My Favorite Novels by Rumer Godden: Stories of Nuns, Dolls, and British India
On the heels of my Betty Neels musings, I am awash in fresh nostalgia for another mid-century “modern” author who was already sort of “vintage” by the time I encountered her. Rumer Godden sits on my bookshelf near Mary Renault and along with Barbara Pym as one of the more “serious” novelists I adored and admired in late adolescence.
I’m inspired to try something new here on the blog – a short list of favorite titles from my vintage keeper shelves.
Thanks to AnimeJune of Gossamer Obsessions, who sometime last week tweeted when she finished IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE, one of my favorite novels about nuns, thus sparking this bout of Rumer-mongering.
I’m interested to hear from anyone else who has enjoyed these books — I am intrigued by the way in which Godden (1907 – 1998) encompasses so much that is light and wonderful (nursery tales, curious & bright children, bold and wonderful dolls) about British literary tradition along with such intense exploration of darker mainstream themes (colonialism, racism, sexual repression).
Also — what is it about nuns in fiction that is so incredibly fascinating for certain readers?? Who else has experienced the “nun phase” in their reading history?
In This House of Brede (1969): This is a book I read and re-read numerous times during the time in my life when nuns — think Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1959) — seemed terribly romantic. The self-discipline, the sense of purpose, the strength of tradition and community, the connection to medieval ritual and practices… somehow it all becomes a captivating blend. The story of Philippa Talbot’s vocation and journey to final vows is as gripping and emotionally satisfying as a good romance. Sadly, the Diana Rigg film is sort of a ‘meh’ compared with the novel, and with the far more compelling Hepburn film.
Black Narcissus (1939): In this case the film is a work of art that stands up to the book in every respect, and I highly recommend both. What happens when English nuns take over a ‘harem’ palace to start a school in the Himalayas, cut off from British culture except for the disconcertingly rugged and boldly challenging agent, Mr. Dean? Desire, sexual tension, tragic consequences, and a riveting portrait of cultural imperialism and the limits of faith.
The Story of Holly and Ivy (1958): A sentimental Christmas favorite I read every year with my daughters, this is a classic love story about a girl, a doll, window shopping, and an orphan’s HEA.
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (1961): The classic tale of how to feel at home by making a home for someone you love; also asserting the powerful magic of dolls, and casting chilly England against sunny India. Little Plum is the sequel.
ON BRITISH INDIA
The River (1946): Godden’s classic coming of age novel, a tribute to her childhood in India and a lyrical exploration of adolescent dreaming & disillusionment.
Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953): Taking her title from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Godden wrote this later novel partly inspired by her own experience as a young Englishwoman and mother in a remote part of India during the 1950s. The impoverished post-colonial village is emotionally torched by the effects of her presence, and the darkness she hinted at in the much earlier River, becomes menacing and tragic.
Other favorites: China Court, The Greengage Summer, The Peacock Spring
A final word, about romance — love stories and HEAs are not central to my reminiscences about reading Rumer Godden. In her adult novels she frequently explored the constraints and consequences of passions deemed “wrong” in certain social and cultural contexts, but love is at its most satisfyingly triumphant in her books for children.