Posts Tagged ‘Rumer Godden’

thebattleof the villa f

My final read for July, was by Librarything author of the month Rumer Godden; The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, which transported me to Italy while I myself travelled to Paris.

One of the things I have come to appreciate in Rumer Godden’s novels for adults, is the way she writes children and young people. She always seems to fully understand their view of the world, the way they feel the hurts and disappointments that force them to grow up.

In The Battle of the Villa Fiorita we meet Hugh (14) and Caddie (almost 12) – they have an elder sister who they speak about from time to time, but who we never actually meet. As the novel opens, Hugh and Caddie have just arrived in Italy, following a long, arduous journey mainly by train from London. They have run away.

“She and Hugh were both gilded in sun; the things they held, the grips, coats, and net, had edges of light as had Hugh’s bare head, Caddie’s panama. Light bathed their tired dusty faces, their clothes which were crumpled and dishevelled as only clothes that have been slept in all night can be; it lay on their hands and legs, their dusty shoes, a light more warm and gold than anything they had known, but, ‘It’s Italian,’ said Caddie as if suspicious of it.”

They are on a mission to win back their mother – return her to their father and the family home. Their mother Frances (usually called Fanny) Clavering has recently been divorced by their father, following an affair with a film director, who she met whilst he was filming near to the family home. Now, Fanny has left England with her lover Rob Quillet. They are staying at the Villa Fiorita near Lake Garda, planning to get married in the near future.

The viewpoint is not always that of the children, Fanny is a woman whose life had seemed perfectly happy, married to dull, frequently absent Darrell Clavering. While she hadn’t been able to claim that she was miserable, meeting Rob, awakened something in her, showing her what her life had actually been, and what it could be instead. The narrative takes us back to when Fanny first met famous director Rob Quillet, their attraction to one another – and the tentative beginning of their affair. Fanny was torn, recognising the danger signals she tried to back away, pulled back by her feelings, which were so strong and so unexpected. Despite this, she attempts to carry on with her life, forget about Rob, concentrate on running Stebbings with seamless efficiency, socialising with other local country wives and keeping her mother-in-law Lady Candida happy. However, in time, Fanny begins to realise she can’t exist without Rob, and two of her friends are suspicious after one of them spots her in London with him.

Hugh and Caddie have had their world turned upside down, while they had been away at school the grownups silently got on with managing the scandalous situation. By the time they knew anything, it was practically all over. Stebbings; the loved country home, that is so familiar, has been closed up, a modern flat in London is where they will live with their father and the housekeeper/nanny Gwyneth. The pony, Topaz, which Caddie won in a competition, and is almost her sole reason for living, is stabled in the country, and Caddie doesn’t know when or if she will be able to see him. All they want is for everything to go back to normal, stunned by a kind of grief, they have been unable to see Fanny as being anyone other than their mother – they are only just seeing that she is also a woman in love.

“At the top of the walk Fanny and Rob stopped, dazzled by the sun after the shade. Because of the brilliant light, and because his eyes were so tired, Hugh could not see them clearly; the whole garden and the lake had become a blur, but, standing in the flood of evening light, framed against the green leaves and the spirals of mauve flowers, they looked illuminated, glorified. ‘A couple,’ Hugh thought before he could stifle the thought, not his mother and Rob Quillet but a man and woman close together.”

We can’t help but sympathise with the children, it is bad enough when parents’ divorce, but Hugh and Caddie have been abandoned by their adored mother, everything they took for granted has altered and they don’t quite recognise this new world they are being asked to live in.

villaThere is a selfishness to childhood which we only really recognise when we look back on it. I admit, that while I sympathised with the children, I got very annoyed by their blind selfishness too. Hugh and Caddie want their mother back, and they go all out to get her. Fanny is happier than she has ever been in her life, on some level the children recognise this – but easily discount it. Fanny is already beset with terrible guilt for what she did to her former husband, and especially her children, and having them appear at the villa – just as she and Rob are about to go out to dinner – shakes her resolve. Rob is apparently made of sterner stuff – and starts to arrange for the children to be returned immediately. However, things don’t go quite according to plan, as Hugh is struck down with food poisoning and Rob, allowing Caddie to get under his skin – she reminds him so much of her mother – can’t bring himself to send her off alone. It is arranged that the children will stay for a fortnight – when their father will have returned from a work trip. Once it has been agreed that the children will stay, Rob sends for his own daughter Pia – an impossibly stylish ten-year-old brought up by her grandmother. Pia is immediately dismissive of sad, scruffy Caddie, who can’t help admiring Pia despite her unfriendliness. Hugh, meanwhile who has been stomping around the villa in confused fury for days finds himself rather drawn to the little girl.

