French film director Jean Renoir, who purchased the film rights to Rumer Godden’s The River soon after it was published in 1946, said: ‘[it is] exactly the type of novel which would give me the best inspiration for my own work… an unexpressed, subtle, heartbreaking innocent love story including a little girl’. His film adaptation subsequently won the International Critics’ Prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival.
Author Anita Desai has written the introduction to the three new Rumer Godden books which have been published by Virago – The Lady and The Unicorn, and The Villa Fiorita alongside this one. The River presents ‘a poignant portrait of the end of childhood’, and Desai writes that ‘perhaps no other book exemplifies Rumer Godden’s strengths as well as this… She herself seemed bemused by how well it was received when it was published’. Desai goes on to say that ‘these events, or non-events [in Harriet’s life] are written of with an artlessness, a spontanaiety that make one think they must have flowed from her [Godden’s] memory through her pen to paper with the ease of running water’.
The River centres upon Harriet, a young girl who finds herself ‘caught between two worlds’, and whose comforting Indian childhood ‘is about to be shattered’. A young European, ‘the flavour of Harriet’s home was naturally different from most; it was not entirely European, it was not entirely Indian; it was a mixture of both’. Whatever she and her siblings learn of ‘India and its diversity’ comes to them through the large domestic staff which serves their family. In this manner, many different religions and belief systems are brought to the fore, and all hold equal importance for the young protagonist. In the novel, Godden does not directly address the Second World War as her chosen time period; instead, the very notion of a conflict and how it affects those whom she has created is enough. The horror of the war is seen by Harriet through ever-present war-wounded Captain John, who flits in and out of the book’s scenes.
The novel opens in the ‘doldrums of the afternoon’, when Harriet and her elder sister, Bea, are learning Latin. With regard to her beautifully evoked setting, Godden begins in the following manner: ‘The river was in Bengal, India, but for the purpose of this book, these thoughts, it might as easily have been a river in America, in Europe, in England, France, New Zealand or Timbuctoo, though they do not of course have rivers in Timbuctoo’. Harriet is rather a charming little protagonist, and I found myself automatically endeared to her: ‘The middle finger of Harriet’s right hand had a lump on the side of it; that was her writing lump; she had it because she wrote so much, because she was a writer… She could not resist reading her poems to everyone who would listen’. The whole of the novel has been told in almost a stream-of-consciousness style, so we as readers are able to hear Harriet’s thoughts alongside the unfolding plot. The lack of traditional structure – the story is not split into chapters, for example – further exemplifies this, and makes the whole rather an engrossing read.
Harriet’s parents are largely absent, her father totally committed to his work on the government’s local jute farm, and her mother in confinement whilst she awaits the birth of her latest baby. Godden demonstrates the way in which the area that the children live in aids this semi-enforced separation: ‘Perhaps the place and the life were alien, circumscribed, dull to the grown-ups who lived there; for the children it was their world of home’, and how it affects Harriet especially: ‘In her loneliness, Harriet was driven to adopt places; there was her cubby hole under the stairs, and there was a place on the end of the jetty, the landing-stage by the home’.
Virago’s new edition of The River includes a rather charming preface by the author, which tells of what influenced her during her writing process, and speaks of her own Indian childhood. The volume also contains two short stories, both of which are set in the same region. The River is a poignant and resonant coming-of-age story, which every reader is sure to be charmed by.