A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep

by Rumer Godden

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

Rumer Godden, the second of four daughters of Arthur Leigh Godden and Katherine Hingley Godden, was born December 10, 1907, in Eastbourne, Sussex. Taken to India in infancy (her father worked for the oldest Indian inland navigation company), she began a childhood that was divided between India and England and that was to have great influence on her career as a writer. A prolific author of children’s books, poetry, novels, and works of nonfiction, Godden has seen six of her stories become films. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, the first volume of her autobiography, covers the years 1907 to 1946.

It is clear that Godden’s memories of childhood in India with her sisters are happy ones. Her contacts with servants and villagers of the smaller towns of India introduced her to the variety of religions, ethnic backgrounds, and class systems that made up the social fabric of the great subcontinent. This exposure developed in her a tolerance for diversity and a compassion for those who suffer economic or social exploitation. Unlike many of her compatriots, who never understood, or wished to understand, the rich cultural traditions of the various peoples of India, the young Godden immersed herself in them. Her own experiences as she moved from the warm, exotic beauties of India to the cold, rather puritanical household of her paternal grandmother in London, or a school run by an order of Anglican nuns, taught her the problems of being different. She has retained strong sympathies for Eurasians, who seemed suspended between two worlds, welcome in neither.

There is a balance in her memories of India, golden as they are. Not only did English children suffer separation from their families, but in residence in India they also endured many dangers, illnesses, and accidents. Bitten by rabid dogs, the Godden girls had to endure the painful procedures of the Pasteur treatment to protect them against hydrophobia. Moreover, English husbands and fathers such as Arthur Godden spent months away from their families pursuing their work, and often their vacations were spent on hunting or exploratory expeditions. Of great benefit to the young Goddens was that they traveled widely over India, seeing its great cities and its outlying provinces. Godden’s autobiography is characterized by themes that appear in her novels: the isolation and pain of being different, the contrasting and sometimes insurmountable differences between the outlooks of East and West, and the vagaries of relationships threatened by alienation, separation, and indifference.

Trained as a dancer from childhood, Godden dedicated the years from 1920 to 1925 to study of ballet in London. Returning to India, she opened a dancing school for children in Calcutta in 1928. In 1934, she was married to a young stockbroker, Laurence Foster. Following the birth of their son David, who lived only a few days, Godden continued teaching and began writing, something that had interested her from the age of five, when she had begun writing poems. Two daughters were born to Foster and Godden, Jane in 1935 and Paula in 1938. Both daughters were born in England. The publication of Godden’s first book, in 1936, brought her some success, and in 1939 she achieved international attention with the publication of Black Narcissus.

In 1939, she returned again to India, fearing danger to her daughters as World War II began. Her husband joined the army, leaving her in serious financial straits because of his free-spending habits. The deteriorating marriage continued formally, but there was little left of the relationship. Godden’s account of her struggle during the war years in Kashmir, in beautiful but primitive surroundings, is one of the most gripping parts of her memoir. Although this period ended in illness, fear, and eventually flight, she knew great happiness and satisfaction there.

Godden’s last tour of the province of Bengal was undertaken for the Women’s Voluntary Services to chronicle the part played by women of that province during the war; her report was published as Bengal Journey: A Story of the Part Played by Women in the Province, 1939-1945 in 1945. In that year Godden returned to England, and in 1946 she wrote one of her finest stories of India, The River.

Her autobiography is characterized by the author’s gift of storytelling, by her ability to handle time and flashbacks gracefully, and by her descriptive powers, which critics have always found formidable.

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep

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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 to be a teacher of dance.Why? I still ask myself that question and still cannot answer it except that most writers want to do, or have to do, something quite different in their early days; most are wise enough to refrain from things for which they are quite unsuited, as I with dancing and yet, for ten years or more, I lived for it, and from it; it has haunted my books.

As a child she had injured her back in a fall from a tree swing and later began to drag her left leg. By the time she was able to receive treatment, the vertebrae had ossified. With such a handicap she was hardly suited to study dance, but she desired to do so and did. Though never able as a teacher to demonstrate technique fully, she was able to realize her particular dream, “to give ordinary, everyday children a chance to dance for the joy of it.”

She began teaching dance in Darjeeling and then moved her school to Calcutta in 1928. The prejudice she encountered astonished her; family friends ignored her on the street and pretended not to be home if she came to visit. Why? To start, in Calcutta’s society “nice girls” did not work or try to earn their living. Furthermore, dancing schools had a reputation for disreputableness, partly because in Calcutta they were run almost exclusively by Eurasians. Finally, Godden had opened the doors of her school to children of all races. The social ostracism stung, but she struggled to keep the school open for eight years until 1936 when her first novel, Chinese Puzzle, was published.

In 1934 she married Laurence Sinclair Foster, a charming stockbroker and brilliant athlete. It was not a completely well-suited match, but Godden was pregnant. At first she enjoyed being a wife and was caught up in the social life of Calcutta so important to Laurence. Before long, however, their differences began to grate: Godden tired of the small talk at Laurence’s golf clubs; Laurence fell asleep at the theater. Worse, Godden felt estranged in Laurence’s social group, which smugly espoused the British imperialistic view that the Indians were better off under British rule at a time when the fight for independence was growing. Godden was appalled at their insular political ignorance. Nor did they seem to have any sense of the mystical wonder of India that she had experienced again and again in her travels.