With three unhappy children in the villa, banding together, the battle lines are drawn, but will the children realise that their actions have consequences before things go too far?

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is an absorbing novel, I loved the children and their fiendish plotting, and while I felt for them, I also felt for the adults, whose future happiness or unhappiness lies in the hands of their children. I was left with mixed feelings about how Godden ended her novel, and found myself thinking about it for several days after I had finished.

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black narcissus

During July, the Librarything Virago group have selected to read books by Rumer Godden. I have enjoyed quite a number of her novels in the past but had not yet managed to read one of her best-known works – Black Narcissus. This was Rumer Godden’s third novel for adults, and the first of several which were adapted for film. The film Black Narcissus was released in 1947 in Technicolor, which not all films were in those days. It starred Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons and was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film was a hit and won a coveted Academy Award for its cinematography. I remember seeing the film years ago, although I can’t say I remembered much about the story other than it involved a dramatic tale of nuns on a mountain in India.

The novel opens as Sister Clodagh prepares to leave her religious community in Darjeeling for Mopu in the Himalayan mountains to the north. Here Sister Clodagh will take on the role of Sister Superior to a small group of nuns who will be helping to set up a convent school community in an abandoned palace. The palace was once known as ‘the House of Women’ built for a harem of the General who leased the land from the British rulers. Now the General’s son, another General has given the palace to the Sisters of Mary – believing a school and hospital just what the poor local people need. Before they leave, Mother Dorothea lets Sister Clodagh know that she has some reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for this responsibility. Clodagh is certain she is ready for the challenge, and leads her fellow sisters; Sister Ruth, Sister Briony, Sister Honey and Sister Philippa – confidently towards a new adventure.

The group of sisters begin the long trek up the hills to their new home, a palace wreathed in scandal, set against a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Mopu is home to tea growers, snow-capped mountain peaks and the glorious flora and fauna one associates with India. As always Rumer Godden portrays the landscape and people of India, beautifully and with obvious affection.

“It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn; across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.
Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on a hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.”

The sisters have a lot of work to do to make the old palace ready to use as a school and dispensary, and they set to work as soon as they arrive. An elderly Chinese woman Angu Ayah has had caretaking responsibilities at the palace and she stays on to help the sisters in their duties. One of the first people the sisters meet is local British agent Mr Dean – who they have been told will be on hand to help the sisters should they need it. Mr Dean is an informally dressed whisky drinker who rather shocks the sisters with his relaxed laid-back attitude and teasing humour. Mr Dean exudes a strength the nuns will have need of in the months ahead, and later, as they come to know him better they discover in him an ability to great sympathy and understanding.

The General’s nephew and heir, the young General Dilip Rai comes to the sisters to learn French, and a beautiful young girl Kanchi – who the locals have gossiped about wildly – has been placed with the sisters at the request of her uncle. Kanchi is soon surreptitiously keeping a close eye on the handsome young General – who, himself has an unusual effect on Sister Clodagh. Something in the character of the young General reminds her of her ill-fated romance with a neighbouring boy; Con – back in Ireland before she took holy orders.

“As he walked he kicked the stones away from him and slashed at the bushes; he looked pretty and naughty as a child, though he was nearly a full man; tall and beautifully built, not like a hill man but like a young Rajpit.
He slashed with his cane at the bushes, and she was suddenly back, walking down the Wishing Lane at home with Con; the green damp lane that led from the House gates past Skinners Farm to the lake, and Con was slashing at the hedge to show his temper.”

Mr Dean’s promise that the sisters will fail in their mission look set to come true as the nuns show time and again a lack of understanding for the people they are living among. The people have their own traditions and long held superstitions – and these are soon at odds with the inflexible attitudes of the sisters. Other troubles, passions and little jealousies play a part in causing the community difficulties as one of the sisters starts to show signs of mental illness. The magical landscape seems to beguile each of the sisters – distracting them from their purpose and allowing them, at times, to dream. Throughout the novel there is an air of forbidden passions rising to the surface, which Godden explores with wonderful subtlety.

