Posts Tagged ‘Godden, Rumer’

The Lady and the Unicorn by Rumer Godden ~ 1938. This edition: Penguin, 1982. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-5523-1. 189 pages.

This was Rumer Godden’s second published book, appearing only a year or so after her first novel, the perhaps deservedly obscure Chinese Puzzle, which concerns reincarnation and Pekingese dogs. (More on that one at some future date. I own a copy, acquired long ago in the interests of indulging my completist tendencies in regards to favorite writers. An unusual first novel, to be sure.)

The Lady and the Unicorn follows a more traditional path, being generally a linear narrative tale, but it contains numerous elements which Godden was to use time and time again in her later, better known works.

There are flashback sequences, ghostly visitations, an emotionally complex child character, brilliantly observed descriptive passages utilizing all five senses, great swaths of irony, and a sharp-eyed examination of the social mores of its time and setting, all wrapped up in a fatalistic what-happens-happens sort of shroud. To my secret delight, there is also a short reference to J.W. Dunne’s Theory of Time, which fascinated Godden all of her life and played a major role in two later novels, Take Three Tenses and China Court.

Everything which comes later in Godden’s work is already here, serving to justify my opinion that Rumer Godden essentially wrote the same thing over and over throughout her long writing career, though her creative genius fleshed out the familiar skeleton of her One Big Idea to a varying but always lifelike form in each succesive novel.

So. This story.

The feckless Lemarchant family, consisting of a widowed father, twin teenage sisters Belle and Rosa, little sister Blanche, and a maternal aunt, live in a decayed European-built mansion in an Eurasian district of 1930s’ Calcutta. Father is “Anglo”, Mother was Indian, and their offspring exist in a sort of societal limbo, being betwixt and between their two ancestral cultures while belonging to neither.

When seventeen-year-old Belle, in the full throes of her burgeoning sexuality, makes eyes at the Catholic priest who has known her since babyhood, the twins are asked to leave their school. Father Ghezzi, trying to explain why he feels he must send them away for fear of their corrupting their peers, makes a passionate statement as to the difficulties facing those youth of mixed-race in India.

“I don’t know which is it that is worse to have in this country, Mr Lemarchant, boys or girls., sons or daughters. With the sons it is one thing; they cannot get work, the Indians squeeze them out from below, the English from above, so -” He brought his clenched hands together as if he were crushing a poor little man to death. “They cannot get work; before they begin they are failures. And with the girls it is another thing, they are too successful. Yes. There is always success for these girls, so smart, so nimble, so empty-headed. They take even the jobs that the boys might have; they go into offices, shops, and what happens? They get money, they get ideas, they are taken up by men – men in Calcutta society, faugh! – and then when they are in trouble they are flung back on their people; on those boys whose place they have taken, boys for whom they have now no use, and who could not marry them if they have.”

Prophetic words, as Belle goes on to become the mistress of a wealthy dilettante, and Rosa in her turn falls in love with a newly arrived Englishman, a relationship which dooms her to disaster when his family catches scent of a potential complication in their son’s life and sends his childhood sweetheart out to India to entice him away from the apparently wicked half-caste girl of his latest infatuation.

Ironically named Blanche, the dark-skinned “throwback” of the family, watches all of this from the shadows, while going through her own agonies of love and loss.

An intriguing small novel, beautifully written and deeply poignant. I am not sure why it isn’t more widely known; it is as good as anything which comes after it, and so deserves a full place in this iconic writer’s canon.

Here is the link to another review from Kat at Mirabile Dictu, which provides more details of the plot.

My rating: 8/10

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a-candle-for-st-jude-rumer-goddenA 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.)

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mercy pity peace and love jon rumer goddenMercy, Pity, Peace and Love: Stories by Rumer and Jon Godden ~ 1989. This edition: Quill, William Morrow, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-688-10965-9. 160 pages. Also published as Indian Dust in the U.K., Macmillan, 1989, with identical format and content.

My rating: I have somewhat mixed feelings about this collection of stories mostly by Rumer, because so many are already included in her 1957 collection, Mooltiki, and reading Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love felt very much like déjà vu all over again. But then I got to the very few (four out of fifteen) stories by Rumer’s sister Jon, and those were good enough to still my pangs of annoyance. To be fair, all of these short stories are actually very good, and if you haven’t read the rather obscure Mooltiki, you will be coming to them with fresh and appreciative eyes.

I think in this case I will award the collection as a whole a most respectable 8/10. (Along with the recycled stories, the two also-repeated poems made me knock it back a half point; Rumer Godden was a much more accomplished prose writer; her poems are just “not quite” for me; something just a bit jarring with the phrasing, I think.)