Although Godden and Laurence had two children—Jane was born in 1935 and Paula in 1938—the marriage survived primarily because the two led increasingly separate lives. Then one day Laurence informed her that he was leaving in four days in the army. After he had gone, Godden discovered that, without her knowledge, he had amassed huge debts from gambling on the stock exchange and had attempted to pay them off by embezzling funds from her company and selling everything the family owned. Left with a list of Laurence’s debts, she resolved to pay them, which took almost all the money she had earned in royalties from Black Narcissus. She and her children were left without any security during the difficult war years, and she later regretted her impetuous act of integrity. Eventually, she and Laurence were divorced.

As World War II escalated, the British army relocated the women and children remaining in India. Godden chose to go to the beautiful area of Kashmir. The army hotel was crowded, however, and soon most of the children caught a virulent influenza. Godden moved with her children to a houseboat, though she could not afford the rent. Then she, too, became seriously ill, with jaundice. In her description of her recovery in a mission hospital, she says that she felt caught like a bird in a net, struggling to get free. Then as she sat watching an old peasant in straw sandals driving a pack pony into town, she was struck by the thought, “Suppose, instead of living to get money to spend, we lived by not spending,” and she recalled a house she had seen from the lake, a “small house alone on a mountain.”

As soon as she could walk, she trekked up the mountainside to look at Dove House, as it was called, which had been built by a Muslim poet as a retreat. The house was in need of repair but was surrounded by flowers and orchards. Best of all, it had a small room with a view over the lake which would be her writing room. She fell in love with Dove House; after discovering that she could rent it for very little, she and her daughters moved in and led a relatively idyllic, if somewhat impoverished, life for the next eighteen months.

The idyll was broken by the amazing discovery that their excellent and trusted cook, Salim Ali, on whom Godden had come to rely in managing the household, was a homicidal maniac who was poisoning them. Ironically, though he had a history of similar cases Ali was impossible to prosecute because he was able to buy himself off in the justice system. Godden left Kashmir earlier than she had intended and headed for England. Almost penniless, she nevertheless returned with two valuable possessions—a rare Agra rug and the completed manuscript of The River, which would be published in 1946. With that, she was ready to start over.

The first volume of A Time To Dance, No Time To Weep ends at this point. In all the trials, struggles, and hardships she endured in her life, Godden invariably emerges phoenixlike with increased insight, wisdom, and creativity. Out of her experiences, both ordinary and unusual, comes the material for her literary works; life is transformed in art. In the range of her adventures, her independent spirit, and her gift for storytelling, she could well be considered artistically akin to Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham.

According to Godden, “Life itself is a story and we have to tell it in stories—that is the way it falls.” In fact, her entire autobiography is a loosely structured collection of anecdotes and stories accompanied by twenty-eight photographs related to her development as a writer and to the background experiences and locales which formed the basis for her literary works. The Greengage Summer, for example, which appeared as a novel in 1958 and a film in 1961, was based on the events of a summer vacation in the early 1920’s when Mam took her teenage daughters to Château Thierry in France. The River, published in 1946 and filmed by Jean Renoir in 1951, is the story of a young girl in India who aspires to be a great writer and is based on Godden’s collective experiences there. Godden, discussing the creative process, says that details of fact and fiction mingle in her memory; she cannot say with absolute certainty which is which. Tiny bits of experience, “some note of sight or sound, heard, read, or seen,” germinate like seeds, or, like the grit in an oyster, secrete a work of fiction around it. All of her work is characterized by this integral relationship between actual experience and imaginative fiction.

In her first novel, Chinese Puzzle, the hero of the book states:It occurs to me . . . that we were put into this world as part of its making, as a stitch or a thread is put into the weaving of a cloth or tapestry. When we die we leave a little hole and it is our duty, before we die, to see that the hole is filled and so strengthen the weave.

In retrospect, this germinal idea would seem to apply to the whole of Godden’s literary work and certainly to the perceptive insights about life and creativity which she shares in A Time To Dance, No Time To Weep; Rumer Godden has strengthened the weave.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

Billington, Michael. “Three Passions in Calcutta,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCIII (January 3, 1988), p. 3.

Booklist. LXXXIV, December 1, 1987, p. 600.

British Book News. Spring, 1987, p. 594.

Glamour. LXXXVI, January, 1988, p. 110.

Godden, Rumer. “On Words,” in The Writer. LXXV (September, 1962), pp. 17-19.

Godden, Rumer. Two Under the Indian Sun, 1966.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, October 15, 1988, p. 1496.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 21, 1988, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LXIII, January 25, 1988, p. 112.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, November 6, 1987, p. 53.

Simpson, Hassell A. Rumer Godden, 1973.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 26, 1988, p. 216.

Tindall, William Y. “Rumer Godden, Public Symbolist,” in College English. XIII (March, 1953), pp. 297-303.

Wilson Library Bulletin. LXII, April, 1988, p. 91.

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