China Court is part of a reissued series of Godden’s novels, printed by Virago. This particular novel is dedicated to the famous English poet John Betjeman, and was first published in the early 1960s. It tells the tale of the Quin family, who have been inhabitants of a large house named China Court for several generations.
Tracy Quin, the daughter of a film star, is the youngest member of the Quin family. She has been brought up on various film sets around the world, and has finally tried to put down roots in China Court in Cornwall following the death of her grandmother. The story more or less opens with Tracy and her mother, and then follows other individuals from different generations of the family. Whilst this idea is an interesting one, it has not been written or executed in such a way that renders the story difficult to put down, or even makes it clear.
The Quin family which Tracy descends from is so large – the first generation alone has nine children, for example – that a family tree has been included before the story even begins. Godden has defended her choice of this inclusion in the preface, which states, ‘In real life, when one meets a large family, with all its ramifications of uncles, aunts and cousins, as well as grandfathers and grandmothers, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their friends, servants, and pet animals, it takes some time to distinguish them; one does not expect to remember straightaway that it is Jane who is married to Bertram, Jack who was born with a club foot, Aunt Margaret who had the unfortunate love affair… China Court is a novel about five generations of a family… I believe if the reader is a little patient – and can bear not to skip – they will soon become distinct and he will have no need to look at the family tree on the frontispiece’.
Sadly, a growing clarification of who is who and the relations between members of the family are nigh on impossible to remember without the aid of the aforementioned family tree, and Godden’s intention falls flat somewhat. So many characters are introduced at one time in places that the family dynamic becomes overly confused. The family tree is invaluable in this respect, but it becomes rather annoying to flip back and forth merely in order to work out who is related to who, and in which way. The introduction of so many people in so short a space renders the novel rather stolid and entirely confusing. The characters blend into one indistinguishable mess. The story is quickly saturated with information about the Quin family, not all of whom are remotely interesting.
The tenses, too, jump around from past to present and back again from one paragraph to the next. There are few breaks between different time periods; rather, Godden has created a continuous narrative which just adds to the confusion. The opening line of the novel is striking: ‘Old Mrs Quin died in her sleep in the early hours of an August morning’. We are then launched straight into the dynamics of the Quin’s country house, which stands in a village which is ‘proudly inbred’. The sense of place which Godden has created works well at times, particularly when her descriptions are lovely – motes of dust ‘glittered and spun in the sun that came through the window’ and ‘A tiny fly whirred in the roses’, for example – and not so well at others. The way in which she describes the geographical position of China Court, for example, is so matter-of-fact that it reads like a piece of journalistic non-fiction. Dialects have been used in the speech of some characters in order to better set the scene, and the intended meaning of such chatter is not often easy to translate. The dialogue throughout has not been split up into the form of a conventional literary conversation, and there are often two or three individuals who speak in any one paragraph.
China Court does not have the same charming feel of The Dolls’ House, or the wonderful exuberance and great cast of Thursday’s Children. The execution of this story is wholly disappointing, and whilst the plot and general idea of following several generations who are intrinsically linked to one another is an interesting one, it has not been carried out in the best of ways. In consequence, it is rather difficult for a reader of China Court to muster that patience which Godden urges us to have.