The intent of the collection is to celebrate the India that the Godden sisters knew and loved; they spent most of their childhood years in India, and significant amounts of their adult lives there as well. Rumer and Jon also collaborated on a beautifully written joint childhood memoir, Two Under the Indian Sun, which I read with pleasure some years ago.

Reader Alert! This is the same book as Indian Dust. Both were published in 1989, but Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love is the American title, from Macmillan, with Indian Dust the British title, from Macmillan. I had recently ordered Indian Dust, thinking it was another collection of stories, and was greatly disappointed to find it was identical to the one I already owned, under the Mercy, Pity title.

  • Bengal River by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki. First stanza is the best.
Nothing can mollify the sky,
the river knows
only its weight and solitude, and heat, sun-tempered cold,
and emptiness and birds; a boat; trees; fine white sand,
and deltas of cool mud; porpoises; crocodiles;
and rafts of floating hyacinth; pools and water-whirls
and, nurtured in blue mussel shells, the sunset river pearls…
                                                                                                            … … …
  • Possession – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

The rice field lay farthest from the village, nearest the road. On all sides the plain unrolled in the sun with a pattern of white clouds, white pampas grass in autumn and white paddy birds, and glimpses of sky-reflecting water from the jheels or shallow pools. The sky met the horizon evenly all the way round in the flatness of the plain, an immense weight of sky above the little field, but the old peasant Dhandu did not look at the sky, he looked at his field; he did not know that it was little; to him it was the whole world. He would take his small son Narayan by the wrist and walk with him and say, ‘This field belonged to my grandfather and your great-grandfather; to my father and your grandfather; it is mine, it will be yours.’

But life-plans may go horribly awry; Dhandu’s does not follow its anticipated path; in an ironic ending, which I somehow found reminiscent of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, the field stays with Dhandu but is forever lost to his son.

  • Rahmin – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

An anecdote concerning a series of encounters with a minor craftsman, who proves to be representative of a vast class of Indian society balanced on the knife edge of survival.

  • Monkey – by Jon Godden

Another anecdote, this time by Jon, telling of an encounter with a neighbour’s pet monkey, and the chain of events set off by its biting the author. Fascinating glimpse into the pet-owning culture of upper middle class Calcutta, where Jon was part of a mixed Anglo and Indian community.

  • Sister Malone and the Obstinate Manby Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

Sister Malone, the nun in charge of a charity hospital in Calcutta, is unshaken by the horrible sufferings all around her and does great good with her nursing abilities, but her continual effort to share her religious faith with those she heals goes unheeded. One day Sister Malone meets a man who has truly put all of his trust in God, but she cannot reconcile this with her own conception of what faith should be.

  • The Grey Budgerigar – by Jon Godden

Heart-rending short description of a valiant pet bird and its sad fate.

  • Children of Aloysius – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.

A modest seamstress is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make her fortune.

  • The Oyster – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A Bhramini Hindu student, who has travelled abroad to study in England, visits Paris with a friend and is forced to examine the role of compromise in the formation of his own developing character.

  • Kashmiri Winter – by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki.
Big Sister, Hungry Sister and the Greedy Dwarf of Ice,
these are forty days of winter, then twenty and then ten…

   … … …

  • The Wild Duck – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A young Kashmiri hunter, longing for winter to be over, thinks of his time the previous year among the high mountains hunting ibex.

  • The Carpet – by Jon Godden

The long process of acquiring – or rather, being led into buying by a master salesman – a beautiful Persian carpet. Beautifully observed; gently humorous.

  • Red Doe – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

A vignette of a young nomad riding up the mountain to fetch his unseen new wife. Sensitive and poignant.

  • The Little Black Ram – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.

An orphan boy,

… a young thief, a bully, noisy, quarrelsome and turbulent, against everyone with everyone against him…

finds his place in the world through his care of a black ram lamb.

  • Miss Passano – by Jon Godden

Miss Passano is disgusted by her fellow humans, and meditates upon a world without them, where only she would remain, in service to the animals she so greatly loves.

  • Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection

Ganesh Dey attempts to write on these concepts – Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – for his doctoral thesis. A gently ironical and emotionally powerful story, possibly the best of the collection in its summation of the contradictions of human nature and how we actually treat each other versus how we view our relationships and interactions.

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the story of holly and ivy rumer goddenThe Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden ~ 1958. This edition: Macmillan, 2005. Illustrated by Christian Birmingham. Softcover. ISBN: 0-330-43974-x. 58 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Pretty well perfect.