Despite the drama and tragedy towards the end, the novel is much quieter than the film, which I remember as being quite melodramatic.

I am hoping to squeeze one more Rumer Godden novel into July as I do have two others waiting and Black Narcissus has served as a timely reminder to what a good writer she was.

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I have seen An Episode of Sparrows referred to as a young adult or even a children’s book, although Wikipedia lists it in amongst Rumer Godden’s adult novels, and having read it I think it fits there more comfortably. To me it certainly doesn’t read as a children’s book (although nothing in the content would preclude a child reading it) but more, as a book for adults about children. As such it was chosen by the Librarything Virago group as one of the books for the childhood section of the Seven Ages of Women theme read. Rumer Godden’s depiction of children and childhood is particularly good as I have found in other novels by her. She understands acutely the heartbreaks and frustrations of children, how so often adults misunderstand them, and let them down.

Set in London sometime after the Second World War, among the street children who run up and down the grim, unloveliness of Catford Street, An Episode of Sparrows shows poignantly the simple joy that a garden can bring. At the end of Catford Street, is a gracious London square, a square of houses of an altogether different kind, they have a very pleasant garden, a gardener and a gardening committee. Catford Street is a place where nothing very much ever grows, the children there are small and scrawny, running wild, gathering in gangs in the bomb damaged ruins that still litter the street. Living in a large old house in the square are middle-aged sisters Angela and Olivia Chesney, Angela is the youngest by about a decade, but it is to her that Olivia, and the garden committee –among others – defer. Olivia likes to stand at the window in the old school room at the top of the house, watching, from there she can see Catford Street and the children that run up and down. Angela is a committee woman, a woman of a blinkered, narrow view of the world, domineering and cold. Her elder sister watches quietly and with understanding.

“The room still smelled of her mother; when Lovejoy burrowed her face against that spot on the armchair, instead of hard plush she seemed to be burrowing against the warm soft flesh she knew so well, that smelled of scent…gone a little stale, thought Lovejoy, of scent and powder and perspiration – Cassie had taught Lovejoy never to say sweat – of clothes and the warm elastic of stays, of cigarette smoke and drink; it was not altogether a pleasant smell, but it was the smell of Lovejoy’s babyhood, of her kitten-dance time, when she had been sweet and the word was safe.”

Lovejoy Mason is a tough little nut, a child more ridiculously named it is hard to imagine, as there is little love or joy in her life. She lives with Mrs Combie and her husband, with whom Lovejoy’s mother lodges when she is home – which she seldom is. Some kind of performer, Mrs Mason is an infrequent visitor who pays Mrs Crombie to look after Lovejoy, and Lovejoy treasures her small stack of postcards, and hopes her mother will realise that the clothes she treasures and cares for so fastidiously are getting too small. Mrs Crombie is a good soul, but finding life hard, money is very tight, her husband, George runs a restaurant called Vincent’s where he cooks food gastronomically superior to the local demand, clinging to the dream of being discovered by who he considers the ‘real people’ – i.e. society people. Cassie, Mrs Crombie sister is happy to show Lovejoy how much she disapproves of her and her mother, never letting a chance to snipe pass her by.

Tip Malone, is the head of the biggest gang of boys, a being so glamourous that five year old Sparky can only sit on his doorstep wrapped in newspaper (to keep out the cold) and dream of speaking to. Sparky wants desperately to be allowed to join the gang, and yet as everyone keeps telling him – he isn’t even six yet. Sparky is a small sickly child, he adores Tip Malone, and passionately hates Lovejoy Mason.

When a packet of cornflower seeds fall into Lovejoy’s hands it fuels an obsession. Lovejoy wants a garden, and from that moment pours all her energy into making one among the bomb damaged ruins and squalor. Concerned that the quality of earth is not going to be good enough for her precious seeds to grow, what Lovejoy needs is some good garden earth – as stated on the seed packet, but where can she get such earth? When your clothes are already too small, and you have nothing, the cost of a packet of seeds, a small trowel or a box of pansies is an impossible sum to raise. Continually frustrated in her small, determined efforts, Lovejoy receives some unexpected help from Tip Malone and young Sparky.

