Authors: Rumer Godden

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist


The fact that Margaret Rumer Godden (GOD-uhn) spent significant portions of her early life both in England and in India exerted a resonant influence on her literary work. This becomes clear in Two Under the Indian Sun, written with her older sister Jon Godden, an account of a five-year period of their childhood in the Bengal town of Narayangunj, eleven miles from Dacca. Born in Eastbourne, Sussex, at an uncle’s house, Godden was the second of four daughters of Arthur Leigh Godden, a steamer agent, and Katherine Norah Hingley, who came from a hardworking Quaker family from the English Midlands. (The name Rumer is a family name from the novelist’s maternal grandmother.) At the age of six months Godden was taken to India with her family, and she spent her first five years happily there. In 1913, however, in accord with the British practice of sending children back to England for education, she and one of her sisters were sent to their paternal grandmother’s home in Maida Vale, London. When World War I made it dangerous for the two sisters to remain in London, they returned to India in November of 1914.{$I[AN]9810001074}{$I[A]Godden, Rumer}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Godden, Rumer}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Godden, Rumer}{$I[tim]1907;Godden, Rumer}

While the two girls were at their grandmother’s house in England, they were exposed to a rather strict religious routine and spent much time in and around St. Augustine’s Church. Later in India, they did not attend church except on holidays, but during her time in London Christianity had impressed itself deeply on Godden’s consciousness, along with an awareness of Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist faiths. At one time she even considered becoming a nun or missionary. The contrasts between the sacred and the profane, holiness and corruption, and the clash between Eastern and Western cultures were to become abiding concerns in her novels and undoubtedly grew out of this early period of her life. For a time in her youth, Godden took intensive training in dancing, and she studied ballet at several schools in England.

Godden wrote that she was already composing poems and stories by the age of five. She also engaged in highly imaginative play with her sisters, imbibed vivid details from the Indian landscape–the Indian coasts, the Himalayan peaks, Indian cities, houses, and buildings–which later found powerful expression in her novels. Indeed, some critics have noted that places interest her more than people. Yet if Godden admired and remembered India’s exotic beauty, she was equally impressed with the crueler aspects of Indian life she observed, including the prevalence of disease and the pervasiveness of death. In this early period of her life Godden and her sisters were ruled by a rather fierce Anglo-Indian nurse, Nana, who fascinated the children with fantastic tales. Godden’s sympathetic experience with Nana and other Eurasians left a lasting impression on her. Though she left India in 1920, she returned in visits and in her imagination for years to come.

When Godden was twelve years old, she returned to England with her sisters and passed from school to school. During this unhappy time she discovered that she could gain the attention of other children by telling stories. The sisters’ misery was deepened by the cruel treatment they received at the hands of the nuns at St. Monica’s School. Godden later took literary revenge in Black Narcissus and In This House of Brede, though she also presents a positive vision of convent life in Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. Eventually she adjusted when she went to Moira House, Sussex, a school with a more liberal view of education and without the oppressive discipline and curriculum of most English schools of that era. The school’s vice principal recognized her abilities and encouraged her to develop her writing talent.

Godden wrote throughout her unsettled school years. By the age of fifteen she had published a booklet of verse and an advertisement. After completing her schooling, she returned to India in 1925, and in 1928, at the age of twenty-one, she opened a dancing school in Calcutta, a successful venture that she continued for eight years. When her second book was published, however, she sold the school.

In 1928 Godden married Laurence Sinclair Foster, a stockbroker, in Calcutta. Having studied dance in England, she ran the Peggy Godden School of Dance until 1934, welcoming both Indian and British children (contrary to the custom of the times). In 1935 she completed Chinese Puzzle and her first child, Jane, was born. A second child, Janaki Paula Mary, was born in 1938 in Cornwall. After her first major success with Black Narcissus and the start of World War II, Godden returned to India with her children. By July, 1941, she was forced to retreat to a house near the Himalayas, where she lived until March of 1942, when she and her children moved to a small farmhouse in Kashmir; they remained there for several years, returning to England permanently on 1945. Perhaps her best book, The River, appeared the next year.

In 1949, after the death of her husband, she married James L. Haynes-Dixon, with whom she lived in several different houses in Buckinghamshire and at Highgate Village near London, several of which they renovated. All the while she continued to write, lecture, garden, and give time and attention to her family. In the late 1960’s she was invited by the National Trust to move into Lamb House, which was at one time the residence of Henry James. In the 1970’s she moved to southern Scotland and devoted her energies to writing for children, producing The Diddakoi, which won a Whitbread Award.

