A river runs through it

Rumer Godden
June 12, 1998

Any woman who has tried to combine being a good mother with being a good writer should read this book. Rumer Godden's struggle to free herself from domestic trivia and write led to an unhappy life, as this account makes clear. In her mid-thirties, still living in India, contemplating divorce from a husband who had gone off to war leaving her with huge debts and two daughters, the struggle at times seemed insurmountable.

Margaret Rumer Godden - the unusual name was passed down from a grandmother - was born in Eastbourne in 1907 and grew up in India in the heyday of empire. Her father worked for the Brahmaputra River Steam Navigation Company and the family lived in a big house on the river at Narayanganj, in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). She always felt she had had an idyllic childhood, full of freedom and warmth, pets and loving servants, with no formal schooling until she was 12. She claims never to remember a time when she did not write; she attempted her first autobiography when she was eight.

After a brief period of education in England she went back to Calcutta and opened a dancing school. In 1934, already pregnant, she married Laurence Foster, an excellent golfer who did not share her literary interests. Their baby lived for four days. Godden, admitting she was a difficult partner, says she was seduced by Foster's charm, adding acidly: "I have distrusted charm ever since." But, as Anne Chisholm, who endeavours throughout the biography to do justice to Foster, comments: "Nothing is harder to recapture than the good parts of a failed marriage."

Godden has used almost all aspects of her life, even painful ones, in her books. The loss of innocence as childhood ends is one of her dominant themes. She must have been an unusually observant child to be so aware of the dark side of love; that adult emotions often led to tragedy. Like all good storytellers, she embroidered and dramatised facts and gave them narrative shape. By the time she wrote her two-part autobiography, she was almost 80 and the lines between fact and fiction had been severely blurred. Chisholm, rather than trying to set records straight, explores how the life was used in the work.

Black Narcissus, the book that established Godden's name, was published in 1939; later filmed, it is still in print. Seven years later, she brought out The River, a simple story firmly rooted in her own childhood that "touches on deep truths about the ways in which we all learn about love, death, guilt and loss". Filmed by Jean Renoir, who was later to describe it as his favourite among the 38 films he had directed, The River became a classic.

In writing about a living subject, Chisholm must have faced as many difficulties as advantages. She had several conversations with Godden as well as unlimited access to her private papers and surviving family, although Godden's younger daughter declined to be interviewed and the book bristles with references to the young Paula being ill or "emotionally fragile". Was it simply that she deeply resented her mother working because of the time it took from her children? Chisholm not only admires Godden the writer but is also full of sympathy for the person and writes with tenderness about the myriad difficulties she faced as a single mother returning to England after the war. A few months previously, in Kashmir, she had narrowly escaped what she believed to be an attempt by servants to poison her and her children. Soon she found herself being courted once more. In the end she recognised that living alone, however important the solitude, would deny her the warmth, muddle and complexity that are necessary components of a writing life.

Is Godden still underrated, her popularity interfering with respect for her literary talent? In 1972, The Diddakoi won the Whitbread prize in the children's book category and in 1993 she was awarded an OBE. In 1994 the BBC filmed a documentary about her in India and, bravely, she went back because she never believed in doing what was sensible. This intelligent biography can only increase interest in the Godden oeuvre.

"It is not a happy thing to be a writer," Godden herself once wrote. "It may sound an easy life but it is not."

Anne Sebba is the author of Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image.

Rumer Godden: A Storyteller's Life

Author - Anne Chisholm
ISBN - 0 333 625 8
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £20.00
Pages - 333

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