You will be pleased to know that, although I am really looking forward to the new Virago editions of Rumer Godden's books, a little forage around the shelves revealed some more I knew I had but couldn't quite place, so the pile is looking a little more respectable and includes these with very enticing covers, Kingfishers Catch Fire and China Court.
And a much less exciting, dare I even suggest non-descript and decidedly unappetising cover for This Far and No Further, Rumer Godden's description of the wartime winter months spent below the Lama's temple on a tea estate north of Darjeeling..
How little I know about Rumer Godden too and, to my surprise, how little is written about her. My shelf of reference books on fiction by women shows glaring omissions, Rumer Godden rarely included in any overview of twentieth century writing by women. A brief mention in The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English suggests that her life in India (where she was taken soon after her birth in 1907) culminated 'in an incident in Kashmir where a servant tried to poison her and her children, forcing her to leave the country.' But her writing career, before her death in 1998, spanned sixty years with over fifty books for adults and children along with twenty volumes of non-fiction and autobiography. That surely sounds like enough to merit inclusion.
But as to The River, published in 1946 ...isn't this just the most delectable book, such a perfect surprise given that I have known of it for years yet there it has sat until this new edition arrived.
Harriet and her brother Bogie and sisters Bea and Victoria live in a 'house beside the river, in a jute-pressing works near a little Indian town.'
'Harriet's river was a great, slowly flowing mile-wide river between banks of mud and white sand, with fields flat to the horizon, jute fields and rice fields under a blue weight of sky.'
Bea is the oldest, on the cusp of adolescence and her changing relationship with her younger sister Harriet was one of the highlights of the books for me. Poor Harriet rooted firmly in the middle (because toddler Victoria doesn't really count after all) and one minute trying to move up to Bea's level the next down to Bogie's and never quite sure where she belongs. Acutely sensitive not only to the world of the child, but the world surrounding that child, Rumer Godden seems completely at ease with it all. I felt
Harriet's dilemmas, and I knew her world. I smelt the flowers in the garden as she did...the hibiscus, the jasmine, the quisqualis (had to look it up, that's it over here <<<<) the passion flowers and plumbago, and I sensed the beauty that her young eyes were drinking in ...
'How beautiful it is,' said Harriet. Its beauty penetrated into the heat and the ache of the hollowness inside her. It had a quiet unhurriedness, a time beat that was infinitely soothing to Harriet, 'You can't stop days or rivers,' not stop them and not hurry them.'
And the house, Harriet's home 'a peculiarly pleasant place' and so well described I could almost have drawn it as Rumer Godden walks the reader through it room by room.
And as the festival of Diwali, with its light and dark and shade, unfolded it occured to me that the writerly equivalent of the artist's chirascuro was entirely possible on the pages of a book, especially in the imaginative hands of a writer like Rumer Godden. It's a word far too useful to leave in the art world surely...
'It was almost spring. In the fields the early sowing was finished and the young jute made dark-green and light-green patches over the land. The yellowness of the mustard had dimmed and the first great red pods of the simul, the wild cotton trees, had opened their colour.... The sky itself had altered. This was the time of its deepest blue; later the heat took its colour, and lter still the monsoon broke and turned it heavy and grey, with intervals that were pale and washed out.'
If I have one qualm it is the old why-oh-why chestnut about the introduction coming at the beginning of the book again. I know it's an Introduction (or in this case a Preface, written by Rumer Godden retrospectively) and that's where it is supposed to be if it is called an Introduction, and whilst it sets the scene for the circumstances in which the book was written very informatively it also indirectly gives away a corker of a spoiler in the second paragraph, and one of which I had no inkling. Perhaps the assumption is that a book and a film are so well known by now that everyone knows the ending so it doesn't really matter...well I didn't and it did.
Once known I couldn't unknow that thing and it changed the whole complexion of the read. The impact of that spoiler when it finally happened was more about fulfilled dread and foreboding anticipated on every page, rather than any sense of shock and surprise. I felt momentarily flat and a bit disappointed if not a little relieved, none of which a book like this should make me feel on a first read... if you haven't read The River perhaps remember that and read the Introduction as an Afterword.
I don't even want to go near the spoiler, but there is much I could elaborate on with reference to it, but I won't. Suffice to say more of Rumer Godden's canny insight into the mind and the reactions of a child, and of the adults towards that child. Say no more.
The book is full of special writerly moments, perhaps this one that touched me more than most..
Every family has something, when it has left home, that is for it a symbol of home, that, for it, for ever afterwards, brings home back.'
It may be a glimpse of something, or a saying, or perhaps a song or a sound, a taste or a scent, a smell but how true that is.
In fact it was 'truth' that struck me most about The River, Harriet's beguiling 'truth', an honesty as yet untarnished by the inhibitions of beckoning adulthood, and one which somehow all matched the integrity of the landscape and the house as portrayed by Rumer Godden.
And from the Preface, (which I wanted as an Afterword,) Rumer Godden talks movingly about how the book came into being..
There is a vast difference between a book that is vouchsafed, its idea or theme coming of itself into your mind and a book that comes from searching for a story or a plot that fits the idea that is in your mind.The River was one of those rare books that are given to you...'
A gift all round in that case, and how pleased and grateful I am to have finally read it.