A year before World War II ended, shortly before Rumer Godden turned forty, she wrote in a letter to her sister Jon:Am re-reading A Room of One’s Own in which Virginia Woolf talks of Shakespeare’s incandescent unimpeded mind. Shakespeare is Shakespeare and he was a man and whether we like it or not that does make a difference; we are impeded in every direction. My mind is a flotsam of figures, sums—I have a perpetual anxiety that makes me constantly check my pass book—of dusters and meals, lessons, codliver oil, Moon on heat and firewood. I know that other women feel frustration, a longing to “express themselves” but with us it isn’t that; it is a constant tug of obligation, as in binding yourself by oath, the feeling that we are dishonouring what is God-given; it is significant that the only women poets down the ages who can be called major were single, or, if you count Elizabeth Barrett Browning—which I do not—married with one child.
While the war intensified her struggle, Godden had worked throughout her life to achieve a balance between the demands of everyday life and a compelling vocation to write.
She had always had a sense of “not being ordinary,” instilled in her undoubtedly by her somewhat eccentric parents. Her father’s work for an Indian inland steamship company meant that the family lived in remote small towns along the great rivers in India—“most of the time in Narayangunj, a jute station in Bengal on the river Megna”—where Fa could exercise his passion for fishing and hunting. Between the months of March and October, it was customary for women and children to leave the heat of the plains for a nearby hill station; instead, Mam chose to take her children to a different station every year so that in the course of Rumer’s childhood, the family traveled all over India—“Kashmir in the far north-west, . . . Coonoor and Ootacamund in the Nilghiri hills of the south,” Shillong in Assam, Mussoorie near Simla, and Darjeeling at the foothills of the Himalayas. Rumer and her three sisters—Jon, only fourteen months older; Nancy, and Rose, both younger—had a childhood filled with adventure, and she “thanked God we did not have sensible parents.”
Rumer and Jon, close in age, became closely bonded. Still, growing up, Rumer’s feelings about Jon were complicated: She alternately admired and envied her. Jon was the more talented—when only eleven, she had entered a watercolor of a houseboat in a competition open to both children and adults and had won the grand prize. Jon was the family beauty: At dances the young men all wanted to dance with her; she would agree on condition that they also ask her sister for a dance. To everyone’s surprise, however, Rumer was the first to be engaged, and, although both were destined to become writers, Rumer was by far the more successful. As adults, though often separated the two sisters continued to be close, sending each other everything they wrote; Jon was one of Rumer’s most honest and trusted critics.
During the span of time covered by A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, the first forty years of Rumer Godden’s life, she traveled back and forth between India and England twelve times. She found England cold, limiting, and rule abiding, whereas India seemed vast, lush, and incomprehensible. The contrast applied to human relationships as well as to the terrain: Godden comments that in India children are allowed the freedom to grow as they will, whereas in England they are “brought up.” She and Jon first experienced the strict English upbringing when at five and six they were sent to live with Fa’s five maiden sisters for eighteen months and again at twelve and thirteen when they were sent to St. Monica’s, an English boarding school run by High Anglican nuns who tried to break their spirit and accused Jon of faking a dangerously high malarial fever. The two were either removed or expelled from five different schools in the next two years.
On leaving St. Monica’s, Rumer vowed to write a book one day about the malevolent sister superior, Gertrude. Even then, she had a sense that she was destined to become a writer. As a small child in India, she had written stories and poems and hidden them in the hollow of the trunk of a giant cork tree. At St. Monica’s there were no secret places—Sister Irene regularly went through their lockers—but Rumer etched her experiences in her memory and almost twenty years later, in 1939, did write a novel about nuns, Black Narcissus, her first international best-seller. (By that point, she did not actually wreak her intended vengeance against Sister Gertrude.)
At fifteen, Rumer was sent to school at Moira House. Here the curriculum focused on the liberal arts and the girls were self-governing. Rumer discovered that she loved to learn, and she had the good fortune to study with Miss Mona Swann, the writing teacher. Rumer already had creative talent, but she received from Swann an important affirmation of her talent and invaluable training in technique and discipline.
Shortly after Mam and the girls returned to India in 1925, Rumer was engaged to be married to Ian Finlayson. She was eighteen. Finlayson, twelve years her senior, was a colleague of her father whom she had known since childhood. She agreed to Finlayson’s proposal but ultimately broke the engagement, commenting later, “I did not want to be protected, I wanted adventure.”
At twenty, Godden returned to England to train...