Rumer Godden’s The Lady and The Unicorn, which was first published in 1937, is the 630th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list. As with The River and The Villa Fiorita, both republished by Virago at the same time, The Lady and The Unicorn includes a well-crafted and rather fascinating introduction penned by Anita Desai.
After setting out the author’s childhood, lived largely in India, Desai goes on to write about the influences which drove Godden to write over sixty acclaimed works of fiction, for both children and adults. Desai states that Godden ‘cannot be said to have been ignorant, or unmindful, of her society and its role in India. In no other book is this made as clear’ as it is in this one, a novel written ‘in the early, unhappy days of her first marriage’. Desai then goes on to write that ‘the contact with her students [at the dance school which Godden opened in Calcutta], their families and her staff taught her a great deal about the unhappy situation of a community looked down upon both by the English and by Indians as “half-castes”‘. The Lady and The Unicorn faced controversy upon its publication, with many English reviewers believing her ‘unfairly critical of English society’, and others viewing ‘her depiction of Eurasians’ as cruel. Her publisher, Peter Davies, however, deemed the novel ‘a little masterpiece’.
The Lemarchant family are Godden’s focus here; ‘neither Indian nor English, they are accepted by no-one’. They live in the small annex of a fading ‘memory-haunted’ mansion in Calcutta. The widowed father of the family is helped only by ‘auntie’ and a servant of sorts named Boy, an arrangement which causes misery for all: ‘There were so many ways that father did not care to earn money that the girls had to be taken at school for charity and the rent was always owing… No matter how badly he [father] behaved they [auntie and Boy] treated him as the honourable head of the house, and auntie complained that the children did not respect him as they ought’. The way in which the family unit is perceived within the community is negative, and often veers upon the harsh: ‘The Lemarchants are not a nice family at all, they cannot even pay their rent’ is the idea which prevails.
The three daughters of the Lemarchant family could not be more different; twins Belle and Rosa are often at odds with one another, and the youngest, Blanche, is treated no better than an outcast. Blanche is described as ‘the family shame, for she was dark. Suddenly, after Belle and Rosa, had come this other baby like a little crow after twin doves. Auntie said she was like their mother, and they hated to think of their mother who was dead and had been dark like Blanche. Belle could not bear her, and even Rosa was ashamed to be her sister’. Of the twins, Godden writes that Rosa, constantly overshadowed by her twin sister, ‘could never be quite truthful, she had always to distort, to embroider, to exaggerate, and if she were frightened, she lied’. The family in its entirety ‘were sure that Belle was not good, and yet at home she gave hardly any trouble; it was just that she was quite implacable, quite determined and almost fearless… Belle did exactly as she chose. When she was crossed she was more than unkind, she was shocking’. The divisions within the family therefore echo those which prevail in society.
The sense of place is deftly built, particularly with regard to the house in which the Lemarchants live: ‘There was not a corner of the house that Blanche did not know and cherish, all of them loved it as if it were their own; that was peculiar to the Lemarchants, for the house did not like its tenants, it seemed to have some strange resentment’. Of their surroundings, of which the girls know no different, Belle sneers the following, exemplifying her discontent: ‘We know a handful of people in Calcutta and most of them are nobodies too. What is Calcutta? It is not the world’. There is not much by way of plot here, really, but the whole has been beautifully written, and the non-newsworthy aspects of the girls’ lives have been set out with such feeling and emotion.
The Lady and The Unicorn is a captivating novel, which captures adolescence, and the many problems which it throws up, beautifully. Part love story and part coming-of-age novel, Godden is shrewd throughout at showing how powerful society can be, and how those within it often rally together to shun those ‘outsiders’ who have made it their home.