Recently I have become nostalgic for the out of print treasures of Rumer Godden (1907-1998). Each time I find a copy in the thrift store I am bombarded by memories of the days when I was content to bask in the sensual details characteristic of her work, but when I take the book home to read, it often collects dust on my shelf because I know I will never have the same experience I did when I first read the books as a teenager. At that time, I was intrigued that despite Godden’s deep personal experience, she remained an outsider in the world in which she wrote, just as I felt I was an outsider in my world.
In the novel Peacock Spring, the protagonist Una is pleasantly overwhelmed by the transformation into a woman that she must endure when she runs away from her father’s house and travels the Indian countryside to prevent the abortion that she believes he will force her to have. Her lover Ravi begins to treat her with less affection, though they were once equals wrapped up in the romance of the poetry he wrote and they discussed. He is in control of her disguise, “Ravi painted her eyebrows and lashes with the same dye; it stung her eyes and the tears made the dye run. ‘All the better,’ said Ravi. ‘As my bride you have just been parted from your mother. Your eyes are red and weeping. Now go and dry your hair in the sun.’” Yet the culture has drawn Una in so much she hardly considers eschewing it. In real life, Godden felt similarly about India, where her father was employed and where she spent most of her childhood. As an adult, she returned to India to run a dance school together with her sister, an endeavor that lasted twenty years. In a Godden biography, Anne Chisholm writes about the way Godden feels about her birth home, “Like many contemporaries who shared the experience, they rejected, deep inside themselves, the notion that this dreary place was their real home.”
When Godden isn’t escaping into the scents and colors of India, she escapes into a world of nuns. In 1968 she converted to Roman Catholicism. Two of her books Five For Sorrow, Ten for Joy and In This House of Brede focus on the religious life. They were reprinted by the Catholic Press Loyola Classics. In Black Narcissus she escapes into both worlds simultaneously. In an isolated convent the nuns are enticed by the sexuality of British agent Mr. Dean and the florid surroundings. This spiritual aspect of Rumer Godden drew me in as well because I was comforted by the sheltered life that seemed to me to be one of religion’s main enticements.
I was attracted to the books for the same reasons that Godden was attracted to India. They brought me into a world that seemed more intoxicating than the world in which I lived. They influenced my writing style then as well. When I was in high school I began attending a novelists’ roundtable around the same time that I was reading Godden’s books. I sat in study hall, making notes for the novel that I was attempting to write. Scented Wings, as I called it, was focused almost exclusively on scent. The story was about a chef who falls in love with a perfume maker. When the scents of her cooking combine with the scents of his perfumes, they create a magic potion which changes the direction of their lives. The roundtable was composed of writers of all ages and backgrounds. During the first session I attended, Shauna Singh Baldwin was reading from her novel in progress What the Body Remembers. I recall the scene she read as being full of sensuality. Satya, whose inability to bear children led her husband to take a new wife, watches Roop, the new wife, sleep. I vicariously felt her jealousy and the women’s sudden intimacy. The book also is set in an Indian landscape, but it doesn’t contain the forced beauty of Rumer Godden’s stories.
Peacock Spring begins in this way,
turrets of roses, long beds of more roses, all now in their second flush: borders of delphiniums and lupins, snapdragons, petunias, dianthus, stocks; English flowers, most of them unfamiliar to Ravi, though he knew pansies and, of course, knew the creepers that flowered over walls, summer house and pavilion – scarlet bunches of clerodendron, blue trumpets of morning glory and, everywhere, bougainvillaea cream, pink, magenta and crimson.
In high school, the lushness of this world drew me away from the brown vinyl of bus seats, the sea green trays of the lunch room, and the cracked mats on which we did stretching exercises. I am just as in need of escape now, but I am no longer hypnotized by this fanciful world as I once was. It is a world of lost reading habits.