Soon after the end of the terrible Great War, Mrs. Grey brings her five young children to the French countryside for the summer in hopes of instilling in them a sense of history and humility. But when she is struck down by a sudden illness and hospitalized, the siblings are left to fend for themselves at the lovely, bullet-scarred hotel Les Oeillets, under the suspicious, watchful eyes of its owner, Mademoiselle Zizi.
The young ones find a willing guide, companion, and protector in charming Englishman Eliot, a longtime resident at Les Oeillets and Mlle. Zizi’s apparent paramour. But as these warm days of freedom, discovery, and adolescent adventure unfold, Eliot’s interest becomes more and more focused on the eldest of the Grey children, sixteen-year-old daughter Joss. The older man’s obsession with the innocent, alluring, heartbreakingly beautiful woman-child soon threatens to overstep all bounds of propriety. And as Eliot’s fascination increases, so does the jealousy of his disrespected lover, adding fuel to a dangerously smoldering fire that could erupt into unexpected violence at any moment.
Told from the point of view of Cecil, Joss’s sharp-eyed younger sister, The Greengage Summer is a beautiful, poignant, darkly tinged coming-of-age story rich in the sights, smells, and sounds of France’s breathtaking Champagne country. It remains one of the crowning literary achievements of Rumer Godden, acclaimed author of beloved classics Black Narcissus, The River, and In This House of Brede.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of the author including rare images from the Rumer Godden Literary Estate.
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About the Author
Rumer Godden (1907–1998) was the author of more than sixty works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature, and is considered by many to be one of the foremost English language writers of the twentieth century. Born in Sussex, England, she moved with her family to Narayanganj, colonial India, now Bangladesh, when she was six months old. Godden began her writing career with Chinese Puzzle in 1936 and achieved international fame three years later with her third book, Black Narcissus. A number of her novels were inspired by her nearly four decades of life in India, including The River, Kingfishers Catch Fire, Breakfast with the Nikolides, and her final work, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva, published in 1997. She returned to the United Kingdom for good at the end of World War II and continued her prolific literary career with the acclaimed novels The Greengage Summer, In This House of Brede, and numerous others. Godden won the Whitbread Award for children’s literature in 1972, and in 1993 she was named an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Nine of her novels have been made into motion pictures. She died at the age of ninety in Dumfriesshire, UK.
Read an Excerpt
The Greengage Summer
By Rumer Godden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Rumer Godden
All rights reserved.
On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did. Hester of course was quite unabashed; Will — though he was called Willmouse then — Willmouse and Vicky were too small to reach any but the lowest branches, but they found fruit fallen in the grass; we were all strictly forbidden to climb the trees.
The garden at Les Oeillets was divided into three; first the terrace and gravelled garden round the house; then, separated by a low box hedge, the wilderness with its statues and old paths; and, between the wilderness and the river, the orchard with its high walls. In the end wall a blue door led to the river bank.
The orchard seemed to us immense and perhaps it was, for there were seven alleys of greengage trees alone; between them, even in that blazing summer, dew lay all day in the long grass. The trees were old, twisted, covered in lichen and moss, but I shall never forget the fruit. In the hotel dining room Mauricette built it into marvellous pyramids on dessert plates laid with vine leaves. "Reines Claudes" she would say to teach us its name as she put our particular plate down, but we were too full to eat. In the orchard we had not even to pick the fruit, it fell off the trees into our hands.
The greengages had a pale blue bloom, especially in the shade, but in the sun the flesh showed amber through the clear green skin; if it were cracked the juice was doubly warm and sweet. Coming from the streets and small front gardens of Southstone, we had not been let loose in an orchard before; it was no wonder we ate too much.
"Summer sickness," said Mademoiselle Zizi.
"Indigestion," said Madame Corbet.
I do not know which it was but ever afterwards, in our family we called that the greengage summer.
"You are the one who should write this," I told Joss. "It happened chiefly to you." But Joss shut that out as she always shuts out things, or shuts them in so that no one can guess.
"You are the one who likes words," said Joss. "Besides" — and she paused — "it happened as much to you."
I did not answer that. I am grown up now — or almost grown up — "and we still can't get over it!" said Joss.
"Most people don't have ... that ... in thirty or forty years," I said in defence.
"Most people don't have it at all," said Joss.
If it stop what I am doing for a moment, or in any time when I am quiet, in those cracks in the night that have been with me ever since when I cannot sleep and thoughts seep in, I am back; I can smell the Les Oeillets smells of hot dust and cool plaster walls, of jasmine and box leaves in the sun, of dew in the long grass; the smell that filled house and garden of Monsieur Armand's cooking and the house's own smell of damp linen, or furniture polish, and always, a little, of drains. I can hear the sounds that seem to belong only to Les Oeillets: the patter of the poplar trees along the courtyard wall, of a tap running in the kitchen mixed with the sound of high French voices, of the thump of Rex's tail and another thump of someone washing clothes on the river bank; of barges puffing upstream and Mauricette's toneless singing — she always sang through her nose; of Toinette and Nicole's quick loud French as they talked to each other out of the upstair's windows; of the faint noise of the town and, near, the plop of a fish or of a greengage falling.
