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.

A Book for Rumer Godden Day: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1963)

The opening scene is captivating.

Two children are walking through an unfamiliar garden, and into an a house. Rumer Godden captured their points of view quite perfectly and he writing was gorgeous – she was so good at houses and gardens. The children see so much that it lovely and that is quite new to them, but as they move indoors it clear that they have a sense of purpose, and it also becomes clear that this story will not be a happy one.

‘The villa was on Lake Garda in northern Italy. ‘But it doesn’t matter where it was, said Hugh afterwards. It might have been anywhere; it was simply a place where two opposing forces were to meet, as two armies meet on foreign soil to fight a battle. ‘ The battle of the Villa Fiorita,’ Caddie called it afterwards and always with an ache of guilt.’

Hugh, aged fourteen, and his sister Caddie, aged eleven, have just arrived in Italy, after a long and difficult journey mainly by train from London. They ran away while their father was overseas for work and the housekeeper was distracted, with the express intention of reuniting their father and mother and rebuilding their family home.

Neither Darrell nor Fanny Clavering had been unhappy in their marriage, but when a film crew came to the village where they lived Fanny began to realise that her life was unfulfilling, that the role of wife and mother was trapping her, and that the world offered so many possibilities that she had never explored. She began an affair with the film’s director – Rob Collett – and the depth of attraction between them was such that they ran away together and her husband divorced her. The lovers settled at the Villa Fiorita, planning to get married once the dust had settled.

Darrell closed up the family home – because he knew that a country house required a wife to manage things – and moved to a modern flat in London with his children and the family’s housekeeper.

It was impossible not to sympathise with the children, who had been presented with their parents’ divorce as a fait accompli, who had been abandoned by their mother, and who had lost the home and the life they loved and been tipped into an unfamiliar new world. I had to be impressed at the way they laid their plans and made their way across Europe; Caddie even selling her beloved pony, Topaz, to provide the necessary capital.

Seeing her children again stirred feelings that Fanny had buried

‘I was going to roll it all up, roll it into a ball that I could keep hidden in my hand, or in my heart. It was to be only Rob, Rob and I, together for the rest of our lives. I had accepted that, then … and across every thought and plan and feeling came this new triumphant song: ‘They ran away. Hugh and Caddie ran away to me.’

Rob was more pragmatic, and insisted that they must be sent home; but when Hugh was struck down by food poisoning he didn’t have the heart to send Caddie – who was so like her mother back alone; and when Darrell suggested that the children stay for a few weeks, until he returned from his travel, the stage was set for a battle.

The introduction of Rob’s daughter, Pia, who had been brought up by her grandmother and was terribly spoilt, exacerbated the situation and unsettled that relationship between brother and sister.

The children were completely caught up in their mission to bring their mother home. They could not – or would not – see that she was so much happier in her new life with her love than she had ever been before; and they failed to see that some of their actions could have serious repercussions.

Rumer Godden moved seamlessly between past and present, between the childish and adult perspectives, balancing everything quite beautifully. She drew the children so well, understanding their world views, their stages in life, and the way they see and deal with the things life throws at them. She understood their parents, and the other adults in their world, just as well; and most importantly she knew that their were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings at different stages of life.

I thought of another novel that explored the consequences of divorce for adults and children thirty year before this one – ‘Together and Apart’ by Margaret Kennedy – and I was struck by how little had changed.

The story told in this book was compelling and utterly believable. There was – of necessity – a little more drama and less gradual pressure than real life, but it worked.

I’ve seen concerns expressed about the resolution of the story, but I saw signs of how it would be early in the story, and as the end drew near I realised that it was inevitable.

I’m still thinking about that, thinking about everything that happened, and wondering what happened next.

 

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden (1978)

I’m so glad that I picked up this book, the third of Rumer Godden’s three ‘convent novels’, when she was The LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month.

It is a quietly compelling account of one woman’s life, telling of the downfall of Elizabeth Fanshawe, a young Englishwoman in Paris and the chain of circumstance that would lead her to become Soeur Marie Lise, one of the Sisters of Béthanie at the convent of Belle Source.

That historical setting is very real. The author spent time with the real Sisters of Béthanie, who minister to the poor, the downtrodden and the imprisoned; and she speaks wonderfully well for them. The pictures she paints of convent life is are vivid, rich with detail, and utterly captivating.

Elizabeth grew up in the quietest of English villages; raised by an elderly aunt as she was orphaned at a very early age. War came and, wanting to see more of the world, Elizabeth joined the army as a driver. She was in Paris when the city was liberated, and she was swept up in wild and joyful celebrations.

That would change her life.

She met Patrice Ambard, a handsome and charming elder man that night and he would draw her into his world of crime and high-class prostitution. It was clear that he had prospered during the war years, that he had been a collaborator, but Lise  – he called her Lise – was far to innocent and inexperienced to see him for what he was.