“The packet had said that the seeds would come up, Mr Isbister had said that too; when Lovejoy had planted them she supposed she had believed it, but it had been more hope than belief. Now, on the patch of earth under the net, had come a film of green; when she bent down and looked closely, she could see that it was made of countless little stalks as fine as hairs, some so fine that she could scarcely see their colour, others vividly showing their new green. They’re blades, thought Lovejoy, blades of grass!”

There are several unexpectedly poignant moments in this novel; yes I did actually have tears in my eyes once or twice. It is actually very hard to convey the loveliness of this novel, the children exist in a difficult world, the people of the square live by different rules, which the sparrows of Catford Street fall foul of. Dreams and hearts are broken and then made better again before this story ends, of which, I loved every word.


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As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I do think Rumer Godden is an excellent writer – her depictions of childhood in novels such as Greengage Summer, The River and Breakfast with the Nikolides are extraordinarily vivid. While her novels of British life in India such as Coromandel Sea Change and The Peacock Spring mean I always associate her with India, although not all her novels are set there. She was a prolific writer, and so I still have many to read, I am thankful to say. Kingfishers Catch fire was obviously written in the wake of her own experience of living with her children in an isolated house in Kashmir. This book contains a few pages of Rumer Godden’s winter diary from that time – her descriptions of landscape, weather and costumes finding their way wholesale into her novel.

Sophie arrives in Kashmir to live alone with her two young children, the bright, but fearful Teresa and Moo (to who Godden never gives a voice). Initially they live on a houseboat, where Sophie learns of her estranged husband’s death. Almost immediately Sophie becomes ill, and the family are required to live at the Mission Hospital while Sophie recovers, a place where Dr Glenister, (Little) Dr Lochinvar and sisters Pilkington and Locke look after them making Teresa feel safe. Once when Sophie was still living with her husband the family had lived in Camberley – a place Teresa associates with safety a place a little like Finstead where The Aunts live, who send letters, advice, a small doll and plenty of disapproval.

Sophie already has a dream of how she and the children will live in Kashmir and as soon as she is back on her feet she puts her plan into action. Taking a small ramshackle house called Dilkhush for a nominal rent (pledging to undertake repairs herself) she plans to set up home in this isolated place during the harsh Kashmiri winter. Her plan is greeted by concern and disbelief by the westerners at the Mission Hospital who regard the Pundit (whose house she has taken) and other locals Sophie has befriended with suspicion. They are not the only ones to be concerned, eight year old Teresa does not share Sophie’s enthusiasm – she sees trouble ahead – understands much that her mother fails to see. For Sophie is blinded by her own enthusiasms – she is determined that they can live simply and frugally. Time and time again, Sophie shows she doesn’t really appreciate the deep poverty around her, fairly penniless herself Sophie believes herself to be as one with the people of the nearby village, thinking she can live as simply as they do. Her egotism and obstinate inverted snobbery prevents her from understanding how the local people exist, and how dangerous their jealousies and rivalries could become. Sophie’s arrival has caused great turmoil in the village – as the two warring families of the area compete for her attention and money.

“To the Pundit, Sophie was precisely like any other European or American, only more friendly; the friendliness alarmed him. ‘These people are poor and simple…’ he began, but Sophie interrupted him.
‘We shall be poor and simple too,’ she said with shining eyes.
‘But madam, the peasants are rapacious…’
To that Sophie would not listen. Like many people there were some words about which she was sentimental; one of these was ‘peasant’ ‘Peasants are simple and honest and kindly and quiet,’ she said. ‘They don’t want what they don’t possess. They have the wisdom to stay simple. They don’t want to change.’ In a way that was true. Here in Kashmir the boys on the mountains with the flocks looked biblical with their dark curly hair, loose robes and round caps; the ploughs were primitive as were the cooking-pots, the water jars, the fishing spears, the very boats; ‘Primitive and beautiful’ said Sophie. The women like the women of old, fetched water and pounded grain and ground it in a hand-mill and spun their flax and wool; the men smoked the same water pipes as their grandfathers. ‘How picturesque they are!’ said Sophie admiringly.”

