When (Margaret) Rumer Godden died in 1998 at the age of 90, Britain’s Daily Telegraph summed up her writing talents with, “she could see the world through the eyes of children with a vivid and sometimes uncomfortable realism; she excelled at portraying the sensuous atmosphere and contradictions of India in the last days of the Raj; and she was deeply interested in the religious and contemplative life.” Children, India, and nuns — along with the world of dance — were brought to life many times in her works.
Ms. Godden’s own childhood was spent in India, where her father’s job took the family. During World War I, she and her sisters avoided — temporarily — being sent to school in Britain. Though she wrote a book of poetry at an early age, and naively had it published by a vanity press, her first career was as a dancing teacher. She was also a wife and mother — a single mother for several years — and a convert to Catholicism. All this found its way into the stories she told.
My first taste of Rumer Godden was an excerpt from An Episode of Sparrows. This novel tells of a neglected London child, Lovejoy, who wants something no one else in her street has — a garden. Her first is wrecked by neighborhood boys, but one of them, feeling remorseful, shows her to a better place for gardening. The two children’s efforts to get topsoil lead them into more trouble than they could’ve imagined. As a child myself at the time, I was impressed by Ms. Godden’s ability to remember and convey what it felt like, especially when tangling with grownups who thought they knew everything.
Other things stand out about her writing. Her sentence structure is unique and can be bewildering:
“What does corn look like?” Lovejoy asked Vincent. “It says it has blue flowers but — ” “Fair waved the golden corn,” they sang in the hymn at school.
Her stories seldom move in a straight line, but take detours to the past and the future. In This House of Brede begins with Philippa Talbot entering a convent; in the next chapter she’s already been there four years, but we read the story of her first days there, little by little, in flashbacks.
Ms. Godden’s earlier adult novels usually deal with adult situations — like how Lovejoy’s mother, a “singer”, really makes her living — by implication rather than explicit detail. This seems quaint today, but makes them more family-friendly.
She also wrote over 20 books for children of various ages.
Readers interested in dance might want to start with A Candle for St. Jude, Thursday’s Children, or Pippa Passes. In This House of Brede is her best novel about nuns, but they also feature in Black Narcissus and Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. The River and Kingfishers Catch Fire capture her life in India.
Rumer Godden has left readers a great legacy to enjoy.