Study Guide

Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)

Rumer Godden Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Margaret Rumer Godden was born December 10, 1907, in Eastbourne, Sussex, England. She was known as Peggie until late in life. Although born in England, she grew up in India. From 1914, the family lived in the largest house in Narayanganj, East Bengal. Godden was the second of the four daughters of Arthur Leigh Godden, an agent for a Calcutta-based shipping company, and Katherine Norah Hingley Godden, descendant of a successful iron manufacturer. Godden and her youngest sister, Rose Mary (b. 1913), were born in Eastbourne, while their oldest sister, Jon (b. 1906), and their younger sister, Nancy (b. 1910), were born in India. The girls enjoyed the lavish lifestyle of English expatriates known as Anglo-Indians. Godden’s 1946 novel, The River, draws on her childhood memories of the time and place, from the house and gardens to the noise of the nearby jute factory.

Godden was five years old whe she and Jon were sent to England to attend school and live with their paternal relatives. As World War I began they returned to India, and they resumed their schooling after the war’s end. At Moira House, Godden’s English teacher, Mona Swann, encouraged her to write. Thirty years later, Godden’s own two daughters were boarding students and studied with Swann.

In 1924, Godden’s mother, with her four daughters, set out to tour the battlefields of France, but the mother became ill, and the group remained at Chateau Thierry on the Marne. Godden’s 1958 coming-of-age novel, The Greengage Summer is based on the events of this summer. In 1925, Godden and Jon accompanied their mother to Narayanganj for the social season. After breaking off an engagement and working with her father in an agricultural college, Godden went back to London to train as a dance-school teacher.

Godden returned to India in 1929 and opened the Peggie Godden School of Dance, first in Darjeeling and then in Calcutta. She admitted English children, then opened classes to upper-caste Indians and eventually Eurasians, mixed-race children, and young women, one of whom became the actor Merle Oberon. Although the dancing school thrived, Godden’s choice of profession and clientele alienated her from the Anglo-Indian society in which she had been raised. Her sister, Nancy, took over the dancing school when Godden married British stockbroker Laurence Sinclair Foster on March 9, 1934. Their son, David, died four days after birth. The next year their daughter, Jane, was born in London.

In 1936, Godden’s first novel, Chinese Puzzle, was published to good reviews, but it did not sell well. The novel that followed, The Lady and the Unicorn, coincided with the birth the...

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Rumer Godden Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Margaret Rumer Godden (GOD-uhn) was born in Eastbourne, Sussex, England, on December 10, 1907, at the height of British colonial power. She was the second of four children born to Arthur Leigh Godden, an independent-minded river navigation company manager, and Katherine Norah Hingley, a Midlander from a prosperous manufacturing family. Rumer moved from England to India with her family when she was nine months old. Thereafter until late life, she lived alternately in both countries, which offered abundant settings for storytelling, access to two distinct cultures, and insight into the plight of social outsiders.

With the exception of an unhappy year in London shortly before World War I, Godden spent a halcyon childhood beside tributaries of the Ganges River, along routes of the Calcutta-based steamship company that employed her father. Her early education was home-centered, fueled by lively family lore and the diverse Indian languages and traditions of household servants. Her parents and Aunt Mary Hingley taught leisurely paced lessons in math, spelling, literature, history, and the Bible, and Godden wrote her first tales and poems in paper books that she and her three sisters had cut and stitched themselves. On summer journeys, Godden absorbed even more of the vast landscape and complexity of India that would color the majority of her numerous books, including novels, short stories, biographies, and tales for children.

In 1920, Godden returned to England for formal education. Unaccustomed to boarding school restrictions and made to feel like misfits, Rumer and her older sister, Jon, were removed or expelled from five schools in two years. Finally, they settled at Moira House, an innovative Eastbourne school where Mona Swann, the vice principal, cultivated Rumer’s writing talent with private lessons in literary technique. In 1925, Godden decided against college in France, returning to India for several restless years that included Hindi lessons and a broken engagement.

Drawing on a love of dance and despite a childhood back injury, Godden then trained in London to become a ballet teacher. By 1928, she had opened the Peggie Godden School of Dance...

(The entire section is 891 words.)

Rumer Godden Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In her original, edited, and translated work, Rumer Godden specialized in revealing the inner workings of families and communities. Her portrayals of actual families, as well as nuns living in a community, animals on an ark, or miniature dolls in a toy world, offer a real-life balance of joys and jealousies, love and rivalries, innocence and darkness. Although the author was inclined to process life by retreating with her pen rather than socializing in the mainstream, she created a substantial body of work that successfully re-created the exoticism of colonial and then independent India, as well as twentieth century England.

(The entire section is 100 words.)

Rumer Godden Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Margaret Rumer Godden was born on December 10, 1907, in Sussex, England, but moved to India at the age of nine months. She lived in India...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Rumer Godden Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Margaret rumor Godwin, one of four daughters of Arthur Leigh and Katherine Godwin, was born December 10, 1907, in Sussex, England. When she...

(The entire section is 253 words.)