Analysis

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1467

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep has been well received by critics because it clarifies the genesis of Godden’s work. Always reticent about her private life and that of her family, with her autobiography Godden has put many ideas found in her novels into perspective. She is generous toward her first husband, who seems to have been unequal to his responsibilities, and honest in her evaluation of her own actions from the perspective of eighty years. What has been suggested by critics as important to her writing has also been important in her life.

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Godden’s autobiography, therefore, expresses cogently the strongly held principles that have always been evident in her writing. Her own experience speaks to the fact that all individuals are part of a culture, and even the best intentioned cannot expect to penetrate another culture fully. One can try to learn, understand, and appreciate the alien point of view, but Englishmen cannot become Indian, and Indians cannot become European, although they may try.

In the book Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953), Sophie Ward wishes to live as the peasants do in Kashmir. Her failure to understand local customs endangers her family, and when her daughter is badly beaten, she realizes that she must leave. During her stay at Dove House in Kashmir, where she went because she had so little money, Godden hoped to live simply, like the peasants; yet she experienced the same failure that Sophie Ward did. Her mistake in ignoring local advice on the hiring of servants led to danger to her and her children and the necessity of leaving.

Godden is frequently preoccupied with religion; three of her novels deal with women under monastic rule. All of her books indicate the acceptance of a divine presence, and she seems to believe that one’s religion, however imperfectly followed, is a binding force. This is not to suggest that her writing is a vehicle for any particular religious belief, nor is it overly didactic. She holds simply that people are bound by their religious beliefs, as they are by their cultural origins.

The importance of the family is another constant in her life. She believes that it is within the family that children learn the basic facts of living. Life, birth, death, suffering, joy, supportive love, and selflessness are learned as one grows from childhood to adulthood. The continuity of the family is important, and it is worth noting that two of Godden’s novels, China Court: The Hours of a Country House (1961) and A Fugue in Time (1945), are concerned with houses that witness several generations of human drama. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep illustrates Godden’s love of houses in which she has lived.

As a result of these positions, Godden has often been described as “conventional.” It is pointed out that her males are “lordly” and domineering. Yet a reading of her autobiography reveals a very strong female whose resources seem limitless and who is equal to many challenges.

Godden’s ability to handle time has long been admired by critics. They contend that her placement of past, present, and future events is the most remarkable characteristic of her best work. She may interest her readers in details and then, through a series of flashbacks, reveal important aspects of the lives of her protagonists. Such techniques give deeper meaning to her characterizations, allowing her to make them credible and well-rounded. In several of her books, Godden has experimented with sequence. Not satisfied with earlier efforts, she persevered in fashioning tales in which time is blurred, so that past and present seem one. Time is also important in the autobiography, which follows not only Godden’s life but also the lives of those dear to her. The loves and sorrows, marriages and accomplishments, children and travels of her three sisters are incorporated into her own story. She describes her father’s retirement and return to England with her mother. Her parents’ support of her and her daughters continued through the war years despite the distance which separated them.

All these comments on time, family, continuity, and wholeness in the autobiography point up Godden’s preoccupation with craftsmanship. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep opens with a preface in which Jon and Rumer Godden stand on the quay in Plymouth, watching as their luggage is unloaded from the ship that has brought them from India for formal education in England. The sisters are chilled not only by the weather but also by the realization that they are facing the end of childhood. As the book ends twenty-six years later, Godden stands on the quay at Liverpool. With little money, but with a valuable Indian rug under one arm and the newly finished manuscript of The River under the other, she is ready to begin again.

Godden’s ability to describe natural settings—panoramic views of snow-capped mountains and the rivers of India—is mentioned by every critic. Her descriptions of the homes in which she lived with joy, as well as those that held less happy memories, are equally impressive.

More subtle, and possibly more important to her work, are her depictions of people, physical and psychological. Godden depicts children with particular skill. She conveys their innocence and vulnerability, for she knows the depth of humiliation and hurt that coldness and betrayal can evoke. Her memories of the nuns at St. Monica’s, who used public humiliation as a punishment and who felt it their duty to break the spirits of those who did not fit the norm, are depicted vividly. Yet she is able to rise above the injured child’s point of view, commenting that it must have been as hard for the nuns to deal with the “little fishes” from India as it was for the young Goddens to respond to the nuns. Whether Black Narcissus, which tells of the failure of the goals of a group of Anglican nuns in India, is a response to that unhappy time is not clear, although Godden suggests that the story was undertaken partly as retribution. Her description of the Indians whom she came to know well, trusted servants and friends such as the Kashmiri Jobara, and members of the older generation whom she admired for their wisdom, are well served by her artistry in delineating character.

Yet it is her portrayal of adolescence that is most insightful. She remembers the difficulty of growing up, the painful lessons learned, the heartaches and self-consciousness, and the vulnerability to criticism or unkindness. A growing awareness made her understand that life is a mixture of good and bad, that relationships between men and women are fraught with disappointment, that everything is more complicated than one might wish.

Godden’s style is deceptively simple. It reads well and it is poetic. Godden quickly captures the reader’s attention with her highly developed flair for the dramatic. Careful analysis indicates that her language is also subtle, precise, and rigorously honed. It is easy to miss the underlying unity and the scrupulous attention to pattern in A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep. In describing her work habits, Godden mentions that she read aloud one manuscript to her sister Jon, although she hated to have anyone read to her. When Godden finished, Jon said quietly that it simply would not do, and the author returned to her writing to rework the material to meet the exacting standards she had always employed. Most critics consider that only her first book lacked this craftsmanship. Since Godden was not formally prepared for her writing career, she had to find her own way, but she was also free of restrictions.

The only comprehensive study of Godden’s work was published in 1973. Some of the previous criticism had examined the stream-of-consciousness portions of her work and her experiments with symbols. One critic commented that she belonged in the great symbolist movement, and while he would not place her beside Herman Melville, William Butler Yeats, or James Joyce, he looked forward to reading her future work with enthusiasm. Some of Godden’s symbols are immediately evident: the river as the symbol for the continuity and flow of life which sweeps all before it; the garden as Eden; childhood as the age of innocence; the serpent as evil; the death of a child as the Fall and the loss of innocence. Yet others are far more subtle and are recognizable only after reflection.

Godden is gifted at creating an atmosphere of observations woven into a complex but satisfactory whole. As she calmly and dispassionately reviews her childhood, adolescence, and life as a young wife, mother, and author, she finds her life to have been painful, but also joyous, filled with humor and love, and eminently worth living.

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Critical Context