This is a story about wishing. It is also about a doll and a little girl. It begins with the doll.

Her name, of course, was Holly.

It could not have been anything else, for she was dressed for Christmas in a red dress, and red shoes, though her petticoat and socks were green.

She was ten inches high and carefully jointed; she had real gold hair, brown glass eyes, and teeth like tiny china pearls.

The newest toy in Mr. Blossom’s shop in the village of Appleton, Holly is unpacked the day before Christmas Eve, and she is apprehensive as to what will happen next. The other toys are in a state of high excitement. “We must be sold today!” they whisper to each other, before the shop opens. “Wish, wish, wish!”

“What happens if I’m not sold?” wonders Holly.

“You will be put back into stock,” hisses Abracadabra, the sinister stuffed owl who broods over the store. “It is shut up and dark, and no one will see you or disturb you. You get covered with dust, and I will be there.”

Holly quivers in despair. “I wish, wish, wish for a little girl for Christmas!”

But Christmas Eve is here, and the shop is being closed up, and Holly is still on the shelf…


Far away in the city was a big house called St Agnes’s, where thirty boys and girls had to live together, but now, for three days, they were saying ‘Goodbye’ to St Agnes’s. ‘A kind lady – or gentleman – has asked you for Christmas,’ Miss Shepherd, who looked after them all, had told them, and one by one the children were called for or taken to the train. Soon there would be no one left in the big house but Miss Shepherd and Ivy.

Ivy was a little girl, six years old with straight hair cut in a fringe, blue-grey eyes, and a turned-up nose. She had a green coat the colour of her name, and red gloves, but no lady or gentleman had asked for her for Christmas. ‘I don’t care,’ said Ivy.

Sometimes in Ivy there  was an empty feeling, and the emptiness ached; it ached so much that she had to say something quickly in case she cried, and, ‘I don’t care at all,’ said Ivy.

‘You will care,’ said the last boy, Barnabas, who was waiting for a taxi. ‘Cook has gone, the maids have gone, and Miss Shepherd is going to her sister. You will care,’ said Barnabas.

‘I won’t,’ said Ivy, and she said more quickly, ‘I’m going to my grandmother.’

‘You haven’t got a grandmother,’said Barnabas. ‘We don’t have them.’ That was true. The boys and girls at St Agnes’s had no fathers and mothers, let alone grandparents.

‘But I have,’ said Ivy. ‘At Appleton.’

I do not know how that name came into Ivy’s head. Perhaps she had heard it somewhere. She said it again. ‘In Appleton.’

But Ivy is going to the Infants’ Home in the country, as Miss Shepherd must go to her sister, who has influenza. Ivy is loaded onto the train, with “a packet of sandwiches, an apple, a ticket, two shillings, and a parcel that was her Christmas present”, and on to Ivy’s coat was pinned a label with the address of the Infants’ Home.

As soon as Miss Shepherd leaves her, Ivy tears off the label and throws it out the window. ‘I’m going to my grandmother,’ she declares. ‘In Appleton.’ That is in just a few stops, a helpful lady tells her, and sure enough, as the train stops at Appleton station Ivy gets off, leaving her suitcase and her St Agnes-supplied gift – a pencil-case – on the seat, and, unnoticed by the busy ticket inspector, starts out on her quest.

Not far away, in the toyshop, Holly is wishing and wishing and crying out silently, ‘Stop. Stop. Oh, someone, stop.’ But in vain.

Only one person stopped, but it was not a boy or a girl. It was Mrs Jones, the policeman’s wife from down the street. She was passing the toyshop on her way home when Holly’s red dress caught her eye. ‘Pretty!’ said Mrs Jones and stopped.

You and I would have felt Holly’s wish at once, but Mrs Jones had no children and it was so long since she had known a doll that she did not understand; only a feeling stirred in her that she had not had for a long time, a feeling of Christmas, and when she got home she told Mr. Jones, ‘This year we shall have a tree.’

‘Don’t be daft,’ said Mr Jones, but when Mrs Jones had put her shopping away, a chicken and a small plum-pudding for her and Mr Jones’s Christmas dinner, a piece of fish for the cat, and a dozen fine handkerchiefs which were Mr Jones’s present, she went back to the market and bought some holly, mistletoe, and a Christmas tree.

The tree is decorated, but

‘Who is to look at it?’ asked Mr Jones.

Mrs Jones thought for a moment and said, ‘Christmas needs children, Albert.’ Albert was Mr Jones’s name. ‘I wonder,’ said Mrs Jones. ‘Couldn’t we find a little girl?’

