China Court by Rumer Godden (1961)

This book tells the story of the days immediately before and after the death of a Cornish matriarch, who knows that, given the chance, her children would sell her beloved home.

That alone would have made me pick up the book, because I love the author, and because I love that this story is set in china clay country; a part of Cornwall that I have rarely read about in fiction, though it is an important part of the county’s history and heritage.

The narrative moves back in time to tell stories of previous generations who lived there, not in the way of most novels that have stories set in different points in time, but in a way that feels completely natural and right. Sometimes a thought, a sound, a sight can spark a memory can stir a memory; sometimes of just a moment of time and sometimes of a whole story of people, places and incidents long past.

That is exactly the way this book works. Rumer Godden did this same thing in an earlier work, A Fugue in Time, and in this book she works with more characters, more history, and – I think – rather more refinement.

I was captivated with the story of the elderly matriarch, who was cared for by a lady not a great deal younger who had been her companion; by the story of a granddaughter she called to her side, who had loved the house as a child but had not been there for many years, as when her mother was widowed she had decided to return to her native America, and pick up the threads of her career as an actress; and by the story that played out when daughters returned, with husbands in tow, to look over what they thought was their rightful inheritance.

China CourtThat story became so real to me, and so did many stories from the past. I’m thinking of Eustace and Adza, who bought the house and established the dynasty. I’m thinking of Lady Patrick, the daughter of a wealthy and aristocratic family who eloped with the son of the house and struggled with her changed circumstances, her faithless husband and two young sons. At first I couldn’t warm to her, but as I learned more of her story I came to empathise with her. And I am thinking of the wonderful Eliza, who seemed to be cast as the spinster daughter, and who overcame her anger about her situation to set the course of her own life, by insisting that her brother formalised her position as housekeeper and by pursuing her own interests – especially the books that she loved dearly – when her time was her own.

It felt quite natural to move between all of those different stories. When I bought my book I had made sure that I had a family tree to refer to, but I didn’t need it for very long at all’ such was the skill of the author at bringing the house and its occupants to life.

She wrote so beautifully, she picked up exactly the right details, and it really did seem that she had walked through that house, unseen, among all of those different generations; understanding the pull of – the importance of – China Court, as a home and for its own sake.

There was such skill in construction of the story and in the telling of the tale. The present was written in the past tense and the past was written in the present tense, which might sound odd but it was wonderfully effective; and I loved the way the two could switch, sometimes even in the same sentence, feeling completely natural and right.

One character had a story in the present and the past. Ripsie was a child from the village and she became the constant companion of Lady Patrick’s two sons, Borowis and John Henry, while they played outside but as they grew up she found that she was often excluded from their world. Because she had fallen in loved with Borowis, who was brave and spirited, she clung on. When she finally realised that he didn’t love her and that he didn’t even see her as someone who had a place in his world, the steady and sensible John Henry was there to catch her before she fell. They married, and when Ripsie became the lady of the manor she slipped into the role so easily that she could have been born to it.

I’m reluctant to pick a favourite from so many wonderful characters and stories, but I think I have to say that I loved Ripsie and her story the best of all; both for her own sake and for what it said about the best and worst of society and of human nature.

The antique Book of Hours that she treasured and kept with her always provided headings for each chapter; a lovely reminder of the spirituality that is threaded through so many of Rumer Godden’s books, a lovely thing in its own right, and as I came to the end of the book I realised that it was also an integral part of the story.

I also realised that the author had chosen the pieces of the history of the family and the history of the house that she would share carefully and cleverly; to illuminate the past, and to show how the past can shape the present and the future.

I did miss the other pieces of history that weren’t shared; and though I understand that not everything could be told, the characters I met and the stories that I learned are so alive in my mind that want to know and understand more.

My only other disappointment was the ending. The reading of the will, the fallout from that, the discoveries that were made, were all wonderful; but there was just one thing that I couldn’t quite believe, the resolution of that was rushed, and the very final scene was unsettling and has not dated well.

There were so many more things that I loved, and those are the things that have stayed with me since I put the book down.

9 thoughts on “China Court by Rumer Godden (1961)

  1. That was one wonderful review Jane! I have always been hesitant about Rumer Godden’s works. not sure if I could like her, not ever sure of her plot premises, but this one resonates very deeply for some reason. I think I am finally going to give her a try, if I can find a copy!

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  2. This book was very good except for the incident. My favorites or Rumer Godden are the Battle of the Villa Fiorita and the Greengage Summer. I just read the Peacock Spring which was also excellent.

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  3. I have loved everything I’ve read by Rumer Godden. I have The Greengage Summer sitting here now. I suspect China Court may follow on quickly behind.

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