The fact that Margaret Rumer Godden (GOD-uhn) spent significant portions of her early life both in England and in India exerted a resonant influence on her literary work. This becomes clear in Two Under the Indian Sun, written with her older sister Jon Godden, an account of a five-year period of their childhood in the Bengal town of Narayangunj, eleven miles from Dacca. Born in Eastbourne, Sussex, at an uncle’s house, Godden was the second of four daughters of Arthur Leigh Godden, a steamer agent, and Katherine Norah Hingley, who came from a hardworking Quaker family from the English Midlands. (The name Rumer is a family name from the novelist’s maternal grandmother.) At the age of six months Godden was taken to India with her family, and she spent her first five years happily there. In 1913, however, in accord with the British practice of sending children back to England for education, she and one of her sisters were sent to their paternal grandmother’s home in Maida Vale, London. When World War I made it dangerous for the two sisters to remain in London, they returned to India in November of 1914.
While the two girls were at their grandmother’s house in England, they were exposed to a rather strict religious routine and spent much time in and around St. Augustine’s Church. Later in India, they did not attend church except on holidays, but during her time in London Christianity had impressed itself deeply on Godden’s consciousness, along with an awareness of Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist faiths. At one time she even considered becoming a nun or missionary. The contrasts between the sacred and the profane, holiness and corruption, and the clash between Eastern and Western cultures were to become abiding concerns in her novels and undoubtedly grew out of this early period of her life. For a time in her youth, Godden took intensive training in dancing, and she studied ballet at several schools in England.
Godden wrote that she was already composing poems and stories by the age of five. She also engaged in highly imaginative play with her sisters, imbibed vivid details from the Indian landscape—the Indian coasts, the Himalayan peaks, Indian cities, houses, and buildings—which later found powerful expression in her novels. Indeed, some critics have noted that places interest her more than people. Yet if Godden admired and remembered India’s exotic beauty, she was equally impressed with the crueler aspects of Indian life she observed, including the prevalence of disease and the pervasiveness of death. In this early period of her life Godden and her sisters were ruled by a rather fierce Anglo-Indian nurse, Nana, who fascinated the children with fantastic tales. Godden’s sympathetic experience with Nana and other Eurasians left a lasting impression on her. Though she left India in 1920, she returned in visits and in her imagination for years to come.
When Godden was twelve years old, she returned to England with her sisters and passed from school to school. During this unhappy time she discovered that she could gain the attention of other children by telling stories. The sisters’ misery was deepened by the cruel treatment they received at the hands of the nuns at St. Monica’s School. Godden later took literary revenge in Black Narcissus and In This House of Brede, though she also presents a positive vision of convent life in Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. Eventually she adjusted when she went to Moira House, Sussex, a school with a more liberal view of education and without the oppressive discipline and curriculum of most English schools of that era. The school’s vice principal recognized her abilities and encouraged her to develop her writing talent.
Godden wrote throughout her unsettled school years. By the age of fifteen she had published a booklet of verse and an advertisement. After completing her schooling, she returned to India in 1925, and in 1928, at the age of twenty-one, she opened a dancing school in Calcutta, a successful venture that she continued for eight years. When her second book was published, however, she sold the school.
In 1928 Godden married Laurence...
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