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.
I read ‘In This House of Brede’ as a teenager because it was in my dad’s library. I reread it periodically, then became disenchanted with the story because of the rejected love interest in the background, which reminded me uncomfortably of my ‘near miss’ love story with my husband. I found myself disagreeing strongly with the heroine’s rejection of the world, seeing it as hiding from the messiness of reality, even though the nuns’ world still had the messiness inherent in human relations.
There certainly does seem to be an element of retreat/rejection of something for many of the nun heroines when they enter the cloister. I’m intrigued to know you also have read and re-read BREDE; there’s something extremely compelling about it, even if we “grow out of” romanticizing Philippa’s life in the abbey. So happy you are reading the blog still! 😉
Oh what a delightful post. While I haven’t read The River, Jean Renoir’s moving, eye-stingingly beautiful film version is one of my favourite films. If you haven’t seen it, please do, w/ your girls! I watched The Nun’s Story last year for the first time and loved it.
The Greengage Summer, however, someone gave to me at my 20th birthday party and I loved it. (They also gave me Byatt’s Possession.)
Other than gushing at you with exclamation points and “loved it” comments, nuns fascinate Miss Bates; she thinks that, as an avowed spinster, there is a possibility of leading a monastic existence in the world … contradictory as that may sound. Her best friend, a visual artist, and she often have this discussion.
Her favourite nun, the anchoress Julian of Norwich, also wrote one of her favourite books of “mystical theology:” Revelations of Divine Love. She is also fascinated by Therese de Lisieux, who died of TB at 24, and the Eastern Orthodox nun, St. Maria Skobtsova, who was married twice, had children, ran a soup kitchen in Nazi-occupied France, and exchanged her life for that of a Jewish inmate at a concentration camp.
THE RIVER was an assigned text in either 8th or 9th grade for me. I don’t know that I would have read it otherwise, but I’m so glad I did. Then I discovered Godden’s nun novels, and she became one of my literary heroines. Has Miss Bates read HOUSEHOLD SAINTS by Francine Prose? Wonderful novel about a girl “obsessed” with one of the St. Theresa’s. (sorry, I am forgetting which one – The Little Flower?) There was also a very fine film of this story in 1993, with Tracey Ullman, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Lili Taylor. Highly recommend – a great double feature with BLACK NARCISSUS or LILIES OF THE FIELD!
Ooooh, great post! I’d only read MISS HAPPINESS AND MISS FLOWER up until now when I read IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE – which is a favourite re-read of my mother’s during Lent (her other favourite is THE RIGHT TO BE MERRY – a memoir from a Poor Clare).
BREDE actually had me briefly wondering if I had a religious vocation – if I ever do nun it up, it will likely be with the Daughters of Saint Paul because they blog and Tweet! For Jesus!
Black Narcissus sounds AWESOME. I will have to check that one out.
Yes, I am HIGHLY rec’ing Black Narcissus! Thank you so much for the inspiration for this post, and stopping by to comment. I am a huge fan. Your reviews are one of my new favorite forms of entertainment; almost a new art form in themselves.
Another one of her children’s books that I love is Gypsy Girl. As you say, Godden is so talented with the child/doll finding a home theme, in this one she blends in a small English town’s prejudice against gypsies for a slightly more realistic, but just as satisfying story. I will have to look for Black Narcissus and the Kingfisher one, they sound great! I didn’t even know there was a ‘nun phase’, must be because I also missed the horse phase!
I can’t remember if I read Gypsy Girl or not… the interactions between English villages and traveling Romany/gypsy communities is another strong theme in British fiction, and comes up frequently in romances — I’m thinking about the Hathaway series by Lisa Kleypas, for example.
I’ve never ventured into her adult books — though I’ve been meaning to try An Episode of Sparrows since I read Connie Willis on it — but her children’s books were big favorites. The Dolls’ House may have been the first really tragic book I ever read… up there with Charlotte’s Web.
One of my favorite children’s book moments is in Stand in the Wind, one of Jean Little’s more obscure titles. One character tells another that she’s like Belinda from Little Plum. How much I wished I knew kids who had read books that I had read and could casually mention them!
Oh, The Doll’s House was so sad! I can hardly bear to think about it. That one really does stand apart as tragic, and reminds me (now) of terrible injustices and harsh economic realities for impoverished spinsters in Hardy or Austen!
I wonder if kids now are more connected to other kids who read similar books, for that kind of casual intimacy that comes from sharing thoughts about a book you’ve enjoyed. It’s true that while I was growing up, I mainly talked to the childrens’ librarians about what I was reading, not other kids.
I don’t think I even did that. I was incredibly alone in my reading… one of the reasons I did so much reading.
I was a pretty lonely reader as a kid, too. But librarians chatted me up — I was fortunate to have two such wonderful mentors in school libraries during my childhood. Do you know the book IT ALL BEGAN WITH JANE EYRE by Sheila Greenwald? It’s YA – the protagonist hides in a closet to read Jane Eyre and I thought it was like she was telling my life story! (even though the specific challenges in the book were nothing like my family situation)
Miss Bates never got over her nun phase! Have you seen the wonderful documentary, GOD IS THE BIGGER ELVIS, about Dolores Hart, who left a Huge Hollywood Career, including sharing in Elvis’s first onscreen kiss, to join a Benedictine Abbey in Conn.? It was nominated for a Oscar:
Oops, sorry, didn’t realize the video would embed like that, thought I was just adding a link!
Many thanks for enriching the post with wonderful nun media and recommendations!
You’re welcome. It is a wonderful documentary!