Woman of the Week: Rumer Godden (née Margaret Rumer Godden)

“I wish I knew when I was going to die,’ ninety-six-year-old Dame Frances Anne often said, ‘I wish I knew.’
‘Why, Dame?’
‘Then I should know what to read next.” In This House of Brede, 1969

Rumer Godden was a 20th century author who wrote with wit, charm and sensitive insight into human nature in its various manifestations. Though born in England in 1907, Rumer lived in modern-day Bangladesh until her parents decided to send her to school in England at the age of 12.  The influence of this experience during her formative years can be seen in the vividly colourful characters and settings for her novels, as she describes a stately old mansion in Cornwall with the same lively detail as her one-time home in a primitive cottage in the mountains of Kashmir.

Rumer was soon to return to the country that had already laid such a strong claim to her heart, as she and her older sister, Jon, struggled to settle into English life. While in London, she had trained as a dancer despite having serious spinal damage resulting from a bad fall as a child, and in 1925 Rumer moved to Calcutta to open a mixed-race dancing school. Despite public shock at her audacity, Rumer and her younger sister Nancy ran the Peggy Godden School of Dance successfully for 20 years.

When the Second World War broke out, Rumer was unhappily married to Laurence Foster, with two young children, Jane and Paula, and had just published her first best-seller, the novel Black Narcissus, which dealt with a group of Catholic nuns living in India. Her husband having joined the army, Rumer decided to move to Kashmir with her children in 1942, living initially on a houseboat and later in a remote house in the mountains. The small family lived without many modern luxuries of the time, such as electricity or running water, but were still considered as well-off compared to the local Indians. Their time in Kashmir came to an abrupt end when it was discovered that their Indian cook had tried to poison them by adding ground-up glass to their food, in addition to quantities of opium and marijuana, with no apparent motive. Finding little support from the community, both of locals and other British colonists, Rumer returned to England to support her children through her writing.

Rumer divorced her first husband in 1948 and remarried the year after, her second choice being James Hayn Dixon, who she remained with til his death despite her wry comment that she “loved Mr. Darcy far more than any of [her] own husbands.” Since her first publication in 1937, Rumer had been writing prolifically, and her output remained consistent until her death in 1998, with her last novel, Cromartie versus the God Shiva acting through the Government of India, being released the year before.

Though reasonably widely acknowledged as an influential European writer of the 20th century, since her death almost twenty years ago, Godden’s legacy has faded from attention. But the themes of  childhood innocence and the contrasting corruption of adult life that emerge through much of her work remain as relevant today as half a century ago.

“I know now it is children who accept life; grown people cover it up and pretend it is different with drinks.” (The Greengage Summer, 1957)

Her work, whether intended for adults or children, throbs with theatrical characterisation and fascinating stories woven into the tapestry of everyday life, reflecting the huge array of experiences she had in her own life.

Famous Works:

The River, 1946
The Diddakoi, 1972 (Winner of the 1972 Whitbread Award in the Children’s Book category)

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Portrait for Vogue, 1947

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Woman of the Week: Elizabeth von Arnim (née Mary Annette Beauchamp)

avt_elizabeth-von-arnim_9068Born at Kirribilli Point, Australia in 1866 to British parents and the little-known cousin of New Zealand poet, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth von Arnim published her first semi-autobiographical book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, after her then-husband, Baron von Arnim, was imprisoned for fraud and debts. Despite claiming to have no taste for work, indeed, informing us that “There is nothing so absolutely bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties,” (Elizabeth and her German Garden), from 1898 onwards, she had a reasonably prolific output of more than 20 books, often based heavily on her own life and experiences. Her irreverence towards the private nature of her relationship with her husband, or indeed to appropriate behaviour in general, as well as her disregard for the odd beliefs and biases about love and the sexes that pervaded her era, can be seen from the thick satire ubiquitous in her work.

“But there are no men here,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “so how can it be improper? Have you noticed,” she inquired of Mrs. Fisher, who endeavoured to pretend she did not hear, “How difficult it is to be improper without men?” (The Enchanted April, 1910)

With her first book becoming rapidly popular, Elizabeth was soon associating with the literary names of the time, becoming mistress to H.G. Wells for some years and including E.M. Forster among her children’s tutors. Throughout her life, though, Elizabeth’s cheerfully acknowledged misanthropy, so often alluded to in her work – “It is true she liked him most when he wasn’t there, but then she usually liked everybody most when they weren’t there.” (The Enchanted April) – allowed to be quite capable of contenting herself alone, and indeed she demonstrated her taste for independence with her frequent relocations throughout Europe. To travel so willingly and so much as a single mother was already notable, but showed the strength of her personality even more so when she moved to the United States after separating from her second husband, the second Earl Russell -who  was known colloquially as ‘the Wicked Earl’ due to being tried for bigamy and who she never officially divorced.

Elizabeth’s writing is filled with her original and somewhat cynical opinions on society and the various absurdities she observed within it, delivered with what became a signature style of wit – a kind of flippant satire that makes her characters feel intimately relatable, like a cheerful old friend. After all, who can disagree when Elizabeth warns of the danger of extended family?

“Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs, – useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them.” (Elizabeth and her German Garden, 1898)

Even in death, Elizabeth entertains us, requesting an epitaph that read parva sed apta (‘small but apt’ in Latin), referencing her rather short stature. Sadly, however, in spite of her impelling honesty and famous friends, Arnim, who preferred to style herself simply as ‘Elizabeth’, though her birth name was in fact Mary Annette, has been largely forgotten by the reading public today.

Famous Works (freely available via Project Gutenberg):

Elizabeth and her German Garden, 1898
Vera, 1931