"But you were glad enough to come back," said Uncle William.
"We never came back," said Joss.
The odd thing was, when that time was over, we, Joss and I, were still sixteen and thirteen, the ages we had been when we arrived on the stifling hot evening at the beginning of August. We were Mother, Joss, I — Cecil — Hester, and the Littles, Willmouse and Vicky. It must have been nine o'clock.
"Why were you so late?" asked Mademoiselle Zizi. "There are plenty of trains in the day."
"We were waiting in the Gare de l'Est for Mother to get better."
"And she didn't get better," said Willmouse.
"And we had nothing to eat all day," said Vicky, "but some horrid sausage and bread."
"And the oranges we had with us," said Hester, who was always accurate, "twelve oranges. We ate them in the train."
Mademoiselle Zizi shuddered, and I burned to think that now she must know we were the kind of family that ate oranges in trains.
There had been no taxis at the station but, after a stress that I do not like to remember — the whole day had been like a bad dream — we found a porter who would take our suitcases on a handcart.
It was beginning to be dusk when our little procession left the station; men were coming back from fishing, women were talking in doorways and in their stiff gardens where gladioli and zinnias seemed to float, oddly coloured in the twilight, behind iron railings. "French people don't have gardens," Uncle William was to say, "they grow flowers." Children were playing in the streets; Willmouse and Vicky stared at them; I think they had thought they were the only children in the world kept up to this late hour.
All round us was the confusion of the strange town, strange houses, strange streets. The people stared at us too but we did not feel it; we did not feel anything; our bodies seemed not to belong to us but to be walking apart while we floated, as the flowers did, in the dusk. Perhaps we were too tired to feel.
The handcart bumped over cobbles that, even though we had not walked on cobbles before, we knew were unmistakably French. Mother gave a small moan each time the porter turned into another street. It seemed a long way and by the time we came to the hotel gates lamplight was showing in the houses and most of the doors were shut. At Les Oeillets every night at nine o'clock the dogs were let loose and the outer gates closed, leaving only a wicket gate unlocked; the handcart would not go through that and we had to wait — still apart from ourselves — while the porter rang the bell.
It clanged. There was a deep barking. We did not know Rex and Rita then but could tell it was a big dog's bark; two voices commanded it to stop, a woman's shrill, and a man's — or a boy's talking like a man; that was a good guess, for it was a large boy who appeared. He had on a white apron, we saw it glimmering towards us; his apron flapped, his shoes flapped too, and a lock of hair fell into his eyes as he bent forward to pull the bolt; he held the gate open to let us pass and we smelled his smell of sweat and cigarettes and ... "Is it onions?" I whispered.
"Not onion, garlic," Hester whispered back. "Don't you remember the sausage in the Gare de l'Est?" He was dirty and untidy and he did not smile.
Then we went into the hotel and, "Good God! An orphanage!" said Eliot.
Afterwards he apologized for that. "But you were all wearing grey flannel," he said and he asked, "Why were you wearing grey flannel?"
Hester looked at him. "Perhaps you haven't been in England for a long time," she said gently. "Those were our school clothes."
In England we — except Joss — had been proud of them. There are two sorts of families; for one a school uniform is a step down, the feeling of being like everybody else; for the other that feeling is an achievement, the uniform a better, more complete set of clothes than any worn before; we belonged to the second category and Willmouse's grey shorts and jacket, our St. Helena's coats and skirts and hats were our best clothes, the only ones suitable for travelling.
"Other girls have other clothes," Joss said often.
"Not when an Uncle William pays for them," said Mother.
Now Joss's eyes threw darts of hate at Eliot though he could not have been expected to know who she was. Our school hats were soup-plate shaped; Vicky in hers looked like a mushroom on two legs, but Joss's was small on her mass of dark hair and showed her forehead; she looked almost ugly in that hat, and the pleated skirt of her suit was too short.
Of course a great many things happened before Eliot said that about the orphanage; he did not even come in until later; but it is Eliot whom we remember of that first evening. He was its ace.
"When he came there was no more dreadfulness," said Hester, but I had to add, "Except the dreadfulness."CHAPTER 2
"What! Only two passports?" said Mademoiselle Zizi when I took ours to the office next morning.
"Joss, my sister, has hers, the rest of us are on my mother's." I hated to have to say that. The hotel boy who had let us in was listening — his name, we knew now, was Paul; he was scornfully polishing the brass grille and could squint down at the passports. His look said plainly that he would not go about with a mother.
