Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rumer Godden

Finally, a beautiful Saturday! We turned off the heat, threw the porch door open, and basked in the sunlight, reading our library books. The sun feels so good! If we’d been braver, we would have sat outside in our Adirondack chairs, though there are still seven or eight crunchy inches of snow to deter us. (If we'd been younger, we would have done it.)

This timidly slanting light reveals memories of past reading in other gasping thaws. I remember with delight long ice-crunching walks to the library at the age of 12, gambling with my first adult library card on Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows, Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop, and Lloyd C.(?) Douglas's The Robe. It took a haphazard divining to come up with these three choices, but they were not as weird as you might think. I knew Rumer Godden from The Doll’s House, probably the only one of hers children’s books I'd read; I picked out The Magic Toyshop for the cover (and became hooked on Angela Carter almost before anyone else did); and The Robe because I’d been thrilled by the movie. Obviously my taste was all over the map, but I read all three indiscriminately, with equal enjoyment. go back in time, I've been reading some "real" library books, the old ones you find when you browse without preconceptions. I've rediscovered Rumer Godden's China Court, which was proudly displayed in the glass bookcases at my grandmother’s house. China Court was a Book- of-the-Month-Club book, as were most of my grandmother’s books. As a child I thought the novel had too many threads, portrayed too many generations, and was confusingly non-linear with parallel and intersecting back-and-forth-in time lines. Of course now I love it; it's exactly my kind of book. Five generations, the rise and fall of a Cornish house, the fourth generation abandoning the quarry and the obsolete china factory for more lucrative, less demanding careers. The novel begins with the death of Mrs. Quin, the third-generation dowager of the slightly dilapidated, once grand house, China Court.  Mrs. Quin, an unconventional woman who was originally rejected by Lady Patrick as an appropriate friend for her son, has, ironically, not only married into the family, but become the last matriarch and house historian.  Yet, through her wild garden, she has somehow renewed the house and even made the past more accessible.

One thing I love about Godden's style:  characters who are peripheral to the action, or even family members looking back at the past, comment, Greek-chorus-like, on events in the narrative.  We first learn about Mrs. Quin and life at China Court from her maids.

Godden writes:  "Neither Cecily nor Mrs. Abel whispered, nor did they speak of Mrs. Quin as if she were not there, but all the same, things were muted; there was no early firing of explosives from the quarry, which had stopped work when the news was heard and the men had been sent home as a mark of respect.  'But the news will be in the village before the men,' said Cecily.

"Of course, Dr. Taft's car would have been seen, then Mrs. Abel coming down, and Cecily knew the vicar would be here at any moment.  'No one goes in or out of China Court who isn't seen,' complained Cecily often, 'seen and talked about.'  The village was not kind: proudly inbred, it kept for strangers the spirit of its wrecker forebear, though where it respected it was staunch and for Mrs. Quin there would be genuine feeling.  'Mrs. Quin gone!'..."

Godden's best books deserve rereading:  most are out-of-print, at least in the U.S. We should lobby for  Persephone or Virago to "rediscover" them. T


Susan said...

I have only discovered your blog recently and absolutely have to read all your entries, going from the oldest to the most recent. I couldn't agree more about Rumer Godden. Why doesn't someone republish her books in wonderful covers?

I am really enjoying your blog. You have great taste in books and are a terrific writer.

Frisbee said...

It would be nice to see Rumer Godden's books reissued. I bought some used copies a few years ago and also found some at the library. She seems to be so popular. It's odd that she's out of print. Or, anyway, was out of print when I wrote these entries.

Thanks for your kind comments!