Rumer Godden’s prose tugs two ways at once. It is subtle, descriptive, and light, but also direct and unashamed of being turned inside out until darkness consumes it, rendering what was beautiful irrelevant and suddenly opaque.
There is also a lot of it. Rumer Godden OBE (1907-1998) wrote over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction over a lifetime divided between England, where she was born, India, where she spent much of her young adulthood, and Scotland, where she lived for the last twenty years of her life.
Godden’s three best-known novels, Black Narcissus, Breakfast with the Nikolides, and Kingfishers Catch Fire are set in India. Flickering with the awe and uncertainty of the Englishman abroad, they give more than a glimmer of what defined Godden’s sense of place as an expat.
Black Narcissus is the most captivating of the three, not just because it features a lustful nun. Travelling from England to Mopu in the mountains north of Darjeeling, a (gaggle? bevy?) superfluity of nuns sets about establishing a convent. The story is set just before the partition of India, but already one feels the wind of change fluster the neglected palace where the nuns take up residence. Contrary to their perceptions, they are the foreigners, the strange ones, the body most resistant to change in this world of old customs. Sister Clodagh, a nun with a past, is apparently unaware that the sudden doubt she feels is a reflection of how she is seen.
But perhaps resistance is for the best. At a crucial turning point in the novel, the nuns welcome a perfume-drenched ‘Black Narcissus’ into their classroom, General Dilip Rai, the spare that became heir to the region’s ruler. ‘Sister Clodagh had let more than she knew into the Convent with the young General Dilip Rai,’ Godden writes laconically, whilst sympathizing with the nuns. The General’s agent, Mr Dean, a shadowy but omniscient figure with a drink problem, is the only one to see clearly. If religion is to survive, it has to adapt, but if it adapts, it ceases to be. Heavy thunder rolls beneath Godden’s canopy of blossom and tea leaves.
Similarly, to say that Breakfast with the Nikolides is about a dog and a taut relationship between a father and his estranged family would be to sentimentalize. But this is, at heart, a domestic tale. Evoking contrast through comparison, it sets two families, one English, the other Bengali, side by side on common soil. Charles Pool, the English father, has lived in East Bengal for eight years when his wife and daughters arrive, disrupting the familiar way of things:
‘That had disconcerted, most horribly, his Indian friends. Granted that it was quite possible and usual for anyone in a foreign country to have a hidden past, in spite of the rumours they had not really believed it of Charles. Europeans in India are like cut flowers; that is why most of them wither and grow sterile: they cannot live without their roots, and so few of them take root; but Charles had taken root.’
As with Kingfishers Catch Fire, which explores the life of a young mother and her two children in Kashmir, the storyline rests heavily on Godden’s gorgeous nexus of cultural and aesthetic observations.
If ever one needed an incentive to read just for the joy of reading, for the language, the landscape, and the experience of other worlds, Godden provides it.
Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus, Breakfast with the Nikolides, and Kingfishers Catch Fire have just been re-released by Virago.