‘What’s the matter with you today, my dear?’ said Mr Jones. ‘How could we find a little girl? You’re daft.’ And it was a little sadly that Mrs Jones put holly along the chimney shelf, hung mistletoe in the hall, tied a bunch of holly on the doorknocker, and went back to her housework.


Need I go on? Of course not! You know what eventually happens, don’t you? But the path to wish-fulfillment is never so straight and easy …

This is a deliciously sweet story, perfect for a reasonably accomplished independent reader of 6 or 7 or maybe a bit older (my own daughter read it happily to herself for the first time at 10) and a marvelous Read-Aloud for all ages – it’s fairly text dense, so allow at least three good long sessions.

Ivy is a grand little heroine, misguidedly stubborn and with something of a temper, which makes her eventual fate even more emotionally satisfying. And because this is a fantasy – a Christmas fantasy – we do not worry about her wandering alone through a strange village; we know that she will come to no lasting harm, though an adventure or two may befall her.

Highly recommended, for the children in your life, and for a gentle treat for yourself, too!


Holly-and-IvyIf you can, try to find the original, long out of print hardcovers illustrated first by Adrienne Adams, and then in another edition by Barbara Cooney. The currently in-print Christian Birmingham version is quite lovely, too, especially if gifting this book, where crisp and new is an issue, though it is without the vintage appeal of the older versions.Holly and Ivy

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Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden ~ 1991. This edition: Macmillan London, 1991. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-333-55227-x. 246 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. Not bad. Decidedly better than the author’s parallel book Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, which I read and reluctantly panned a few weeks ago.


Kirkus sums it up succinctly, in the June, 1991 review. Major plot spoiler in this review, by the way.

They don’t tend to write like this anymore, perhaps with good reason, but nonetheless the latest from Godden, unabashedly sentimental, is an entertaining if nostalgic read.

Patna Hall, a popular hotel on the Coromandel coast of southern India, is owned and run by Auntie Sanni, an Anglo-Indian whose family has been there for generations. Auntie Sanni, a stereotype like all the characters here, is a wise and wonderful old woman who knows exactly what to do with misbehaving guests and servants. In the week the novel covers, a party of scholarly American women, a British honeymoon couple, a British diplomat and his wife, a journalist, a mysterious unattached woman, and the managers of a local political campaign are all guests.

The hotel, right on the beach, where the waves are strong and the sea shark- infested, becomes the stage for the unfolding drama with parts for everyone, including the servants, a donkey, and an elephant. It is soon apparent to all–but especially to Auntie Sanni and Sir John and Lady Fisher, the diplomats–that the young leads, honeymooners Mary and Blaise, are having problems. Mary, entranced with the hotel and all things Indian, gets involved in the political campaign and is especially drawn to the candidate, handsome English-educated Krishnan, who is everything that snobby and insensitive husband Blaise is not. The campaign has its ups and downs as Mary gets closer to Krishnan–which is terrific because they are meant for each other–a(highlight the rest of this section to reveal spoiler)nd as poor Blaise, obviously doomed, conveniently exits in a nasty accident just in time for Auntie Sanni to get the hotel ready for the next week’s guests.

Godden’s lively narrative and her vivid descriptions of the people, places, and customs of a country she loves are more than fair compensation for dated style and stock characters.

I’m rather sorry to say that the only surprise here was which of the characters was doomed; I initially had picked the l(highlight to reveal my choice if you so wish) lovely young Indian hotel manager Kuku as the expendable, but I was wrong.

All of the stock characters from a Godden Indian novel are here, the only ones missing are nuns. We have a young, emotionally mismatched married couple, an intellectual and physically beautiful young man, a sexy, sultry young Indian woman (sometimes she’s Eurasian), precocious children, personable animals, worldly-wise observers – in this case an older Anglo-Indian couple and the omniscient Auntie Sanni – and last, but definitely not least, a sensually rich setting.

The setting is, as always in a Godden tale, almost a character in its own right. Godden’s sharp observational skills and her stellar descriptive talents are put to good use here: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of this beautifully depicted corner of the world are the best part of this otherwise rather unremarkable story.

This was one of the last novels in Godden’s long list, and, in company with the others of this winding-down period of the writer’s career, is broadly sketched with less of the care and detail of some of her earlier masterpieces. It also has more of an upbeat, consciously humorous tone than some of the older books, especially regarding the shenanigans which the political combatants get up to – a vow of silence, a rally prank involving old umbrellas to discomfit a rival candidate – and even the climactic tragedy is presented with a farcical twist.

