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Once Upon A Time, by a river in India, there lived a little English girl called Margaret Rumer Godden. She had three sisters, one older called Jon, two younger called Nancy and Rose. Until Rumer grew up everyone called her Peggie. She always knew that she wanted to be a writer, and although it was not easy for her she became, in the end, a well-known and successful one. She wrote many books set in many different places, but all her life her thoughts and her writing would take her back to India, to the places and the people there that had made her what she was, the country where, in her heart, she always felt that she belonged. 'Children in India are greatly loved and indulged, and we never felt that we were foreigners, not India's own,' she wrote, twenty years after she left India to live the second half of her life in England. 'We felt at home, safely held in her large warm embrace, content as we never were to be content in our own country.
A happy childhood is always a paradise lost. The English children of the Indian Empire knew a special paradise, and most of them never forgot it and always missed it. Over and over again in the memories of people who grew up in India the same longings and vivid recollections recur: they remember the warmth, the sun, the colours, the light, the space, the sounds; above all, perhaps, the smell of India. Rumer Godden was born on a winter's night in Eastbourne on 10 December 1907 but most of her childhood was spent in Bengal. She described it like this: It was the honey smell of the fuzz-buzz flowers, of thorn trees inthe sun, and the smell of open drains and urine, of coconut oil on shining black human hair, of mustard cooking oil and the blue smoke from cowdung used as fuel; it was a smell redolent of the sun, more alive and vivid than anything in the West...
She wrote directly about her childhood in three books: first in 1946 in her short novel The River, twenty years later in Two Under the Indian Sun, written jointly with her sister Jon, and then in 1987 in her autobiography. The emotional and imaginative truth about those years, until 1920 when she was sent back to school in England, is distilled in The River, the story of how a twelve-year-old English girl living by a river in Bengal learns about life, death and love, and what it means to grow up. The facts of her own family life, however, are clearest in the book she wrote with Jon, always her sternest critic and someone for whom truthfulness was paramount. Within the family, Rumer came under fire all her life for making things up, for her tendency to embroider and dramatize the facts. She was, and remained, unrepentant. She was always a story-teller, someone for whom events took on a dramatic shape almost as they happened to her or as she heard about them from someone else. By the time she came to write her autobiography, she was almost eighty; what she remembered about her early years and what she had already written or imagined was densely woven together. 'To me and my kind life itself is a story and we have to tell it in stories; that is the way it falls.'
Margaret Rumer Godden spent her childhood in India because her father chose to work there. Arthur Leigh Godden was a tall, good-looking man, well-educated but not an intellectual. Like many others he decided to live and work in India because at that time, in the late nineteenth century, high-Victorian heyday of the Empire, India offered spirited, strong-willed young men, from solid but not especially grand or rich families, the chance to use their energies constructively and enjoy the privileges and pleasures of a ruling élite. Many middle-class English families have an imperial, often an Indian involvement in their past; in some, especially those with Army or government connections, the link spanned several generations. The Goddens were originally farmers and corn-merchants from Kent, and Arthur Godden's family links with India were not especially strong: on his mother's side, an early nineteenth-century military forebear spent most of his life there after fighting at Waterloo. According to family lore, though, Arthur ran away to India at eighteen because he could not bear the thought of becoming a stockbroker like his father. After trying land management, he enlisted in the Calcutta Light Horse in 1901 and fought in the Boer War; but by 1903 when he met Rumer's mother, Katherine Norah Hingley, he was working as an agent for one of the big shipping companies based in Calcutta, running steamers up and down the great rivers of the Ganges delta in Bengal.
The Hingley family's roots and prosperity were in the Midlands and dated from the industrial revolution. Katherine's father, Samuel, was the son of a successful ironmaster, but did not himself make money; his children had to fend for themselves. His widow, Harriet, whose unusual second name, Rumer, was to pass to her second granddaughter, went to live in Eastbourne with her son Alfred and her youngest daughter Mary. Her eldest daughter, Ethel, had already married a clever young man who had joined the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and was living in India, where Katherine went to join her. It must have occurred to Katherine and to her widowed mother, that she, like other girls known as the fishing fleet, might find a husband in India: she was very pretty, small and round with clear blue eyes, a cloud of dark hair and a sweet, undemanding nature. She was presented to the Viceroy in Calcutta -- until 1911 the capital city of the Indian Empire -- during the Christmas season, wearing a pink tulle dress embroidered with daisies. She probably met Arthur Godden, down from his posting in Assam, at one of the many parties held during the cold-weather months between October and March.
Rumer Godden. Copyright © by Anne Chisholm. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
|List of Illustrations||xi|
|1||Childhood and Growing Up: 1907-19||1|
|2||Schooldays and After: 1920-29||27|
|3||Calcutta Dust: 1929-34||44|
|4||Marriage, Motherhood, Writing: 1934-8||68|
|5||Black Narcissus: 1938-40||86|
|6||Thus Far and No Further: 1940-42||102|
|8||Drama at Dove House: 1944||161|
|9||Return to England: 1944-8||183|
|10||Filming The River: 1948-50||207|
|11||Houses and Writing: 1950-61||234|
|12||Stanbrook and Brede: 1961-9||256|
|13||Moving On: 1970-93||271|
|14||Back to India: 1994||292|
|Note on Sources||311|
|List of Rumer Godden's Books||315|