1. “I always thank God that we did not have sensible parents”
Born in Sussex in 1907, Margaret Rumer Godden’s formative years were somewhat unconventional, having lived in the Bengal delta where her father was in charge of a steam navigation company.
Despite being sent ‘home’ to school when she was only five years old, at the outbreak of the First World war, Rumer’s mother insisted her children return to the peace and safety of India.
There, until she was twelve years old, Godden was permitted great freedom, during which time she often wrote, creating tales that were inspired by all of the sights, the sounds and smells that made up her exotic, privileged world.
That writing habit continued for life. Godden spoke of it as ‘inveterate’.
2. She had a determination to succeed
Now a Virago Modern Classics author, by the time of her death, aged 90 years, Godden had published over 60 books – both fiction and non-fiction, for adults and for children.
She is an inspiring author for very many reasons. But, let’s start with the fact that will surely give heart to all aspiring novelists: two of her novels were rejected before her third was published, and that a commercial disaster.
Black Narcissus, her third work in print, turned out to be a huge success – the early draft written in exercise books during the three weeks of a sea voyage when traveling to England from Bombay, along with a baby daughter.
3. The way she wrote about water
Godden’s stories shimmer and flow like the waters of her Indian youth. Porpoises in The River slowly turn “over and over in midstream with a beautiful…rhythmical motion.”
But Nature can be dangerous too with ugliness lurking under the surface, as illustrated in The Peacock Spring where the character of Una is compared to a water lily, with her flesh so pale and her flowing skirts floating out about her when bathing in the Ganges.
This is an almost sacred scene, yet it thrums with sensuality – until, later, all poetry is lost when Una falls into a roadside puddle, her clothes filthy and stinking with sewerage. The perfect symbol for her fall from grace.
4. She didn’t forget what it’s like to turn from a child into an adolescent
Every woman and teenage girl will relate to Godden’s “obvious” truths when she writes of the transition from childhood to adolescence, where adult treachery and desire can often threaten innocence. She describes the physical realities.
The aching cramps of menstrual pains, the tenderness of budding breasts. She plumbs the deepest emotions too; the anxieties and jealousies, or the clarity of ‘vision’ when adult frailties are exposed – such as in Breakfast with Nikolides when a daughter candidly explains, “I see you, Mother. I cannot help it.”
5. “To be ignored is the best possible thing for a writer”
Many of Godden’s novels describe a yearning to be seen. Whether in England or India she felt herself an outsider, the plain child eclipsed by the beautiful sister or the gurgling babe in its mother’s arms. But rather than being bitter, she strove to be noticed by writing instead. She had faith that was her forte in life.
When her first husband left her alone with the care of their children in Kashmir. There, the cook took to lacing their food with drugs and shards of broken glass.6. Her “quiet faith”
Godden believed in a higher fate and that some of her novels had been “vouchsafed” when inspired by earthly imagery. Her imagination was richly informed by the Indian terrain, with its pungent aromas of “open drains and urine, of coconut oil on shining black human hair.”
The festivals added colour and music, the contrast between the darkness and light, where heady pagan atmospheres. Even so, in later years, Godden joined the Catholic church. She liked the clarity and rules.
7. Her life was as dramatic as any novel
She wrote of dancers and one legged-soldiers, of menacing monkeys and straying nuns – all the social and cultural restrictions in a world both beautiful and damned.
Events in her own personal life were often reworked in her novel’s plots, and perhaps the most dramatic of these was when her first husband left her alone with the care of their children in Kashmir.
There, the cook took to lacing their food with drugs and shards of broken glass, until the pet dog sickened and died – and the family fled to England.
8. The films and screenplays that came from her work
Nine of Godden’s books were made into films. She hated Black Narcissus as being somewhat phoney, but loved Jean Renoir’s The River, in which the French director so accurately depicted the world of her lauded novel.
9. She had a timeless style, all her own
Godden’s writing translated well to film, being visual, with strong dialogue. This style she said was aided by the precision of writing her children’s books, which required a clarity of thought, with not one superfluous word.
10. She loved a good whiskey
Godden loved her whiskey – and in thanks for the timeless spirit of her work I shall watch the film below, and raise a glass, and make a toast while quoting from The Peacock Spring, in which we learn that the “Hindi words for ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ are the same…and ‘the day before yesterday’ and the ‘day after tomorrow.’ Time seemed to have disappeared.”
And that is exactly how it feels to read a Rumer Godden book.
After a career in publishing, and then in the world of art and design, Essie Fox writes dark Victorian novels which are published by Orion Books. The Somnambulist was shortlisted for Debut Novel 2102 at the National Book Awards and is optioned by Hat Trick Productions. This was followed by Elijah’s Mermaid, and her latest, The Goddess and The Thief will be published on December 5th. For more, follow her on Twitter or check out her blog The Virtual Victorian.
Image via The Rumer Godden Literary Trust