Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep

Last year I became a Virago addict: I read so many Viragos that I began to recognize the types of heroines: curious spinsters who question the status quo, mischievous curate’s wives, ambitious working women, courageous political activists, trapped women, and mothers who learn to "think outside the box." Much as I loved these books, I needed to branch out.   Gradually I began to remember the cherished women’s literature of my own childhood and youth.  So this is the winter of establishing my personal “Virago-Persephone” list, meaning that, though I’m not a publisher, these out-of-print books have merit and should be shared.  

It's been a Rumer Godden marathon around here.  On Monday I stayed up most of the night reading her compelling and beautiful memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, which spans her first 38 years. Godden, raised partly in India, partly in England, had an idyllic childhood before being banished by well-meaning parents to a succession of horrifying English boarding schools.  "I still cannot fathom why, as it had been decided that Fa would go back to India alone and Mam would stay with us four in a rented house, we could not have been day girls which would have been more merciful; perhaps Fa and Mam had decided Jon was out of hand and, of course, where Jon went I went too."

At a convent boarding school, which obviously inspired her best-seller, Black Narcissus, a group of brutal, narrow-minded nuns resolved to crush Rumer and her older sister Jon's obstreperous spirits.  Rumer was branded a "liar" for telling exaggerated stories about India; and when Jon had malaria she was accused of "rubbing the thermometer on her blanket - a school trick we poor innocents had never heard of - and she was told to get up, dress and go back to her class at once."  Eventually they were yanked out of this school:  Mam realizing something was wrong when they ceased to write letters:  Jon refused to write because of the nuns' censorship.

Five years later, when Mam and her four daughters returned to India, Rumer and Jon were debutantes, and Rumer, who had never had a beau, was so flattered that she almost married at 18.  She regained her senses in time, broke the engagement, and returned to England to study dance education. (Fa said it would have been cheaper to keep her at home).  She ran a dancing school in Calcutta for several years and, between classes, wrote her first novel; then, during World War II, as a wife and mother of two children, having written her first "big" book, Black Narcissus, Godden retreated to Kashmir as “an abandoned wife” (her irresponsible, Mr. Micawber-type husband joins the army and takes up with another woman).  She renovated a bungalow, taught the children, gardened so they could live off their own vegetables, and with a sculptor neighbor traded their  children  back and forth:  it was the only way she could have uninterrupted work time.  Eventually a shocking episode with the servants cut short the idyll.  This fascinating memoir uncovers the roots of her more autobiographical novels, and in the cases of The Greengage Summer and Kingfishers Catch Fire, she quotes excerpts. A fascinating life is obviously needed

Godden captures the atmosphere of India with beauty and wit and lightly conveys the advantages of living in such a multicultural society. She also elucidates the joys and problems of a writer’s life. The book ends with her return to England. Her second memoir, A House with Four Rooms, describes her years in England.

Godden grew up inseparable from her older sister Jon, a talented writer whose bouts of mental illness impeded her stamina and prevented her achieving the same stature as Rumer.
I haven't read her, but I certainly would be interested.

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