Obituary: Rumer Godden

Peter Guttridge
Wednesday 11 November 1998 01:02 GMT

RUMER GODDEN survived a poisoning attempt, rare illnesses, the death of a baby son, abandonment by her first husband and destitution, in the course of a writing career that spanned more than 60 years.

The prolific novelist, playwright and poet - best known for Black Narcissus (1938), The River (1946) and The Greengage Summer (1958), all of which were made into successful films, was writing almost to the end. Her last book, Cromartie vs The God Shiva, was published earlier this year, when she was 90.

Born in 1907 in her uncle's house in Eastbourne, Sussex, "Peggy" (as she was known) spent her childhood until the age of 12 in India, in the town of Narayanganj, now in Bangladesh. Her father controlled the traffic - the jute barges and paddle steamers - on the inland waterways around the town. The family lived in a vast mansion with each room as big as a ballroom, staffed by many servants.

It was a childhood rich in sights, sounds and, particularly, smells: "the smells of urine and sewage and the lovely flowers of the thorn trees", she wrote later.

She was the second eldest of four daughters and felt ignored. According to her account, her eldest sister Jon (Jonquil) was beautiful and talented, her younger sister Nancy was her father's favourite and Rose was the beloved baby.

"I showed off like anything," Godden said, "but no one took any notice of me, I was so plain. It was hell being so close to Jon, but I lived in her shadow and that was the saving grace for me. To be ignored is the best possible thing for a writer. My writing was an effort to outdo her."

Ironically, Jon became a writer too and the two sisters collaborated on several books. Rumer commented: "There are two schools of thought: one that she was a better writer than me - that's the family point of view. And there are others who think I'm the professional one. Jon, you see, married a rich man. I'm a great believer in the garret."

At the age of seven Godden fell off a swing and damaged her spine, an injury that inhibited her physically throughout her life. Although she was envious of Jon, they were also very close. They were sent back to England together after the First World War to be educated at a High Anglican convent in East Grinstead. "It was a horrid shock to send us there," Godden recalled, "a cruel and thoughtless thing to do and an absolute betrayal on the part of my parents."

They stayed six weeks before being moved to another four schools in succession, after which the two girls were separated. Jon went to art school and Rumer, out from her sister's shadow, for the first time "felt like a personality in her own right".

She returned to India aged 17. She had always wanted to be a writer - she used to hide her poems in the old cork tree on the lawn at Narayanganj. She had trained as a dancer, however, and now shocked local society by opening a dance-school, the Peggy Godden School of Dance, in Calcutta.

Already inclined to be rebellious, her rebellion had been further fuelled by reading A Passage To India when she was 19. It made her, she wrote, ashamed of her "blindness and ignorance".

"When I was a child the old shibboleth still prevailed that the men had contact with all the Indians but the women and children were not supposed to mix. We were not allowed to play with Indian children, nor they with us. A Passage To India made me see we were like the Turtons. After that I astonished my father and mother by insisting that I had lessons in Hinduism and was allowed to visit Indians and speak to them."

In 1933 she met Laurence Sinclair Foster, an athletic charmer. She became pregnant by him and they married in 1934. The baby died four days after birth. She called that "a piercing grief, a sadness I carry with me for the rest of my days". Although they went on to have two daughters, Jane and Paula, the couple had nothing in common: Godden loved literature; Foster, she said, thought Omar Khayym was a curry.

Her first novel, a children's book, was published in 1935 when she was 28. She had already had the germ of an idea for an "adult" novel, Black Narcissus, several years earlier when, on a picnic in Assam she saw a small tombstone for a nun who had died at the same age as she then was. Published in 1938, Black Narcissus immediately became a best- seller.

It was later made into a very successful film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which she disliked. Most of it was shot in a Surrey garden, the Himalayas represented by poles wrapped in muslin. "I saw it only once but never again. It is an absolute travesty of the book, I cannot bear it. Micky Powell said he saw it as a fairy tale, whereas for me it was true. The whole thing was an abomination."

In 1941 Godden's husband abandoned her, to join the Army, leaving her with massive debts which she settled with the proceeds from Black Narcissus. She spent the war in Kashmir with her young children living as a peasant in a house without water or electricity. There, having recovered from a serious illness, she tried to establish a herb farm. A friend moved in, bringing a homicidal Indian cook with a speciality in preying upon European women, who put opium, marijuana and ground glass into their food, but only succeeded in killing the pet dog.

Godden moved back to England with her daughters in 1945 and set about making her living as a writer. She married again in 1949, this time to a civil servant, James Haynes-Dixon who adored her. "It is very wonderful," she said in an interview last year, "to be loved and James was practically selfless. He would do anything for me, but it was not the other way round you see. I don't think I ever fell for any real man, not after Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. I've read the book over a dozen times and every time I fall in love with Darcy. I loved him far better than my own husbands."

She wrote a series of successful novels in the Fifties and Sixties, as well as many books for children. Her recurrent theme, another critic noted, was the collision of childhood ignorance with adult cruelty and passion. Another said that her books are all about "a loss of innocence, about growing up, growing out of, growing away from, and all the sadness that accompanies this". Although she had declared she would never let one of her novels be filmed again after her experience with Black Narcissus, she spent two years working with Jean Renoir on the film of The River (1951), her autobiographical novel about her childhood in India.

She regarded it as "the greatest two years of my life". "What I learned from Jean was absolutely extraordinary and I could feel myself growing as I worked with him. He was a wonderful man, a real genius." She went to Hollywood to write the script for the film and hung out with the stars of the day - Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and James Mason.

She moved house often. She lived for a while in Highgate, in north London (Margaret Rutherford lived upstairs) then in Henry James's house, Lamb House, in Rye, East Sussex (and claimed to hear the voices of Miles and Flora, the children in Turn of the Screw, when she was writing). This prompted the joke: "Who has Lamb House now?" "Rumer has it."

She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1968, having become friendly with the writer Dame Felicitas Corrigan, a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, in Worcestershire. "I think nuns are irresistibly dramatic," she said. "Theirs is the greatest love story on earth."

Her husband James died in 1975. In her diary Godden wrote: "I never want to be consoled. I never want another man in my life." In 1977 she moved to Scotland to live with her daughter Jane and continued to write. She was appointed OBE in 1993 and in 1994 returned to India for the first time in 20 years to make a documentary about her life and work for the BBC. It was not an altogether happy experience.

Discussing writing, she once stated firmly that she never believed in self-expression. "All these young people, particularly women, say, `We want to express ourselves', but writing is not self-expression. The writer is simply an instrument through which the wind blows and I believe it is the Holy Spirit that makes the artist creative. My writing is something outside me that I've been chosen to do and I think that is what has enabled me to go on."

She had not been frightened of dying since she was a young child: "I used to cry at night because I was afraid my mother or Jon would die. Once I was weeping so much my mother was brought from dinner. She said, `We cannot understand what is going to happen to us after death in much the same way that if we told a two-month-old baby that we were going to take it to America, the baby wouldn't have the faintest idea of what we were talking about.' And that is how I think of death. We have no idea at all of what is going to happen to us."

Peter Guttridge

Margaret Rumer Godden, writer: born Eastbourne, Sussex 10 December 1907; OBE 1993; married 1934 Laurence Sinclair Foster (marriage dissolved 1948; died 1977; two daughters), 1949 James Haynes-Dixon (died 1973); died Dumfries 8 November 1998.

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