Rumer Godden World Literature Analysis
In tone and quality, Rumer Godden’s work has been compared to that of English short-story writer Katherine Mansfield. However, Godden’s best-known work is uniquely grounded in the India of her youth, with the exoticism, hierarchies, and culture clashes of that distinctive time and place. In fact, Godden built her novels on actual incidents and people in British India, drawing on journals, notebooks, and letters she wrote while in India.
The protagonists of Godden’s fiction are women and children, especially awkward girls on the cusp of adulthood. The young are adrift, either separated from parents, far from home, or otherwise short on stability as they experience vulnerability, adolescent pangs, an awareness of sex, and the loss of innocence. The Bullock siblings of The Greengage Summer (1958), for example, fend for themselves among criminals in a foreign hotel when their mother falls ill. Without parental guidance, the Eurasian twins of The Lady and the Unicorn fall for dishonorable Englishmen. Similarly, the uprooted daughter of a hypocritical British envoy in The Peacock Spring: A Western Progress (1975) seeks solace with an attentive Indian poet. Despite prejudice, poverty, or broken plans, Godden’s young protagonists find new senses of power within themselves. Their adult counterparts, however, do not always fare as well. Adults like Sophie Ward, the forthright widow living among hostile villagers in Kingfishers Catch Fire, are more easily daunted by circumstances.
The dominant theme of Godden’s work is the swiftness of time, which carries the lives of her characters in a riverlike continuity, hastened by a great many house clocks and church bells. Houses themselves absorb human essences and serve as harbingers of time, outlasting generations of people they shelter. Thus, family history repeats itself in the home of A Fugue in Time, and centuries of human voices and spirits inhabit the house dubbed China Court in China Court: The Hours of a Country House (1961). As Harriet of The River bemoans after her brother’s death, the sweep of time continues despite what befalls people.
The narrative form that Godden uses is nonlinear and intensely psychological. Not only does the narrative jump across past, present, and future time, but, along with dialogue and concrete descriptions of places and things, it also weaves memories and the nuanced, hidden, and unspoken intentions of characters. The narrative conveys what characters meant to say, what they could have said, and how they will recall events years later.
Although her books were favorably reviewed in The New York Times Book Review and other reputable publications, the inclusion of Godden’s fiction in book-of-the-month-clubs and ladies’ magazines dampened her early reputation among the literati. By the 1940’s, however, most critics took Godden seriously, and she had earned a solid reputation for finely crafted plots, subtle treatments of character, and a complex and effective narrative style.
A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep
First published: 1987
Type of work: Autobiography
Godden describes the joyful and the difficult experiences that shaped her life and writing career from 1907 to 1946.
As the Ecclesiates-based title of A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep suggests, Godden’s early life was marked by dramatic contrasts between joy and sorrow. Her quirky, unorthodox family offered the creative freedom that her first marriage never would; writing became satisfying and cathartic work, but it was often interrupted by the children that Godden had to raise alone; the author would earn a comfortable living and a popular following, but not before money worries and social ostracism had taken their tolls; and although Godden embraced Indian culture as did few Europeans of her time, she was haunted by how a trusted Indian servant had nearly killed her.
The prologue of the A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep is portentous. It depicts a wary twelve-year-old Godden and her older sister, Jon, on a wet English quay, having just arrived from India and left their childhoods behind for formal schooling. India had meant sunlight, family, and inclusion for young Godden; England, as she had briefly known it while living with her aunts and grandmother at age five, proffered dull routine, Anglican piety, and dizzying rules and regulations. As the memoir moves beyond initial chapters on lineage and home life to Godden’s turbulent education, dating years, marriage, and motherhood, the wariness of the twelve-year-old seems to have been warranted. After Godden’s childhood, things often went awry.
Supporting her sister through upheavals was Jon Godden, the literary touchstone of sister whose closeness with the author is discussed in the chapter “The Little Fishes.” Like odd fishes out of water, Rumer and Jon Godden endured school together, closed ranks when others wronged them, and always encouraged one another’s literary efforts. Jon was an accomplished artist and author in her own right; Rumer routinely sought her sister’s assessment before submitting books for publication. The sisters cowrote Two Under the Indian Sun (1966), a joint autobiography of their youth, and Shiva’s Pigeons: An Experience of India (1972).
Biographers have argued that Godden writes sympathetically about outsiders—such as plucky orphans, transient gypsies, entrapped mothers, and people shunned—because her own sense of exclusion was profound. Indeed, by Godden’s own account in A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, she was the least attractive of the four Godden sisters, an unsporting student out of step with peers, and a woman put off by the very cliques and chattiness prized by her first husband and British club society in India. When some of her books were banned from club libraries because they addressed unsavory liaisons and racial tensions, the distance increased between Godden and her offended English contemporaries.
Written when the author was eighty years old, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep closes on a Liverpool quay, with Godden and her daughters returning to England for a fresh start after World War II. The story continues in A House with Four Rooms (1989), a second memoir published two...
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