Loved the cover illustration, especially the illustrative references on the back, which the reader will appreciate much more deeply after completing the book.

Recommended for Godden fans rounding out their collections, and for “light” reading. No emotional challenges or deeply moving characters here, but the writing itself  is more than adequate, and sometimes very good indeed.

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Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India by Rumer Godden ~ 1997. This edition: Macmillan, 2007. First edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-333-71548-9. 170 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Workmanlike, but lacking any sort of the old Rumer Godden magic. If it were by any other author I would have set it aside unfinished, but as the celebrated writer’s last published work, I felt the need to see it through to the end. Not recommended, except to those wishing to round out their Godden collection.


Publisher’s Weekly Review, November 1997:

Based on a real incident that occurred a decade ago, this assured novel by 89-year-old Godden (Black Narcissus, etc.) concerns a sensational case brought by the Hindu god Shiva, “acting through the government of India,” against a wealthy Canadian, Sydney Carstairs Cromartie, who buys a small, 11th-century bronze statue of Shiva in Toronto. Cromartie takes the figurine to a highly reputable London art dealer, where a staff member informs the Indian government that the priceless artifact has likely been stolen. The partners in a prestigious set of chambers in London’s Inns of Court overcome their fear of appearing ridiculous and assign the case to young Michael Dean, who was born and raised in India. Dean returns to his homeland to investigate and stays at Patna Hall, a quaint beachfront hotel in South India, seen before in Godden’s Coromandel Sea Change. Although Dean soon falls for a visiting archeologist, love is not allowed to get in the way of the pursuit of justice; the denouement, however, brings one of the lovers a broken heart. Liberally dabbed with local color, the book is fast-paced–so much so that its concise prose sometimes seems hasty, its simple characterizations verging on the glib. Yet Godden’s fans will probably welcome yet another of this veteran novelist’s tales of India.

I am definitely a Godden fan, but I like to think that this designation does not blind me to the fact that her output can be, on occasion, charitably described as uneven. When she’s good, she’s very, very good,but when she’s bad … well, you know the rest of that tagline.

This book, her last adult novel, and indeed her last published work of any sort, was written at the very end of her long career. Though it is more than competently written, it feels sadly stiff and flat. I did not care for a single one of the characters; they moved behind a wall of smoked glass, with occasional glints of sparkle and colour, but nothing more. The ending was dreadfully contrived, like something out of one of Agatha Christie’s lesser efforts. I can’t help but feel the author shipped this one off to the publisher with a sigh of relief before turning to the fireside and tea-tray, much deserved after so many industrious years. Rumer Godden died a year after the publication of Cromartie v. The God Shiva, at the venerable age of ninety.

I will be reading Coromandel Sea Change, in order to compare the two. Godden refers to that work as the “Siamese twin” of Cromartie, sharing the setting and some of the characters, but diverging in plot. I have heard that Coromandel is the better book. I hope that this is true. I readily forgive Godden and allow her the odd miss, but I’m not going to hide my disappointment about this one.

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Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time by Rumer Godden ~ 1945. This edition: Macmillan, 1976. Hardcover. ISBN: 333-19366-0. 176 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10 for the overall story, 10/10 for the writing. The first rating really should be higher but I am comparing it to its successor, China Court (1958), which used the same idea expanded to five generations, with a much stronger story thread. This one felt a bit experimental, which the author herself notes. It took a few pages to get into the rhythm and figure out all the characters, but after that it was easy to follow, perhaps because I am already very familiar with this author’s use of concurrent and intertwining times in many of her novels. An unusual and ambitious book. Beautifully written.


This book is prime Rumer Godden; an example of why I keep returning to her works time after time; as I’ve mentioned before, even a “poor” Godden is worth the time it takes to read it; her “top end” books are little masterpieces.

Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time is, in my opinion, almost a little masterpiece, or perhaps more aptly, the not-quite-finished work of a master artist, still needing a few final touches, but interesting to examine in the context of the artist’s body of work, to get a glimpse into how their mind works. A very experimental piece of work, and decidedly the precursor of the much longer and stronger China Court, which isprobably my favourite Rumer Godden book to date, though I still need to search down a few of her more obscure titles. Though China Court uses the same technique and many similar characters, Take Three Tenses is an entirely different story, except possibly for the theme of the importance of the house itself as a character with a life of its own.

