Rumer Godden has been one of my favourite authors ever since I stumbled across her story ‘The Diddakoi’ in a Reader’s Digest on my grandparent’s bookshelf. I am not sure exactly how old I was – too old for children’s books, too young for Grandad’s historical tomes – but what I found in Godden’s perfectly crafted prose was an open doorway to a new world. In its portrait of Kizzy, the half-Romany, half-Irish heroine of the title, The Diddakoi tackles issues of death, racism and growing up with profound insight and compassion. I was not alone in loving it. Though I didn’t know it then, ‘The Diddakoi’ had been the 1972 Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year, with Kingsley Amis expressing a wish that more adult books were as well written as this short story. All I knew was that I was sister-kin to Kizzy. That sense of being an outsider, and one who felt most at home outdoors, combined with a fierceness that could seed trouble – in those ways, we were just the same. I wanted to have a painted wooden wagon like Kizzy’s, to cook my meals over a fire beside Kizzy’s gran, to brush a small, gentle horse the twin to Kizzy’s Joe. I hated the children who mocked her and pulled her hair, just as I hated those who teased me for my glasses and my bookishness.
I was relieved to find that Rumer Godden is as good a writer for adults as she is for children, and that she wrote prolifically for both. Though I still love ‘The Diddakoi’, I have chosen A House with Four Rooms, the second volume of Godden’s autobiography, for my ‘Best Book of Any Year’. It details Godden’s life as a writer and features a cast that includes film-maker Jean Renoir, Henry James’ former valet, and a host of luminaries from the world of publishing. It reads as a series of fantastic episodes: as she says in the preface, ‘to me and my kind life itself is a story and we have to tell it in stories – that is the way it falls’.
In Godden I found a writer who could hold a mirror up to my experience while simultaneously transporting me to a beguilingly different world. Like Jo in Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, Godden’s protagonists are susceptible to impulse, to dreaming – and to storytelling. At their core is a sense of self that they know is right and true and beauteous, but they must fight to preserve it. Whether dancers, nuns or Rumer herself, the central Godden character is a force to be reckoned with. Yet it is always a force for good, for what is right – and frequently champions the underdog.
Though she had been a writer since early childhood, Godden began her literary career with the publication of Chinese Puzzle when she was twenty-six (a guiding and inspiring teacher, Mona Swann, had forbidden her to submit anything for publication before then). By this point she had married, given birth to three children, and set up a dancing school in India. Though born in Britain, she spent most of her early life on the banks of the great rivers of Bengal and Assam, thanks to her father’s work. This proximity to the water – and the distance it gave Rumer and her three sisters from the strictures of Anglo-Indian ‘society’ – came to profoundly influence both her life and writing.
Take A House with Four Rooms. The title refers to an Indian proverb, which states that each of us is a house containing four rooms – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – and that to live fully, one must enter each room every day. It is a powerful and possibly unfashionable idea, but to me an intensely appealing one. For this new writer and new mum, struggling to appease that internal voice that tells me ‘write!’ while balancing the unignorable demands of parenthood, Four Rooms has been both compass and life raft. Its advice – though never presented as such, and thereby the more likely to be taken – is practical without being didactic, emotionally sustaining yet never sentimental. Godden narrates her own life with the same sensitive brio that is the hallmark of her novels, and charts the triumphs, vicissitudes and challenges that mark an exceptional life with deft good humour.
With seventy titles to her name, Godden was as prolific as she was popular – though only rarely the subject of critical approbation. Having been out of fashion for thirty years, many of her books are now being reprinted, and in 2020 the BBC will screen a new adaptation of her most famous novel, Black Narcissus. I only hope that it is one worthy of association with its extraordinary author, and that it introduces a new generation of readers to her work.
Photograph © Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho