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Daily Telegraph (UK) Issue 1268 Saturday 14 November 1998
Novelist who excelled at writing about children and nuns but hated the film of Black Narcissus
RUMER Godden, who has died aged 90, was a novelist of many gifts: she could see the world through the eyes of children with a vivid and sometimes uncomfortable realism; she excelled at portraying the sensuous atmosphere and contradictions of India in the last days of the Raj; and she was deeply interested in the religious and contemplative life.
Black Narcissus (1938), for instance, deals with the struggle of a group of nuns to maintain their convent in a disused Indian palace. The heady "pagan" atmosphere of the subcontinent prevails, while the deeply felt ideals of each nun are, in turn, eroded and overthrown. In the 60 years since its first publication, the book has never been out of print.
The Greengage Summer (1958), by contrast, is set in France, where four children are left virtually alone in a ch teau-hotel after their mother is taken ill, and rudely thrust into the adult world. The English paramour of the hotel's proprietress falls in love with the 16-year-old; her 13-year-old sister sits on the sidelines, teetering on the brink of womanhood; and their brother, aged eight, passes his time in a fantasy of couture, obsessed by Vogue, and dressing up his dolls with false bosoms.
Both these books became successful films. But Rumer Godden hated Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's version of Black Narcissus (1947), which starred Deborah Kerr and David Farrar. "Everything about it was phoney," she complained. "The outside shots were done in a Surrey garden and the Himalayas were just muslin mounted on poles." The Greengage Summer (1961), with Kenneth More and the young Susannah York, was a solid if uninspired reproduction of the book. The best film of Rumer Godden's work was Jean Renoir's The River (1951), based on a novel which she had published in 1946.
Set in India, and concerned with her perennial theme of the transition from childhood to adolescence, the book was perhaps the most autobiographical of all her novels. But her early years did not merely afford material for her books; they gave her the urge to write them.
Margaret Rumer (the family name of her maternal grandmother) Godden was born at Eastbourne - "the most dreadful place", as she later came to think - on December 10th 1907. At six months she was taken by her parents to India, where her father ran a steamship company in the Bengal delta.
Superficially she and her three sisters led a blissful existence, far removed from the horrors that Europe was enduring in the First World War. But Rumer Godden, cursed with a nose that resembled the Duke of Wellington's, was the only plain daughter. She was especially jealous of her elder sister Jon, who was as talented as she was beautiful.
"Everything she did was marvellous," Rumer Godden recalled at the end of her life, "and nobody took any notice of me, which was very healthy. To be ignored is the best possible thing for a writer. My writing was an effort to outdo Jon."
Rumer Godden was turning out poetry at the age of five, and embarked upon her first autobiography two years later. When asked if she would like a dog, she replied that she wanted a unicorn. Her entire life would be a flight from the commonplace.
Her childhood was certainly eclectic. At the Goddens' house in Narayangunj the servants at table were Muslims; the valet and the nanny were Christians from Madras; another valet was a Buddhist from Nepal. The gardeners were Brahmins and the sweepers Untouchables. When Rumer Godden swore at a Brahmin gardener, her father made her apologise and touch the man's feet. But later, after reading E M Forster's A Passage to India (1924), Rumer Godden came to regard her parents' attitudes as totally hidebound, "oblivious to everything Indian except their servants".
In 1920 she and her sisters were sent to school in England. With their wild, precocious ways, and their sing-song Eurasian accents, they were ridiculed by teachers and fellow pupils alike. Rumer and Jon changed schools five times in as many years, only settling down when they were sent to a permissive establishment called Moira House. Rumer Godden trained in ballet, and back in India in 1925 opened a multi-racial dance school in Calcutta, which she ran successfully for eight years. But in 1934 she became pregnant as a result of a liaison with the dashing Laurence Sinclair Foster, "one of the Worcester Fosters", a stockbroker who thought that Omar Khayyam was a kind of curry.
"You'll just have to marry me and pretend you like it," he told her. So the knot was tied; the baby, however, died four days after birth. Rumer Godden's first novel, Chinese Puzzle, was published the next year.
Two further daughters survived, but the marriage did not prosper. When she sat silent and icy at cocktail parties, Foster would say: "Can't you be more chatty?"
In 1941 he left to join the Army, leaving her encumbered with debts which mopped up the proceeds of Black Narcissus. She retreated to Kashmir, and moved into a cottage high in the mountains with no electricity or running water - "the most beautiful place you could imagine", as she thought. To support her girls she got up at 4am to write, and returned to her desk when they had gone to bed until 11pm. It was while they were living in Kashmir that a cook attempted to poison them by mixing powdered glass, opium and marijuana with the lunchtime fare of dahl and rice. "It's gritty," her elder girl complained. In consequence, none but the dog perished.
In 1949 Rumer Godden married a civil servant called James Haynes Dixon, who looked after her devotedly, leaving her free to produce a steady stream of books in the 1950s and 1960s. "A nice, ugly man," she described him. "He would do anything for me, but it was not the other way round." Her heart, she claimed, had been given to Jane Austen's Mr Darcy: "I loved him far more than my own husbands."
Back in Britain they lived in style at Lamb House in Rye, once home to Henry James, and at the Old Hall in Highgate, where Margaret Rutherford lived upstairs, and the essayist Francis Bacon had died. James Dixon expired in 1975. "I never want to be consoled," Rumer Godden wrote in her diary; "I never want another man in my life."
Meanwhile her books were gaining increasing acclaim. She continued to approach her writing with iron discipline, and when she had finished a book would read it to a "victim" over three days. "It's very tiring for them," she admitted, "but I ply them with food and drink."
Altogether she published 24 novels, the last one, Cromartie v The God Shiva, Acting Through the Government of India, appearing only last year, to excellent reviews. Other novels were Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953), An Episode of Sparrows (1955), Two Under the Indian Sun (1966), Shiva's Pigeons (1972), The Peacock Spring (1975, televised 1995), Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy (1979), The Dark Horse (1981) and Coromandel Sea Change (1991).
Rumer Godden also published poetry, translations, a biography of Hans Christian Andersen and two volumes of autobiography: A Time to Dance, No Time To Weep (1987) and A House with Four Rooms (1949). She has been translated into 12 languages. She also wrote books for children, including The Doll's House (1947), The Mousewife (1951) and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (1961). In 1972 she won the Whitbread Award for The Diddakoi; Kingsley Amis called it "the sort of book children had to fight for to get it from adults".
"There are several things children will not put up with in a book," she reflected. "You have to have a proper beginning and an end; you cannot have flashbacks. Then you can't have a lot of description: keep it to a minimum. And you must be very careful with words. I find I use fewer, and they have to fit the case exactly and be chosen with extreme care."
Rumer Godden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1968. "I like the way everything is clear and concise," she remarked propos her new religion. "You'll always be forgiven but you must know the rules."
In preparation for In This House of Brede (1969), about life in a Benedictine convent, she lived for three years at the gate of an English abbey. But she remained prickly, and enjoyed recounting her reply to an American who asked for her autograph. "Thank you for your autograph. We have had your handwriting analysed. You are mean, petty, selfish and greedy."
Rumer Godden earned plenty of money, and knew how to spend it. From her seventies she lived with her daughter in Dumfriesshire. She was devoted to her pekinese, the last of a line of 35 of that breed she had owned since buying herself a puppy on her 16th birthday.
Rumer Godden was appointed OBE in 1993.
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