Originally published in 1945, and with the War itself driving much of the story, this novel was reissued in 1975 with this note by the author:

This novel was the first in which I used a theme that has always intrigued me, Dunne’s Experiment With Time, i.e., that time is not consecutive, divided into past, present and future, but that these are all co-existent if only we could see it: if you are in a boat on a river you can only see the stretch on which your boat is travelling – a picnic party on the bank perhaps: a kingfisher diving. What you traversed before, passing willows, a barge tied up, cows in a field, as far as you are concerned, is gone; what lies around the next corner – a lock working, a man fishing – is hidden but, were you up in an aeroplane, you could see all these at once – the willows, the barge, the cows, the picnic party, the diving kingfisher, the lock, the man fishing.

In a Fugue in Time I have taken the part of being up in the aeroplane, seeing three generations of a family at once, all living in a house in London, their stories interweaving, as do themes in a fugue. The difficulty was, of course, not to confuse the reader and it was not until the eighth or ninth try that I found the right way; that it was right seems shown by the fact that, with few exceptions, neither critics nor readers have noticed it, only what Chaucer calls “the thinne subtil kinittinges of thinges”. Some years later I used the same technique with five generations, not three, living in a country house, China Court.

September 1975 R.G.

And from the frontispiece:

…two, three or four simultaneous melodies which are constantly on the move, each going its own independent way. For this reason the underlying harmony is often hard to decipher, being veiled in a maze of passing notes and suspensions…. Often chords are incomplete: only two tones are sounded so that one’s imagination has to fill in the missing third tone.



And for Rolls personally the poem he found:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion…
…In my end is my beginning.

T.S. Eliot (East Coker)


Man that is born of a woman has but a short time to live…He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

Children and the fruit of the womb are a heritage and a gift …. Like as arrows in the hand of a giant even so are the young young children.



The story starts with the disclosure that a house that has been home to a family for almost a century is about to be pulled down as soon as the ninety-nine-year lease is up. The elderly lone occupant, apparently the last survivor of a once flourishing family, Sir Roland (Rolls) Dane, is shocked and appalled at the thought of having to give up his  home.

The house, it seems, is more important than the characters. ‘In me you exist’,’ says the house.

For almost a hundred years, for ninety-nine years, it has enhanced, embraced and sheltered the family, but there is no doubt it can go on without them. “Well” the family might have retorted, “We can go on without you.” There should be no question of retorts nor of acrimony. The house and family are at their best and most gracious together.

The question of their parting had arisen. The lease was up. “And the owners are not prepared to renew,” said Mr. Willoughby, putting his despatch case on the table.

“But they can’t pull down my house!” cried Rolls; but he cried it silently because he was perfectly sensible of the fact that they could and that it was not his house. He was sensible, and at the same time he was outraged. Outraged he said in a voice that was muffled for all its calm, “I don’t want the family to go out of the house.”

The only remaining family was Rolls himself, but Mr. Willoughby could hardly point that out. He wondered what there was slightly unusual about the sentence Rolls had just said, and presently, pondering, h thought it would have been more usual if Rolls had said, “I don’t want the house to go out of the family.” Families possessed houses: not houses the family…

So Rolls reluctantly accepts his fate, and, with his manservant Proutie (himself a life-long devotee of No. 99 Wiltshire Place), slowly starts to prepare for the unthinkable change.

And here the author sets the stage and starts to introduce the many characters whose lives and times make up the story’s “fugue”. We don’t yet know who they are or how they fit in, but their names are teasingly mentioned: Selina, Lark, Verity, Griselda…

In the house the past is present.

It is the only house in the Place that has a plane tree in the garden; for many years a Jewish family lives next door, and every year on the Feast of Tabernacles they would ask for the branches of the tree and built a little Succah on their balcony. All the houses have balconies, long ones across the French doors of the drawing-rooms at the back, and all the balconies have scrolled iron steps that lead down into the garden. The gardens are narrow and long, various in their stages of cultivation and neglect, heavily sooted as well. The gardens have an unmistakable London smell from the closed-in walls, and the earth that is heavy and old, long undisturbed; the smell has soot in it too, and buried leaves, and the ashes of bonfires, and the smell of cat; any child, sent out to play, comes in with the smell; it is part of the memory of Selina and Rolls and the other children and Lark…

The roots of the plane tree are under the house. Rolls likes to fancy sometimes, lately, that the plane tree is himself. ‘Its roots are in the house and so are mine,’ he said. …He flattered himself. The plane tree is more than Rolls, as is another tree of which Rolls is truly a part: it is a tree drawn on parchment, framed and hung over the chest in the hall by the grandfather clock. Selina draws it, marking the Danes in their places as they are born and die, making a demarcation line in red ink for the time they come to live in the house in the autumn of eighteen forty-one.

