Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492
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 years later.
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