A Candle for St. Jude by Rumer Godden ~ 1948. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1948. Hardcover. 192 pages.
My rating: 8/10
This slight novel would be better classified as a novella. But it’s an intricately crafted thing in its own way, and there is much to admire in how the author sketches her characters so deftly, using her polished technique in giving us telling glimpses of each from a variety of perspectives.
There is also plenty of scope in this format to show off a writer’s technical abilities, and Rumer Godden worked hard at her craft and it shows. For all that it is set in a constrained period of time, the author darts all over the place in gathering background details. This is how flashbacks should be written; Godden’s are as smooth as silk.
The book details twenty-four hours in the life of a small dance academy and theatre in London.
Madame Holbein, once a prima ballerina, presides over her tiny but exceptionally well-regarded ballet school with the stalwart assistance of her sister-in-law, the misleadingly named Miss Ilse, who cares for all the domestic and financial details. (Miss Ilse is actually a widowed Mrs; Madame Holbein, never married, should really be a Miss, but such petty details of nomenclature are dismissed by the dramatic Anna Holbein: “Madame” she has self-designated herself and so it shall be!)
Every year Madame Holbein holds a gala recital followed by a short but eagerly awaited and always sold out dance season in the tiny, gem-like theatre attached to the school. Her performers are the best of her current students, acting as corps and secondary leads to guest stars drawn from Madame Holbein’s long roster of successful alumni.
This year those stars are Lion and Caroline*, two of her brightest and best ex-students, now dancing to great acclaim as supporting partners – and presumably romantic partners? – in a famous company.
Along with this year’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of her debut on the stage, Madame Holbein not so secretly intends to designate Caroline as her successor and heir to the leadership of the dance school – though not just yet! – and she squelches down her occasional unease that perhaps Caroline is not quite as good as she thinks she is; things have come very easily to her, and Madame Holbein is a great believer in the value of suffering for one’s art.
As this extra-special gala night approaches, a mere 24 hours to go, it becomes evident that not all is well in Madame Holbein’s tiny fiefdom.
Senior student Hilda, a gifted junior choreographer, given the stressful honour of preparing a piece for the gala show, has just been informed that her work is not suitable after all, and instead of being presented as planned, it will be excerpted. Oh, and Hilda’s own role in her own ballet will be given to Caroline, because Caroline has decided that she doesn’t much like the admiring way Lion has been looking at Hilda, who is showing signs of developing into a dancer with that little bit extra – that certain hunger – which Caroline herself lacks.
A much smaller student is a bundle of nerves because she has been casually informed that a certain famous film producer will be auditioning her for a role just before the gala takes place; it is handy for both him and Madame Holbein, because he will be in attendance at the gala and the few minutes it will take are just the merest inconvenience to the adults, but Lollie is terrified, and no one has time to talk her through her very real fear.
Madame Holbein is finding that all of her carefully organized plans for her celebratory gala are being endangered by the seething emotions of those whom she thought were well under her rather arrogant thumb; she must come to terms with her own strong personality, and the way it has affected those she loves the most, and demands the most from.
From none has been demanded so much extra as from Miss Ilse, quietly unsung co-heroine of the assembly, whose strong Catholic faith has sustained her in the past when life’s unfairness seems too much to bear. It is Miss Ilse’s habit, when things get too dark, to duck away to the church nearby to light a candle to St. Jude, patron saint of hope and impossible causes, and she does so now, as Madame Holbein’s carefully constructed world seems to be poised on the verge of irrevocable collapse…
Rumer Godden knew the dance world of her time very well indeed. She and her sister Jon opened their own multi-racial ballet school in Calcutta in 1925, and successfully ran it for twenty years; she remained a dedicated balletomane all of her life, and her dance-related episodes in full length novels such as Thursday’s Children read true.
A Candle for St. Jude is a minor book in Godden’s larger oeuvre, but it is one of the best-beloved among many of her readers.
It is not my own personal favourite-of-all of Rummer Godden’s stories – that would instead be China Court, hands down – but there is a lot to like about it. A Candle for St. Jude is a finely crafted bit of writing; a small and perfectly invented episode which condenses its unseen but masterfully imagined greater background into colourful and immediate clarity.
*Catherine/Caroline – I realized as soon as I hit “publish” that I had written the whole post using the wrong name for Madame Holbein’s guest star. Those of you who receive these posts by email will have received the incorrect version, but I’ve fixed it here. Apologies to sharp-eyed Godden fans who noticed the error! (And I suspect this will be a few of you.)