(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

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