‘Thursday’s Children’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden is the author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction, for both children and adults. Virago have recently reprinted a handful of her books to add to their impressive canon of women’s fiction. First published in 1984, Thursday’s Children is amongst the newest offerings. As its title suggests, this novel is based upon the childhood rhyme ‘Monday’s Child’, in which ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’ – a definite precedent for the story which Godden has woven. 9781844088485

Thursday’s Children focuses upon a young boy named Doone Penny, who was ‘born to dance’. His sister Crystal, also a dancer, receives much of the attention in the Penny family, and Doone’s brothers and father look upon him with something akin to contempt at times, believing that any boy who enjoys ballet is the worst kind of ‘sissy’. He is the youngest child in rather a large family, a surprise baby who was born to a mother who wanted her beloved daughter, born after four boys, to be her last. ‘To be the youngest in a family is supposed to be enviable, but that is in fairy-tales; with four older brothers and an important older sister, Doone rarely had a chance to speak’. From the start, Doone is not treasured as he should have been: ‘… he was an unsatisfactory child… [he] was persistently ragamuffin, his socks falling down, his shoes scuffed… he was often puzzled and, often, when spoken to seemed curiously absent, too dreamy to be trusted with the simplest message. He was to be a failure at school – every term a worse report – did not learn to read properly till he was ten and was so silent that he seemed to Ma secretive’.

The first part of the novel opens with Doone’s spoilt elder sister complaining about having to take her brother along to the dance class which she attends. Since his early childhood, Doone has been largely ignored by those around him, and even his mother sees him as somewhat of a burden. He is an incredibly musical child and is taught to play the mouth organ when a tiny little boy by a wonderfully crafted little man named Beppo who helps out in his father’s North London grocery shop. When Beppo is forced to leave his employment, Doone realises ‘that now there was nobody who wanted him’. When the eldest brother, Will, suggests that he should be given lessons in his beloved mouth organ as it is unfair that the majority of the family’s money is spent on Crystal and her dancing, Ma Penny says, ‘… when, in a family, one child has real talent, the rest have to make some sacrifice’.

Doone’s own love of dancing is realised when he is given the opportunity to attend a professional ballet performance with his mother. He begins to have clandestine dance classes along with four other London boys. It is a coming of age novel of the most satisfying type. We see Doone, our protagonist, grow before our eyes, and triumph over the situations and family members which try to overcome him.

Dance runs throughout the entire book, as one might expect given the storyline. However, Godden has gone further than merely to write about dance. Indeed, the novel is presented as something akin to a theatre programme, outlining the ‘cast list’ before it begins, and opening with a ‘Prelude’, which sets out the ‘World Premiere of Yuri Koszorz’s “Leda and the Swan”‘. Here, Doone has been cast as a cygnet: ‘No boy of that age, in Mr Max’s remembrance, had been entrusted with dancing a solo role in a ballet at the Royal Theatre’. Despite this prelude merely being Doone’s dream, these nice touches to the book launch us straight into the life of the ballet.

Godden’s writing is marvellous. She weaves an absorbing story and intersperses it with touching anecdotes about its characters, pitch perfect dialogue and the loveliest of descriptions. The settings which she uses come to life in the mind of the reader: ‘It was only a prelude; the music changed, the clouds came down, and Doone could feel an almost magnetic stir in the audience beyond the orchestra pit’, and ‘the Royal Theatre, for an English-born dancer, was not only the Mecca, the peak of ambition, but also home’. Her love of dancing and the theatre shines through on every page: ‘the music, the lights, the little girls – it seemed to him a hundred little girls – all in party dresses and dancing shoes, moving to the music in what seemed to him a miracle of marching, running, leaping’. Her character descriptions, too, give us a real feel for the leading men and women of the book: ‘It was difficult to believe Pa had once been a romantic young man who, when he was not learning to be a greengrocer, willingly went without tea or supper to go to a musical or a revue’.

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‘China Court’ by Rumer Godden **

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.

9781844088553Tracy 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.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Dark Horse’ by Rumer Godden ***

First published in April 2014.

Rumer Godden’s The Dark Horse has been published to celebrate the one year anniversary of the addition of children’s books to the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list. Godden was a prolific author and penned over sixty books during her successful career.  The Dark Horse was one of her later books, first published as it was in 1981. 

Dark Invader, a ‘beautifully bred racehorse’, is the dark horse of the novel’s title.  He is introduced marvellously in the prologue: ‘He was born in Ireland in the early thirties, a big foal even longer-legged than usual, legs that were slender but strong, already showing incipient power’.  After Dark Invader’s first racing season proves rather disappointing, he is sent from England to busy Calcutta, where he ‘wins the hearts of the people and becomes the firm favourite for India’s most famous race’.  Just before this race is scheduled to begin, however, Dark Invader goes missing.  The mystery element of the novel which ensues has been well plotted and gradually unfolds.

