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Rumer Godden, an Author to Treasure.

Spring in Christchurch
Books; I have read so many wonderful ones in the past few weeks. It is difficult to choose which to talk about. So I will opt for China Court: The Hours of a Country House, the novel I finished with a sigh this morning. The author, Rumer Godden, was born in England in 1907. She grew up in India and returned to England as an adult, dying in Scotland in 1998. It is a mystery to me why I didn’t discover her long ago. As with so many good authors, she was recommended by a literary friend. As she said, Godden’s book China Court (first published in 1960) is the best example of the use of flashbacks in a novel that she has ever read. How I agree. China Court is a big—but not grand—house in Cornwall and this is the story of five generations of the family, including the servants, who lived in it. The story covers a time-span from about the 1830s to 1960. The central character is Mrs. Quin who knew all five generations, beginning when she was a small girl on the outside looking in—and in love with the dashing grandson of the elderly owners. She marries the rather solid brother of the dashing grandson and we get to know the aunts and uncles, her children and finally her granddaughter. Like all good literary fiction, the end of the book is a reflection of the beginning. In fact the beginning and end are both of Mrs. Quin’s death, and in between we are dropped seamlessly in and out of generations of births, marriages, deaths and everything that makes a family a family. The writing is lyrical. “Home is very much in the smell of a house; at China Court the smell is always of smoke, peat and woodsmoke; of flowers, polish, wine and lavender; of wet wool from the outdoor coats, the drab smell of gumboots and galoshes, and earlier, of dubbin rubbed into gaiters; and of gun oil and of paraffin for the lamps. On Mondays the prevailing smell is of soap and water, boiling and steam; on Wednesdays of baking. That is perhaps the best smell; when the bread-oven door is opened, the scent of hot loaves fills all the house.” (p46). For Mrs. Quin memories are often gathered together by like rather than by time or generation; the memory of one marriage blends into another, the telling of one daughter’s rebellion becomes the story of another in another generation. It is masterfully done, so that the passing of time is secondary to the stories and the people; it is as if they are all encompassed by the house simultaneously. How grounding this lovely book is in the contemporary world of moving forward and getting on and throwing out.

Before China Court I read another of Godden’s novels, In This House of Brede. This had me enthralled as well. The story centres on Philippa Talbot who, at 42, leaves a successful professional career and enters a cloistered Benedictine monastery in the south of England. As she finds her way in this new world we met the nuns who are now her family. Each nun brings another dimension to the story with her unique personality. Never would I have thought I’d find the ins and outs of a catholic nunnery riveting, but I was wrong! This book has definitely not converted me—and conversion was not the intention of the author I am sure— but it has given me a new understanding for these woman who choose to dedicate their lives totally to their god.

Rumer Godden wrote more than 60 works in her life. Our library now holds nine of her books, including the two volumes of her autobiography, more of her novels and two of her children’s books for my granddaughters. None of them are available as e-books, for which our library is grateful!
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