A Fugue in Time – or, Take Three Tenses – by Rumer Godden (1945)

This is so lovely; the story of a London house and the family who lived there, wrapped together quite beautifully.

The author explained what she did far better than I ever could.

“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 … “

That she did it, and that she did it so very well, says so much for her skill as an author.

The story opens in wartime London, where the elderly General Sir Roland Ironmonger Dane, K.C.B., D.S.O, is the last member of the family he was raised in left in the family home. He had been advised by his solicitor that the ninety-nine-year-lease of his home would expire in a just few weeks,  and that the  owners of the freehold were unwilling grant him a renewal or an extension. To Sir Rolls that was unthinkable; he knew that the house and the family. were inextricably linked.

Fugue in TimeAlone in his study Sir Rolls was aware of the life of the house, and of the  lives lived in the house. There was his mother, Griselda, who had seen so any possibilities in life before she was overwhelmed by the demands of family life; there was his father, who would always be known as “The Eye” because it seemed to his children that he saw and knew everything; there was his sister, Selina, who had tried to play the role of mother after Griselda’s death; and there was Lark, the orphan his father  had brought into the household, who Selina had resented and Rolls had dearly loved.

Rolls hadn’t been able to hold on to Lark. He had blamed circumstances, but he came  to realise that he should blame his own weakness and indecision. Lark had married an Italian and she lived for many years and died without ever coming back to her childhood home.

The story moves through all of this, and the way it does that is one of the things that makes this book so special. Though the author uses musical terms, the best way I can explain it is to say that she had painted a glorious artwork in which you can see a wealth of lovely details and well as a wonderful, complete picture.

In the hands of a less skilled author it might have been confusing, as family names repeated, as the places of cooks and butlers and others who kept the house going were passed on to younger members of their own families, but it wasn’t at all. The themes and strands of the story repeated,  but each was distinctive and each had its own emotional power.

This is a book to touch the heart as well as the senses.

The story of the people is wrapped up in the house; in lovely swathes of description, and in glorious lists of every item – furniture,  china, linen, glassware – that makes that house into a home, makes the picture complete.

There was, of course, a story in the present to be resolved.

Grizel, the granddaughter of Sir Rolls’s brother Pelham, came to London with the American Ambulance Force, and when she visited the house she felt that she come home. Pax, Lark’s nephew, came to the house a little later, recognising it from stories his aunt had told him. When they are drawn together it seems that there must, surely, be a solution to the problem of the lease; that the family and the house must continue together into the future.

That was maybe a little too neat; and a sign that the characters and their stories were secondary to the bigger story of the house and the family. I understand that, but I have to say it to explain why this book falls just a little short of perfection.

I loved it though; I know it will stay with me, and I am already wondering which of Rumer Godden’s books to pick up next ….

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24 thoughts on “A Fugue in Time – or, Take Three Tenses – by Rumer Godden (1945)

    1. This doesn’t seem to be one of her ‘front-line’ titles, but it is very lovely and I think it’s very you. I have yet to read An Episode of Sparrows, but I have a copy and I hadn’t forgotten the warmth of your recommendation. We have hordes of sparrows in the garden at the moment, and Briar is loving watching them from her chair in the bay window.

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    1. I read that China Court is later and has a wider scope. I read it years ago – the library had a copy because it’s set locally – a rare example of a Cornish novel set in china clay country – and I really must read it again one day.

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  1. Ooh I love stories that look at a house and family through different eras – I’m putting this on my wishlist. I’m currently reading Black Narcissus by Godden and haven’t reallly been hooked yet though it is beautifully written.

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    1. I’ve been reading to read In This House of Brede for ages, because I loved Black Narcissus and so many people have recommend it. And after this book I would happily read anything of Rumer Godden’s – fact or fiction – where the home is central.

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  2. You have reminded me Black Narcissus is on the TBR – though I did struggle with it and didn’t quite get hooked, no doubt something else got its claws into me more strongly. I shall revisit that one before embarking on a new – the film was wonderful though

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  3. Oh I loved this book, and the ambition she showed in her perspective. It was a bit lacking at times, for me, but overall the kind of story you keep thinking about. Thanks for your wonderful review–I think it will get this book on my TBR(again) pile!

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