As winter turns to spring and eventually to summer, the two local village families, the Dars and the Sheikhs become increasingly competitive. Using the local herbs, Sophie has taken to making her own medicine, with which she means to treat the villagers’ ailments, taking business away from the village barber. Sophie’s cook, Sultan, meanwhile is enjoying his position, creaming small amounts of money off the top Sultan now has a nice new jacket, he struts around importantly and is determined that Sophie should learn to properly appreciate him. The local herd children, who come up the mountain to tend their families’ animals, fill Teresa with fear, a fear her mother dismisses. Sophie remains blissfully unaware of all that threatens her and her children, as things take an altogether darker turn.

Sophie is not an entirely sympathetic character, her casual neglect of her children, as she exposes them to more and more danger while she pursues her unrealistic enthusiasms, make for uncomfortable reading. Young Teresa is something of a little heroine, she is the grown up to Sophie’s petulant child. In the background there hovers a potential rescuer from home, but the reader can’t quite imagine Sophie living conventionally in Camberley or Finstead. I won’t reveal just how the story ends – but Sophie has to wake up to some harsh realities before she can decide in which direction her future lies.

This was a brilliant book; Rumer Godden brings the region to life evocatively while showing that she deeply understands her characters. I think Godden writes about childhood extraordinarily well, with great poignancy she describes the fears of childhood, and how terrible it is to be let down by the adults who should know better.


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Many of Rumer Godden’s novels are set in India and I really like novels set in India – so it is perhaps surprising that I have not read more of her novels. I have only read about four of Rumer Godden’s adult novels, and I really can’t remember if I read any of her children’s books when I was a child, I may have read The Diddakoi – possibly her most famous children’s book. Rumer Godden whose last book was published in 1997 was an extraordinarily prolific writer, with about twenty seven adult novels, the same number of children’s books, and eleven works of non-fiction to her name. I have to say though that I am rather glad that I still have so many of her books left to read, and anticipate them eagerly. Virago has re-issued a large number of Rumer Godden novels with gorgeous covers. I have occasionally been critical of the cover art selected for the new style VMC’s – but these I think are lovely. I have two more of these newly issued Godden’s TBR and I am really looking forward to them.

Breakfast with the Nikolides is a peculiar little story – but it is one that packs something of a punch. The setting is East Bengal in a small agricultural town by a river. Charles Poole is in charge of the government farm of Amorra, on the same site is the agricultural college, where students work under the principle Sir Monmatha Ghose. Having lived in Amorra alone for eight years – Charles stuns the community with the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a wife and two daughters who have fled the war in Paris. Louise, Charles’s wife, is a complex damaged woman, she hates India, and she hates everything about it – is suspicious of it, and dislikes the people. Their eldest daughter is Emily an angry dreamer on the brink of adolescence has a very difficult relationship with her mother, but instantly adores the father she barely knows. Emily’s younger sister, Binnie, is the child born after the parents separated. Emily quickly falls in love with India, for her it is an exotic exciting place that she loves to explore. Emily and Binnie are enchanted by their glamorous neighbours the Nikolides, with whose children they occasionally play. Charles gives Emily a spaniel, that she names Don, he becomes a constant companion. One day Don is killed, and it is the deceit that surrounds this one incident that serves to unravel the fragile truths of their family life, and culminates in drawing in the whole community in violent uprising.

“Mother was clever. She knew how I felt about the Nikolides, she knew I would forget everything for them… And it seemed to Emily sheer treachery that Louise should have used them against her. One thing – said Emily – I shall never go blind like that again. I shall never be blind…And even to so young a girl as Emily there was something pitiable in the loss of heedlessness. Breakfast with the Nikolides was always to be the last hour of her childhood.”

We also meet young vet Narayan Das struggling to reconcile his young wife’s Hindu traditions with the modern westernised world he is trying to fit into. Narayan’s friend and student Anil working towards his final exams is also drawn into the drama that unfolds.

Breakfast with the Nikolides explores the dark and complex relationship between Charles and Louise – the truth of which is slowly revealed. Charles is something of an enigma, Louise a cold beauty who constantly misunderstands her eldest daughter – she is using Charles as an escape from German occupied France and can’t wait to return to Paris. The novel also examines loss of innocence and betrayal. Rumer Godden’s sense of place is excellent, a small Indian town on the banks of a river, young idealised students and modern thinking men juxtaposed with traditional beliefs and suspicions.


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