She fell in love with him, and by the time she realised where he was steering her, and that he didn’t love her it was much too late. She had no family or friends to turn to; and because she had taken his name and lived openly with him she couldn’t bring herself to approach the church. And so she was trapped, she was broken and she became hardened.

Lise never lost her compassion for others, and so she had to care for the damaged, unhappy young girl she found.

That would change her life again.

Lise took her in; Patrice seduced her and set her in Lise’s place; and Lise’s love for the girl and her wish to guide her to a happier life than she had would lead to her downfall. Because she didn’t understand how damaged the girl was, she didn’t understand that she didn’t see the world as Lise did.

One desperate act would make her notorious, and send her to prison.

It was there that she met Sisters of Béthanie, who ministered to prisoners. She realised that she wanted to join them, she felt that it would be impossible for someone with her background, but she was told that her background would be no obstacle at all. The order included former prisoners and former prostitutes like her, and their experience of the world would help them to understand others in need of their help.

That would truly change her life.

Lise began a long journey that would lead to her becoming Soeur Marie Lise du Rosarie.

This wonderful story – of one woman’s downfall and redemption – is quite beautifully told. It moves backwards and forwards in time, setting stories of Lise’s past against stories of her life at the convent. The stories flowed into one another, and the author had such skill that it felt completely and utterly natural and I always understood where I was and what was happening.

She brought all of the women in this story and their world to life. They were utterly real,  she cared about them and she made me care.

There was such love and compassion in this book that I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden was inspired by the real Sisters of Béthanie.

That is not to say that it is her best work. The story of Lise’s downfall wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, at least one character is compromised to make the latter part of the  story work, and the conclusion is rather too contrived and melodramatic,

The arc of this novel though is quite wonderful; and the other side of the story, following Lise from the moment when she that she may have a vocation, through her novitiate and into her life as a fully professed nun, is exquisitely drawn and rich with detail.

For that, and for what this book has to say, I have to love it.

Thus Far and No Further – or Rungli-Rungliot – by Rumer Godden (1943)

When I ordered this book from the library I knew next to nothing about it. When I finished A Fugue in Time, I scanned the catalogue for titles that I didn’t have and I picked it out from the titles that I knew weren’t in print; because there was a note that said it was Rumer Godden’s first work of non-fiction; as I hadn’t read any of her non-fiction at that stage the book picked itself.

The volume that arrived was small and sturdy, and covered by an ugly plastic dust jacket, but when I opened it I was smitten by the author’s note:

“There are only a few things in these notes:

Chinglam and its hills and valleys
Work
Flowers
Children
Animals
Servants

There is nothing else because there was nothing else.”

In 1940, when her husband joined the army, Rumer Godden and her two young daughters settled in a rented house in Kashmir; set between tea gardens on the Himalayan slopes below Darjeeling.

This is the journal that she wrote there.
19-1

The writing is every bit as lovely as you might expect as you might expect from Rumer Godden; it’s understated, it’s elegant, and it’s wonderfully evocative.

The pieces are short; and they paint such lovely pictures, of daily life and of the people and the world that surrounded the small family.

Here’s one:

“The apple man says he has his daughter with him and she would like to sell me some peas…. He says she is very shy. Presently, she comes out slowly from behind a tree. She has a basket of peas and tree tomatoes and the colour of the pods looks wonderfully fresh against the wallflower brown velvet of her robe. She has cream sleeves and a red sash and her hair is in a pigtail braided with scarlet nearly to her knees. She does not look up, she looks down, and her eyelids make two upturned crescent shapes on her cheeks and her skin is the blend of red and pink and brown of the skins of the tree tomatoes. As soon as she has shown her basket, she retires behind the tree again. I buy all she has.”

There are so many entries that I could pull out.

I particularly enjoyed watching the author’s small garden over the changing seasons, with juxtapositions of flowers that I would love to see:

“It is getting colder. Michaelmas daisies come out in the garden with the first sweet peas and cornflowers and poinsettias. In this mixture of English summer flowers and India, there is an authentic touch of autumn.”

I loved watching her dogs:

“Old Sol lies out on the drive in the sun. The colourings of his coat exactly match the autumn: the drying grass, the ripening millet, the deep colour of the marigolds and the yellow daisies growing in the crops.”

And I was charmed by her children:

“The children have made hobby-horses of the pampas canes. These have slim green stems, and their great feathery heads make excellent tails. Some are white, others are green bronze. They go galloping on them down the grass lanes that the paths make between the tea.”

As a whole the book really felt like an author’s journal; something that she had taken time and trouble over, not something that was contrived or significantly edited for publication. It felt as if she was writing something that she could read to stir memories of that part of her life, or maybe to spark ideas for novels she had still to write.

There were times when I felt that she was a little reserved, and there were times when I wished that she would describe just a little more. She passed over the lights of Diwali so very quickly ….

And so I have to say that it is a minor work.

But  it is very, very lovely …

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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