Many characters find their way into the novel’s pages.  In the first chapter, we meet, amongst many nods to other shadowy figures, the horse breeder John Quillan – ‘Most of John’s owners were businessmen, of whom the British were the elite’ – and Mother Morag, Resident Mother of the Sisters of Poverty.  Due to the introduction of many beings in just a short space of time, the novel does tend to become a little confusing as to who is who at times, and the nuns particularly become a little difficult to tell apart.

The first chaper of The Dark Horse opens in Calcutta, India, which Godden describes vividly: ‘In the cold weather there was mist, but it swirled above arid dust’.  She sets out the history of the city from the very first chapter, dropping in details here and there as the story gains momentum, and placing them alongside the story – based upon true events – which she has crafted.  She writes that ‘Calcutta never went to sleep…  Most important of all in that arid crowded city, there were trees, grass, above all space…  if there were any breeze, it was fresh’.  The use of native Indian words – ‘tikka gharries’, for example – and the explanation of the currency, food and customs help to ground the story further, whilst also rendering it rather an informative novel, particularly for younger readers.

As with all of Virago’s Godden reissues, the cover design is gorgeous, and it is sure to delight any child – or adult, for that matter.  Virago have recommended that The Dark Horse is suitable for children over the age of eleven.  This benchmark is certainly in accordance with the slightly more complicated writing style than books for younger children tend to have, but it is not simplified in any way, so that those wishing to read it as teenagers or adults are able to do so.  Despite the relatively modern period in which the novel was written, it feels delightfully quaint at times.  The short sections throughout which make up longer chapters make it accessible for even the busiest readers, allowing them to dip in and out whenever they have the time to.  The Dark Horse will certainly appeal to all of those who class themselves as lovers of horses, and those who enjoy books such as Black Beauty are sure to love it.

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One From the Archive: ‘An Episode of Sparrows’ by Rumer Godden ****

First published in April 2014.

Several of prolific author Rumer Godden’s novels have been recently reprinted to celebrate the one year anniversary of the addition of children’s books to the Virago Modern Classics list.  The foreword to An Episode of Sparrows – first published in 1946 and one of the loveliest of Godden’s novels – has been written by Jacqueline Wilson, who was the Children’s Laureate between 2005 and 2007.  Wilson writes that An Episode of Sparrows is ‘a captivating classic novel of a poor girl striving to create beauty among the bombsites of postwar London’.

‘An Episode of Sparrows’ by Rumer Godden (Virago)

In her foreword, Wilson goes on to say: ‘I’m not sure if Rumer Godden wrote An Episode of Sparrows for children or for adults…  I know as I read the book that I’d be very wary of Lovejoy in real life – but even so, I cared about her passionately…  Rumer Godden writes about Lovejoy so brilliantly you understand her utterly…  It’s a masterpiece of construction…  I think her [Godden’s] greatest strength is her accurate, unsentimental portrayal of London’.

The novel begins in the following manner: ‘The garden committee had met to discuss the earth; not the whole earth, the terrestrial globe, but the bit of it that had been stolen from the Gardens in the Square’.  One of the story’s adult protagonists is a formidable and bossy woman named Miss Angela Chesney, who believes that she is deservedly at the head of this committee, and tells others in the neighbourhood that such things as wallflowers are forbidden because they are ‘common’.  Her sister, Olivia, is the kinder and more pragmatic of the two: ‘Angela’s queer, dark, elder sister who often attended her’.  She is endearing and rather lovely, and wishes often for ‘the chance to join in something real’.  The Miss Chesneys refer to the local children as ‘sparrows’, due to the ‘vast, lively cheeping’ which they make in the school playground.

An Episode of Sparrows is set in Mortimer Square in London, ‘gracious and imposing, with its big houses’ and which can be found ‘on the edge of a huddle of much poorer streets’.  It is one of these poorer areas, Catford Street, in which Lovejoy Mason, our protagonist, lives.  Catford Street’s ‘flavour was of London; its streets and its sooty brick, its scarlet buses, the scarlet post-office van and the scarlet pillarbox…  the starlings, pigeons and sparrows, the strange uncouth call of the rag-and-bone man’.  Lovejoy, who is living with a kindly couple whilst her mother has supposedly gone on tour with a band of singers, is a multi-layered construct; she is feisty, headstrong, unafraid of violence, likes to speak her mind, and dabbles in petty crime.  Lovejoy, Godden tells us, ‘did not steal big things, nor money; she knew that to take money was wicked; nobody had told her that ice-creams and comics were money and she was adept at taking a parcel out of a perambulator while she pretended to rock it…’.  Lovejoy is rather independent, and does her own washing and ironing, for example, whilst helping around the house which she would so love to call a permanent home.