I had fought about that passport. "Why should Joss have one and not I?"
"She is sixteen," said Mother, and added, "You forget how young you are."
Three years separated each of us children — Father's expeditions usually lasted three years — but Joss and I had always been the Big Ones, as Willmouse and Vicky were the Littles, with Hester in a no-man's-land between. Joss and Cecil, it had been one word though it had meant I had sometimes to be older than I conveniently could; now I was relegated to a no-man's-land myself. I could see it was inevitable — thirteen is not child, not woman, not ... declared, I, thought, as Joss was now — but it hurt. The separate passport was a pubic confirmation of the status Joss had taken for herself; she had moved into it quite naturally, leaving me behind as she had moved from the bedroom we had always shared into one of her own. "There are things," said Mother, purposely vague though she knew I knew perfectly well what those things were, and she had let Joss change with Willmouse, moving him in to me.
Hester would have been a more natural companion, but she could not be separated from Vicky. "I have to sleep with my foot in her bed, you see," said Hester.
"Your foot out, in her bed?" I asked.
"Yes, or she won't go to sleep."
"But isn't it cold?"
"Sometimes." Hester added I was not to tell Mother. A great deal of the peace in our house was kept by Hester, but I was shocked. I spoke to Vicky. "But that is how I know she is there," said Vicky as if that justified it.
"But it's naughty."
"I don't mind being naughty," said Vicky.
A line might have been run through our family dividing it, with Hester, Vicky, and me on one side, Joss and Willmouse on the other. Our surname was Grey: I wished it had been Shelmerdine or de Courcy, ffrench with two small fs, or double-barrelled like Stuvesant-Knox, but it was, simply, Grey. "Better than Bullock," said Joss. We had not quite escaped that; Uncle William was a Bullock, William John Bullock, and Vicky, Hester, and I were as unmistakably Bullock as he, short, bluff, pink-faced, with eyes as blue as larkspurs.
It was not as bad for Hester and Vicky because the Bullocks made pretty children; Vicky, fair-haired, with firm pearly flesh, was enchanting and Hester, with her ringlets and rosiness, had kept her appeal; but in me, as in Uncle William, the plumpness had become a solid shortness, the fair hair was mouse, the rosy cheeks a fresh pinkness. No one ever looked as normal as Uncle William, and I wanted to look startling. Why could I not have been born to look like Joss, to be Joss? Joss and Willmouse were dark and slim with such an ivory skin that their lashes and hair looked darker. "Like Snow White," said Hester with the only trace of envy I ever heard in her. They were, too, delicately unusual; Willmouse had the peaked look of an elf while Joss's eyes had the almond shape that had given her her nickname. "Because Chinese people have slant eyes," said Joss.
"Are supposed to have them," Father had corrected her on one of his times at home. "Most of them have eyes as straight as anyone."
"They have them in paintings," said Joss, who knew all about painting. She and Willmouse were equally vain — and clever; Joss was a serious painter and Willmouse had what we called his "dressage." It was years before we found out that that had to do with horses not clothes. Willmouse's scrapbooks and workbox and the dolls that so distressed Uncle William — "Dolls! Gordon's ghost!"— were part of it; the books held a colection of fashion prints, designs, and patterns of stuffs; Willmouse needed his scissors and pins for draping his designs — "I don't sew," he said, "that will be done in my workrooms," — while the dolls, his models, Miss Dawn and Dolores, were not dolls but artist's lay-figures carved in wood with articulated joints. They had been given to Joss by Uncle William to help her in her painting but to Mother's bewilderment she would not touch them, while Willmouse had annexed them. Mother could deal with us little Bullocks. Though we were often rude or obstinate, "That is normal," said Mother, but with Joss and Willmouse it was as if, in our quiet farmyard, she had hatched two cygnets and, "Everything I do is wrong," said poor Mother.
It seemed to be; for instance, when Joss complained that the art mistress at St. Helena's was no use, Mother enrolled Joss in a London correspondence art course, but that had led to difficulties. "Dear Mr. A ..." Joss wrote in the second lesson to her far-off master, "I send you the design you asked for using a flower, St. John's Wort, and the drawing of the woman — my mother — but I am sorry I cannot find a naked man anywhere."
With Joss and Willmouse even the Grey in their names took on an elegance; Joanna Grey, William Grey, had a good sound while Cecil or Victoria Grey were nothing, though Hester Grey suited Hester.
It had never been fair but now, I thought, it was growing more unfair, for Joss had blossomed; that was what people said of young girls and I saw it was the right word; she was like a tree or a branch where every bud was breaking into flower.