“We existed before you, you see,” the family might have said to the house; and the house, in its tickings, its rustlings, its creaking as its beams grow hot, grow cold: as its ashes fall in its grates, as its doorbells ring, as the trains in passing underneath it vibrate in its walls, as footsteps run up and down the stairs; as dusters are shaken, carpets beaten, beds turned down and dishes washed; as windows are opened or shut, blinds drawn up, pulled down; as the tap runs and is silent; as the lavatory is flushed; as the piano is played and books are taken down from the shelf, and brushed picked up and then laid down again on the dressing-table, and flowers are arranged in a vase; as the medicine bottle is shaken; as, with infinite delicate care, the spillikins are lifted in the children’s game; as the mice run under the wainscot the house might steadfastly reply, “I know! I know! All the same, in me you exist.”

And against the melodious pattern of the house and its many inhabitants there comes a stronger strain, as the story of the current time appears and plays itself out, with continual references to what lies before and behind. The doorbell rings, and Proutie announces the appearance of an unsuspected great-niece, Grisel Dane, come to England in this early year of the war as a member of a volunteer corps of woman ambulance drivers. Grisel is unhappy in her billet, and has remembered that she has a London relative. Savagely resentful of this disturbance, Rolls refuses to see her, but Grisel is fully as determined a person as her great-uncle, and she moves in to one of the empty bedrooms, determined at first merely to gain some physical comfort in, but soon becoming immersed in her ancestral family’s history for the few months remaining before the move.

Another important family connection also appears, and the inevitable love story plays itself out to the backdrop of the increasing violence of the war. We sense that an inevitable doom of some sort is coming, but we are not sure quite who or what will be lost.

Rumer Godden creates some well-drawn characters among the Danes and their associates. I found Griselda, mother of Rolls and his eight siblings, the most appealing of them all, with her yearnings for a larger world than that which she is trapped in, and her eventual attainment of a rich inner life which compensates in a small way for her over-possessive husband, her long succession of loved and cared-for yet not particularily welcome children, and the continual frustrations of her life as a Victorian upper class woman with strong societal strictures of behaviour to follow.

The strength of this book is in its style rather than its plot or characters; while they are well enough handled, they are secondary to the overall pattern. I almost think that this is intentional on the author’s part, but I was disappointed in her handling of the conclusion; it felt a little too pat; everything came predictably full circle. I fully understand the satisfaction that the author might feel in neatly winding things up, but sometimes a strong, even discordant climax is more memorable to even the most melodious composition than an easily anticipated, repetitive ending phrase.

Highly recommended for Rumer Godden fans, especially if you liked China Court. One of the lesser-known works of this author; I had something of a challenge finding a reasonably priced copy; they’re out there but in nothing like the abundance of many of her other titles.

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Pippa Passes by Rumer Godden ~ 1994. This edition: Macmillan, 1994. First Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-333-60817-8. 172 pages.

My rating: 5/10

This was a really quick read, so I’ll give it a really quick review.

Seventeen-year-old Phillipa, “Pippa”, is a ballet dancer in a British troupe visiting Venice. Über-talented both in dance and voice, Pippa has led the sheltered life of a cloistered and protected performing arts student, so her first trip abroad, and to romantic Venice at that, finds her wide-eyed and naïve. She immediately encounters a handsome young gondolier, and falls deeply in love. He is attracted in turn, but his motivations are slightly different than purely romantic.

In the meantime, Pippa’s ballet mistress has become infatuated with her, leading to much scheming and heartache and culminating in an attempted lesbian rape scene; a bit of a shocker from this particular author, but in retrospect not all that surprising; Rumer Godden was never shy of acknowledging the power of sex and using it as a motivator for her characters over the years; I think that the fairly graphic incident here is merely the well-experienced 87-year-old author keeping up with the times.

This was Godden’s second to last published novel before her death in 1998, and while not one of her top-rank tales it is certainly competently written and acceptable as a light read. Don’t expect another House of Brede, though! This one is fluff straight through.

Very nice evocation of Venice; as usual Godden handles her setting with great skill.

Weakest point, aside from the rather lame plot, is that the characters are all quite one-dimensional. We are continually told that Pippa is wonderfully talented and oh-so-special; we must take the author at her word as we never really get too close to Pippa herself. Things seem to happen just a little too easily throughout; there is a lot of glossing over of motivations and actions. This almost feels like a moderately fleshed-out outline of what could perhaps be a much longer and more interesting story.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel as anything but a momentary diversion. It definitely belongs in a Godden collection, and is interesting enough to have limited re-read status, but it really isn’t up to the standard of some of Godden’s masterworks. As I’ve said before, Godden had a great range in her stories; this is on the pallid end of the spectrum. Still better than some of the present-day chick lit I’ve attempted, so extra points for that. Even at her worst, Godden is still good. If you can get this one cheap, take it to the beach, but don’t forget to tuck something else in your bag as well, because slight little  Pippa, at less than 200 pages, will pass by very quickly!