As far as the child characters go in An Episode of Sparrows, Godden has focused upon Lovejoy and two others – the son of a newspaper vendor, Sparkey, and Tip Malone, a gang-leader of sorts whom we find is actually a real soft touch.  Through these children, we meet many of the adults who also live on Catford Street, some of whom appear for just a moment, and some of whom are a more permanent feature of the narrative.  The main thread of the story, which helps to unite Tip and Lovejoy, comes when Lovejoy discovers a packet of seeds and becomes convinced that she has to plant them.  She finds a bomb crater which she decides to turn into a small garden, but her ambitions become larger the more time she spends there.

In An Episode of Sparrows, Godden has crafted almost a Secret Garden-esque story, but using a more contemporary setting.  It is not as darling a novel as the original by any means, but her transplanting of the plot into a different setting and building such individuals up believably is nothing short of masterful.

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‘The Lady and The Unicorn’ by Rumer Godden ****

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 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.

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‘The Battle of the Villa Fiorita’ by Rumer Godden ****

First published in 1963, Rumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is the 574th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list. The introduction to the volume has been penned by Anita Desai, who writes that the novel is ‘a display of her ability to construct a plot, quicken the pace and build up to a dramatic end’.

Desai states that the novel is ‘clearly based on her own feelings over divorcing her first husband, and her awareness of both her young daughters’ and her second husband’s difficulties in accepting each other’.  In her own preface, Godden reinforces this, stating that she wrote the novel because she ‘had grown tired of the innumerable novels about child victims of divorce.  “Let’s have a book where the children will not be victims but fight back”‘.  Financially, The Battle of the Fiorita did well, particularly in the United States, where the film rights sold for the substantial sum of $100,000.  Godden goes on to say, however, that ‘no book of mine has been more unpopular, especially in America’.

‘The characters too are those we recognise from her other books,’ Desai informs us, ‘particularly the children…  To some extent, it is the children who direct the action and through whose eyes we see it unfold’.  The protagonists of The Battle of the Villa Fiorita are siblings Hugh and Candida Clavering – known throughout as Caddie – whose ‘seemingly perfect life’ in their grand English country home falls apart when their mother has an affair with a film director.  She decides to leave the country with him, fleeing to the Villa Fiorita on Lake Garda in Italy: ‘”But it doesn’t matter where it was,” said Hugh afterwards.  It might have been anywhere; it was simply a place where two opposing forces were to meet, as two armies meet on foreign soil to fight a battle’.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita opens with Hugh and Caddie’s clandestine arrival at the villa.  Their father, Colonel Clavering, has been granted custody of the pair.  Their elder sister Philippa is seventeen, and above such things: ‘She did not rank as a child and was going to Paris to the Sorbonne’.  The children are interesting constructs, Caddie particularly; she is a daydreamer who confesses that she does not listen to anyone, and continually places her pony, Topaz, above everything else.  There are, however, many character traits which Hugh and Caddie have in common with a lot of Godden’s other characters, as Desai says, so it never quite feels as though one is reading a fresh novel, or meeting original constructs.

Godden is continually perceptive of how the divorce affects all involved, however; Caddie, for example, has a face ‘lumpy with distress’ and is ‘too broken with tears’.  It soon becomes clear that the relationship between the children’s mother, Fanny, and her lover, Roberto, is not as happy as it should be.  He continually orders her around, and treats her rather badly: ‘Rob had scarcely looked at her or spoken to her since he met her at the airport barrier’.  When the children arrive, for example, he allows her ten minutes in which to see them before they go out to dinner alone.

So much thought has been given to evoking the setting: ‘A path led away through the olive grove, a wide belt of rough grass and old, old trees with twisted trunks, some lichened, some split halfway up their length, showing wood dried to paleness; their roots made humps and coils in the grass but each of them had a crown of leaves, blaring now green, now silver, in the light wind’.  Godden’s descriptions work well throughout: ‘The lake had never been more beautiful; it was still as a pool, its mountains dark against the sky; only their snow glimmered’.  A lot of the dialogue has interestingly been woven into the prose, so one sentence often has two or three different exclamations or opinions of different characters within it.

Whilst The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is interesting and relatively rich, it does not strike one as Godden’s most engaging novel, and there is nothing overly original about its plot or characters, sadly.

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‘The River’ by Rumer Godden ****

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.

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