During Godden’s long and prolific writing career her books were admired for their lucid prose, their delicately detailed depictions of place, their treatment of significant themes, and most of the time, vivid characterizations. Godden wrote eloquently about the cultural clashes between the upper middle-class English and the local Indian society. The Lady and the Unicorn implicitly indicts English society for its attitudes toward those of mixed race, and this theme is again treated compellingly in The River and in a short story called “Tightrope” (1953). The first novel to bring international acclaim for Godden was Black Narcissus, in which she treats human conflicts between spiritual and fleshly desire with sharp acuteness. In this novel five sisters of the Anglican Order of the Servants of Mary go to the General’s Palace at Mopu to establish a school and hospital. The sisters’ venture at Mopu fails because they cannot reconcile themselves to the strange and alien culture, nor are they able to establish a real community among themselves. Lacking love and harmony, they are unable to help themselves and so fail to help others. This highly symbolic novel, though somewhat overly allegorical, is a carefully crafted work. It is, in the view of many readers, Godden’s masterpiece. One of its main characters, Sister Clodagh, also introduced a character type that recurred in several subsequent novels–that of the determined woman without a man, whose power most often has no positive outlet and who consequently becomes a corrosive force on those around her as well as upon herself. One of the most destructive but memorable of these women is Madame Barbe de Longuemare, the central character of Gypsy, Gypsy. She has lost too much; her bitterness spills over into envy of youth, beauty, and vitality. Mythlike, she decides she can only renew her own strength by corrupting innocence, and her victim is a young gypsy camping on her land.

Far more sympathetic but finally more destructive are women who attempt to defy convention by leaving their husbands, such as Mrs. Grey in The Greengage Summer, and Fanny Clavering of The Battle of the Villa Fiorita. Still other women characters defy male authority but finally recognize the error of their ways. Godden brings these characters powerfully to life. A notable exception to this characteristic pattern is Lise, the central character of Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. Formerly a prostitute and madam in an elegant house in Paris, Lise eventually kills her lover to protect the girl Vivi, a waif whom she had rescued from the streets.

In several novels Godden reveals her deep sympathy with children. In An Episode of Sparrows she created a moving story about two street children who make a garden bloom in their sterile surroundings. In other novels, too, Godden displays her sympathy for abandoned or persecuted children. Such characters appear in A Fugue in Time, Kingfishers Catch Fire, The Greengage Summer, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, and The Diddakoi, and in such short stories as “Down Under the Thames,” and “You Needed to Go Upstairs.” Godden’s treatment of these children resembles Charles Dickens’s depictions of persecuted waifs and perhaps derives from a similar source.

Undoubtedly Godden’s capacity to maintain a vital imaginative link with her own childhood accounted not only for her success in writing about childhood but in writing for children as well. After 1945 she became increasingly involved as a writer for children. Such works as The Doll’s House, The Mousewife, Impunity Jane, Pippa Passes, and many others have become highly popular, and some have achieved the status of classics. She also produced two volumes of autobiography: A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep and A House with Four Rooms.

As a result of these works and her novels, Godden was named an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1993. In 1994 she made a last trip to India to participate in a documentary. Her final work, Cromartie v. the God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, tells a story, based on a real-life event, involving a missing statue of the Hindu god Shiva, a Canadian art dealer named Cromartie, an Indian-born lawyer named Michael Dean, and an archaeologist with whom he falls in love, named Artemis. Although not her best work, the novel, produced at the age of eighty-nine, solidified Godden’s reputation as a novelist and Indian local colorist.

Godden’s work occupies a more important place in twentieth century British fiction, however. In writing about such abiding themes as the lost child, the clash of different cultures, and the conflict between flesh and spirit, Godden created a significant body of work worthy of study by critics and readers alike.

BibliographyChisholm, Anne. Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life. London: Macmillan, 1998. Based on Godden’s autobiographical works and unpublished personal papers as well as extensive interviews, this biography concentrates on the life, the works, and the screenplays made from Godden’s fiction. Includes a list of Godden’s works and an index.Dukes, Thomas. “Evoking the Significance: The Autobiographies of Rumer Godden.” Women’s Studies 20, no. 1 (1991). Discusses Godden’s autobiographical works and the autobiographical quality in her fiction.Evans, Gwyneth. “The Girl in the Garden: Variations on a Feminine Pastoral.” Children’s Language Association Quarterly 10, no. 1 (Spring, 1994). A detailed analysis of Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, comparing it to The Secret Garden.Rosenthal, Lynne Meryl. Rumer Godden Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. Explores Godden’s ideas about self-transformation and acts of will.Simpson, Hassel A. Rumer Godden. New York: Twayne, 1973. Provides a book-length introduction to Godden’s life and work, giving brief biographical information along with a literary discussion of many of her novels. Good on the early Godden.
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