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A House with Four Rooms by Rumer Godden ~ 1989. This edition: William Morrow, 1989. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-688-08629-2. 319 pages.

My rating: 7/10

A must-read for any Rumer Godden fan, though in my opinion not nearly as gripping as her first memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep.

Four Rooms starts with Godden’s permanent return to England, and follows her through her ongoing struggles as a divorced mother of two young children, working to support them with her pen.

Lots of name-dropping ensues as Rumer Godden’s books increasingly grow in popularity and she starts to move in exalted literary and film-making circles; while not terribly offensive this occasionally feels a bit gratuitous. But it was the reality of her life; she did truly gain the high stature her celebrity friends and compatriots suggest, and those circles became her natural habitat, so to pretend she was still a simple soul in a country cottage would be misleading.

She describes the long courtship by her second husband, and her emotional difficulties committing to a second marital experience after the abysmal disaster of her first tragic marriage. The second union had its ups and downs but Godden’s description of James’ final years and death is poignantly sorrowful, if rather briefly referred to. I certainly felt that her love and grief were sincere.

Fascinating glimpses into the backgrounds of many of the novels from The River onwards, plus details of Godden’s growing stature as a children’s writer and advocate for literacy which was a major interest in her later years. She also refers to her conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, and her sincere admiration for the Anglican and Catholic nuns, brothers and priests she met throughout her life, and those she came to know intimately during her research into her masterwork, In This House of Brede.

All in all an enlightening and extremely readable memoir by a gifted and memorable writer. And I do believe she was often her own harshest critic, seeing her work with true clarity, though she occasionally bridled at negative comments from reviewers on the “slightness” of some of her books.

Rumer Godden’s life spanned nearly the whole 20th Century. Born in 1907, she died at the age of 90 in 1998, actively writing almost until the very end. Her last novel, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva, was published in 1997, less than a year before her death. A fascinating and gallant woman, who weathered many personal storms, some of her own creation.

Rumer Godden’s much-quoted words sum up her philosophy in the mature years of her long and creative life:

There is an Indian proverb or axiom that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but, unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.

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The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden ~ 1975. This edition: Viking, 1976. Hardcover. 243 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Two English half-sisters are sent from boarding school in England to join their divorced U.N.-diplomat father in India.

15-year-old Una and younger sister Halcyon (Hal) are respectively gifted in mathematical ability and singing; Una in particular worries that their new Eurasian governess-teacher will not be able to teach to the standard required to qualify her for entrance to Oxford. This proves to be the case; Miss Alix Lamont turns out to have other qualities which the girls’ father, Sir Edward Gwithiam, has chosen her for; namely her beauty and personal charms. He is openly infatuated with Alix, and the girls’ presence is meant to give a plausible reason for her inclusion in his household.

Una and Alix find themselves in the position of jockeying for position in Sir Edward’s affections; Alix is strongly entrenched, and Sir Edward intends to marry her. Una, smarting from her father’s rejection (she was always his confidante, but he has distanced himself from both of his daughters since Alix gained his interest), becomes involved with Ravi, a young Indian gardener on attached to the U.N. estate, who is actually a well-born Brahmin student in hiding for his part in a violent political protest. Meanwhile, Hal has become infatuated with the son of a deposed Rajah, Vikram, who is in turn in love with Alix. This seething mass of emotional undercurrents leads to Una’s disastrous flight with Ravi and the laying bare and reworking of all of the relationships thus involved.

Quite a well-done story; generally plausible and sympathetically told. All characters are well-developed and complex, and are treated very fairly by their author in that we see the multiple facets of their personalities and fully understand their motivations. The ending is quite realistic, though not perhaps what one could call “happy”; the various characters move out of our vision with these particular issues resolved but many more looming. All in all I thought it was one of Godden’s better coming-of-age novels; I enjoyed it more than I initially thought I would from the reviews I had read.

Suitable for young adult to adult. Frank but not explicit sexual content including extramarital relationships and the sexual involvement between a schoolgirl and an older man; pregnancy and abortion are discussed though mostly by implication. Rumer Godden in this novel has kept abreast of the times; she was 69 when this novel was published and though a bit dated here and there the tone is generally contemporary.

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