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

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

 

Books and Films: a comparison by a book lover

Do you like books?

I do. Many of the people I love do. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I love them. They’re just such glorious wonders – and anyone who shares that love of reading will know exactly what I mean. I could wax lyrical and go on describing the joy of letters connecting together to weave gorgeous, heartbreaking, exhilarating, human stories but really, there’s no need. You’ll understand me, or you won’t, and that’s that and maybe it’s sad to think that so many people miss out on something so fantastic, but at least there are those who appreciate it.

But there are some people who don’t like reading and instead love movies, and some who just like a good mixture of both. Many of my friends like to read, but ultimately watch more films than they read books. I don’t know what I think of that. One part of me thinks they’re silly and foolish, to choose a screen over a book. But then again, I love movies, and the things they can show you and the way they bring characters to life, so that’s rather hypocritical. Especially considering that for a long time, I wanted to be a movie actress, to tell stories through drama and costume and beautiful sets.

I do certainly enjoy watching movies.

And yet I prefer to read, generally speaking. I prefer the book to the movie adaptation, almost always. It’s not such an uncommon thing, but still my friends ask me, “Don’t you like movies?”. They find it astonishing just how few I watch. Which leads me to consider just exactly why I watch so few, and to consider once more the differences between a story told through pictures and one told through words. So here are my personal opinions, right or wrong or just mildly obvious.

You cannot read a book with multiple people. At least, only if you’re reading it aloud, like to a child. And while that can be a good experience and a valuable one, I think ultimately the vast majority of people prefer to read by themselves, curled in bed or stretched on the grass or on the bench at the bus stop. That’s not to say that they will always be alone while reading – that’s not true. A quiet companionship of relative silence can be cultivated while you read – maybe two people reading together, or one doing paperwork, or listening to music, or driving. But the actual consumption of the words is done privately, individually. It lets you have things how you want them, to conjure the world within its pages exactly as you see them. To interpret the words in the way that best pleases you. You might not like the words, and you might interpret them differently to others, but you’re the one doing it, and that makes it better.

But movies are more sociable, lending themselves to shared consumption and discussion and interpretation and commentary. It’s a different experience, in that your final opinion of the film will be shaped by others, whether directly or indirectly. As so many have previously pointed out, movies take away the audience’s main power of imagination, by providing everything there on screen. It’s not a bad practice. It’s great to see things happen with explosions and expressions and colour and sound. But it does mean that you have less control over how the story appears in your mind. And, as I said before, it’s more likely that you’ll watch a movie with  someone, meaning that you’ll be influenced by them as well. Their presence can be a huge advantage – I love to share laughter and horror and disbelief and sarcastic remarks with someone as we watch a movie together. But if you’re like me, you prefer being alone when you watch something with tears rolling down your cheeks. Or even just when you want something to be perfect, without your friend or your brother or your boyfriend or your mother there to quip at how silly the character looks just as you’re getting to the emotional, heartwarming climax. It takes something away from the moment, makes it lesser. And I hate that.

Of course, books and films both have good and bad points about them. But obviously one will generally appeal more to a particular type of person. I don’t know what it is about me that makes me prefer books, and it could just be a lifetime of loving them from an early age, but I do. Maybe it’s because I like to have control, and I like to be alone with a story, and I like the limitless possibilities of words and their accessibility. But regardless of the reason, one thing is certain and that is that I am undoubtedly a lover of books, now and hopefully and forever.