sense of guilt is reinforced by every member of her devoutly Catholic family, apart from her beloved grandmother. At their bidding she is to be sent to France, to give birth in secret, and then to enter a Paris convent, where by a life of prayer she may hope to find redemption.
Bewildered by grief and shame, she leaves her Northumberland home, with all its memories of a free and happy childhood, and sets out for France. But already the storm clouds of Revolution are gathering over that country.
A year later, in July 1789, at the very moment when Isabella takes the veil, the storm breaks beyond the convent walls. A new world has begun in the streets of Paris, though within the convent it seems that nothing has changed. But can the convent stand against the fury of the Revolution? What new possibilities will the future bring? And what of the child she was forced to abandon?
Faced with the consequences of the hardest choice of her life, with heartache and danger, Isabella finds herself in a terrifying new world, where she must learn to fight for survival, to make friends, and above all to love.
Isabella takes her final vows:
There were no flowers for the two novices at their Profession, no joyful singing; only the mournful chanting of the Dies Irae and a shroud to cover them as they lay prostrate on the chapel floor. It was the burial service for everything that had bound them to the world, all that yet remained of their old selves. By the laws of France – by the laws of the old France, at least – they were no longer persons, but as unequivocally deceased as if their corpses had been buried in one of the many crowded Parisian graveyards.
Afterwards, alone in her cell with a short time for reflection, Isabella knelt to meditate on what had happened to her that day, on the solemn vows she had made, surrendering herself to a lifetime of poverty, chastity and obedience. The vows had seemed once to offer her hope, to offer all she could ask for in this life. But now that they had been made she felt no joy, no relief, no peace. Another quite different emotion filled her, setting her heart thudding, making her shiver uncontrollably: fear.
She had taken her chosen path. Her future was here in this place, the rest of her life was to be dedicated to prayer, to the obliteration of self, to the search for God. Yet over and over a small voice whispered in her head, ‘What have I done? Oh God, what have I done?’