I’ve been reading Rumer Godden’s India novels recently, and have found myself both impressed and annoyed by them. More impressed an annoyed, though, and I do wish I’d read them as a teenager.
This was published in the Sunday Guardian this past weekend.
To read Rumer Godden only as an adult feels like missing out on some vital part of the experience. Often featuring thoughtful, intense, young women, they are exactly the sort of thing my teenage self craved.
A selection of Godden’s early works, set in India, were recently reissued by Virago Modern Classics. India played a major role in the author’s life. She spent much of her childhood first in Assam, then in Narayanganj in what is now Bangladesh, after the outbreak of the First World War put an end to her time at school in England. As a young woman she opened a dancing school in Calcutta, and, years later as her marriage was failing, lived for a time with her children in Kashmir.
Much of what occurs in these books is, if not directly autobiographical, at least strongly drawn from personal experience. In The River the large family in a house on the river bank in Narayanganj bears a close resemblance to the author’s own (Godden was one of four sisters). Breakfast With the Nikolides has two sisters coming to join their father in India when the Second World War breaks out in Europe, just as Godden herself did during World War One. Kingfishers Catch Fire is loosely based on an incident that took place while Godden and her children were in Kashmir. Godden was close to her older sister (the author Jon Godden, with whom she collaborated on a number of non-fictional works) and pairs of sisters appear again and again in these books: Binnie and Emily in Breakfast With the Nikolides, Harriet and Bea in The River, Halcyon and Una in The Peacock Spring. Sometimes less attractive or outwardly interesting than their siblings, these characters are observers first of all. In her introduction to the books Rosie Thomas describes Breakfast With the Nikolides’s Emily and Kingfishers Catch Fire’s Teresa as “vulnerable, observant individuals […] deficient in charm but gifted with perception beyond their years”. This is true also of The River’s Harriet, stumbling over her first attempts to be a writer, and trying to work out what it means to be a person, and learning that “the world goes on turning, and it has all these troubles in it”. Observers themselves, these characters are partly detached from the events of the story, even as they affect events deeply. To anyone who has been a child, has watched adults, and the world, failing and showing their imperfections, there’s something deeply moving about all of this.
But even more than the rich inner lives of her characters, I’m fascinated by the attitude that Godden’s books have towards India.
Black Narcissus was Godden’s first commercially successful book. In it, a house in the Himalayas, facing Kanchenjunga, is given over to a group of nuns to establish The Convent of St. Faith. At first the sisters are enchanted by their beautiful surroundings; the clarity of the light, the imposing mountain, all add an intensity that at first they welcome. “they were filled with a kind of ecstasy. They woke in the late October mornings before the sun had reached the hills, and saw its light travel down from snow and cloud over the hills, until it reached the other clouds that lay like curds in the bottom of the valley”.
But all too soon, this first rush of ecstasy fades. “They were so tired. The light at Mopu seemed to make the yellowness of their faces more yellow against their wimples; their steps sounded heavy in the clear air. They were not strong enough for the wind”.
As the novel progresses it becomes clear that something about the spot makes it impossible for the convent to continue here. It’s nothing so mundane as a haunting, though it’s tempting to read Black Narcissus as a horror novel; but the oppressive grandeur of the mountain, the feeling that they are not completely safe among the local Indians, perhaps even the clarity of the air exacerbate the small problems and flaws among the nuns. Somehow, it’s all too much. The whole thing ends in tragedy, and the sisters return to England.
I snickered a little during the introduction, where Rosie Thomas claims that Black Narcissus “thrums with sex”, but it is certainly thrumming with something. Godden’s writing is often so descriptive as to verge on the purple were it not so sharply observed. If there’s certainly an element of orientalising India as she writes about it, the sights, textures and sounds she invokes all feel familiar, the result of lived experience. But if these are the words of an author who knows the country, at times the books evoke another India; one that is unknowable and inaccessible.
Good Europeans want to embrace India in Godden’s books. There’s a clear moral line being drawn through most of Breakfast With the Nikolides between Louise Poole who loathes India and her husband and daughter who both love it. Charles Poole has settled in the country and made it his own; Emily Poole seems willing to do the same. So strongly are our sympathies solicited for one side and not the other that the book almost glosses over the reasons for Charles and Louise’s estrangement—his sexual assault of his wife is reduced to a minor detail. Like Louise, Sophie Barrington-Ward in Kingfishers Catch Fire is a far from ideal parent. Yet in the matter of India she is set up by the book as clearly superior to her compatriots in the country who choose to try and replicate their English lifestyles as far as possible. And if Black Narcissus’s Mr Dean isn’t necessarily more virtuous than the nuns, he’s certainly better equipped to live in Mopu than most of the other Europeans.
There’s a tradition in some sorts of literature in which the “good” European is the one who treats the non-white natives (or the servants, if no natives happen to be about) better than some of his ruder countrymen. Think of Victorian adventure books (or Enid Blyton, or even the Tintin stories) in which a minor act of kindness may earn the noble English character a faithful native servant for life. In setting up these oppositions between the English people who feel kindly towards India and those who don’t, Godden often seems about to fall into this tradition. It is one of her strengths that she does not. Where a massive difference in power or status exists, friendship is hard to come by. Sophie may think she is living frugally among the Kashmiris; to the inhabitants of the village she is extravagant with her money and easily cheated—and though she may mean well they will always, and with good reason, be suspicious. Harriet in The River withholds the information that leads to the death of her brother, and so the family servant is sacked. A completely innocent interlude between Emily Poole and a young Indian student causes a violent, destructive riot. English people, even the nice, well-meaning ones, don’t get the luxury of somehow rising above their material contexts, and are often shown to be foolish or naïve for thinking that they can.
So if there’s something about India that compels Godden’s favoured characters to draw closer, it’s also something that ultimately eludes them, and something with which their fascination can be dangerous. India is turned into something like the cobra that fascinates Harriet’s brother in The River—too interested in it to let his parents know that it is in the garden, he watches it for days before it kills him. Breakfast With the Nikolides and Black Narcissus both end in tragic deaths, and Sophie of Kingfishers Catch Fire is in danger of it when she is poisoned.
And what of Indians themselves? It’s hard to tell. Godden does have the occasional Indian who appears as a fully realised character. Breakfast With the Nikolides introduces us to Narayan and Shila, a young couple trying to navigate the marital relationship in a rapidly changing culture. Narayan also has an intense friendship with a young man named Anil, and some of their exchanges are about as interior, and as erotically charged, as anything I’ve read. The Peacock Spring has a young Bengali poet as a major character. These are exceptions. While Godden often speaks of “the Indian”— “the Indian cultivator is rooted in deep, slow prejudice”, “the Indian[‘s ] sense of social service and citizenship is small”— she rarely speaks of Indians. The vast majority of the Indians in these books exist as background figures, part of larger populations (the farmers, the villagers, the crowd in the bazaar), undifferentiated, and by virtue of their sheer difference from the English protagonists, vaguely menacing. Deeply intertwined with the intense, sensual undercurrent of the writing is a sense of unease at this unpredictable, unknowable mass of people.
I can easily imagine the child reader I was devouring Godden’s work, thrilling with the sheer unfairness of the adult world, the sensory overload of the prose, the writing that, yes, thrums with sex. And I imagine that reader identifying deeply with the white-skinned teenaged protagonists, and finding it (because they are such good teenaged protagonists!) deeply satisfying. As an adult, I’m torn between these finely-drawn, brilliant characters and my real place, somewhere in that brown mass.