She would not undress with me any more and I was glad because my pinkness was still distressingly straight up and down while she had a waist now, slim and so supple I could not help watching it, and curves that tapered to long slim legs, while her breasts had swelled. I know how soft these were and that they were tender, for once, out of curiosity, I had touched them and she had jumped and sworn at me. As Joss grew, she grew more irritable, with flashes of temper that were sometimes cruel; she was restless too, as if she were always excited, which was odd because her face was serene and withdrawn, almost secret, I thought, with only the palest pink flush on her cheeks to tell of the excitement inside. "Is Joss beautiful?" I asked with a pang.
"Just now," said Mother. "Just now."
I tried desperately to keep up with Joss. Cecil de Courcy, de Haviland, Cecil du Guesclin, Winnington-Withers ... Winter. That was a beautiful name and I thought, I shall use it when I am a writer, or a nun; Cecil Winter, Sister Cecilia Winter, but I was not yet a writer, or a nun, nor did I know that I should ever be either. At the moment I was more like a chameleon, coloured by other people's business, and now I burned as I had burned about us eating oranges in the train, when I saw Mademoiselle Zizi's lips twitch as she read out our names from Mother's passport. There was barely room for us all in the space.
"You went chasing across France with that gaggle of children?" Uncle William said afterwards.
"We didn't chase," said Mother. "We went quite slowly by train." Sometimes Mother was no older than Hester and that passport with its single stamp, in spite of all the names, looked like a child's.
"Et votre pète?" asked Madame Corbet.
"Yes. Where is your father?" asked Mademoiselle Zizi.
"In Tibet," said Hester.
I should have done better without Hester, who could never learn to temper anything it was odd — and annoying — that I always wanted us not to be ordinary but, when we were a little extraordinary, I blushed.
"Juste ciel! What is he doing in Tibet?" asked Mademoiselle Zizi.
"Picking flowers," said Hester.
"Picking flowers!" Mademoiselle Zizi repeated it in French, and Paul gave a short guffaw which made me rap out what was almost a French sentence: "Il est botaniste." I added, in English, that he was on an expedition. "He usually is," said Hester.
Mademoiselle Zizi and Madame Corbet looked at one another. "Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu! Eh quoi?" said Madame Corbet.
They began to talk about us in French as if we were not there. "They have not been in France before," said Mademoiselle Zizi, looking at the passports.
"They have not been anywhere," said Madame Corbet.
"We have," I began hotly. "My sister Joss was born in India. Mother's old passport expired, that's all ..." But they did not listen.
"And they don't speak French."
That was wounding because, up to that moment, I had believed that Joss and I, particularly I, spoke French very well. "You ought to," said Joss. "You learned enough." That was not kind, for learning French poetry was a punishment at St. Helena's.
Excerpted from The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. Copyright © 1979 Rumer Godden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Just needed to clear up the previous review. I read the book first when I was 12 and have read it every year since (more years than I care to count!) The father is a botanist in Tibet who only comes home every few years - hence the age difference between the five children. Joss, a young women who is beautiful 'just now', Cecil, a young woman who is lumped with her sister Joss in all family matters but finds herself being left behind, Hester who is younger than Cecil and the family peacemaker, Willmouse, the only boy in the family (and who wants to be a designer of womens high fashion clothes) and Vicky who is too young to be involved in the story much. Their mother is bit by a horsefly and is hospitalized at the beginning of their vacation to tour the 'battlefields of France'. They continue on alone to their hotel where they are involved in an episode of love, lust, murder and a world class thief.
This was a very well written story and an entertaining read. Refreshing.
25 Dec 2010 - Secret Santa gift from LibraryThing Virago Group member ParmavioletA delicious coming-of-age novel. Cecil and her delightfully-drawn siblings are thrown onto their own resources when their mother falls in on the way to their holiday in France. They are awakened to the mysteries of sex and adulthood by the set of characters at the hotel, some of whom - Eliot in particular - are meant to be protecting them. Hugely atmospheric and evocative of hot teenage summers and learning who to trust.
The Greengage Summer by Rumer GoddenI have owned this book for quite a few years and picked it up, as I felt that my reading was a little bit stalled, and I needed something that would be a quick read. I am very glad that this was the book that I chose.The story concerns the five Grey Children, who travel to France on holiday with their mother. The mother thinks that the children are spoiled and wants to show them the battlefields of France to make them less selfish. As soon as they arrive their mother becomes sick, and is confined to a hospital bed, leaving the children to stay at a local hotel, largely unsupervised. They are taken under the wing of Eliot, an enigmatic Englishman who seems to live permanently at the hotel. They find summer in France to be very different to what they are used to in France, They gorge themselves on greengages from the orchard, and discover adult 'pleasures' such as drinking alcohol. The narrator of the story is thirteen year old Cecil (a girl), but it is her elder sister, Joss 'suddenly achingly beautiful' who is at the centre of the action as she attracts attention from the men at the hotel, leading to the crisis near the end of the novel.This is a very well written book, and one that I can highly recommend to anyone who enjoys coming of age fiction.