Rumer Godden

February 2, 2013

An author whose books I read over and over again is a British lady named Rumer Godden. Though born in Sussex, England in 1907, within six months she was taken to live in India, where her father ran a navigation company. She said she had a halcyon childhood remarking "I always thank God that we did not have sensible parents." Her early years gave her a deep love of India which was shown throughout her writing. Growing up in India where there were no bookstores, libraries, or schools, Rumer and her sisters wrote constantly. Her father said it was a good thing they had lots of waste baskets in their house. After being homeschooled for much of her childhood, Rumer and her sisters were sent back to England for boarding school. They were miserable, actually attending five schools in two years. World War I came and thankfully the girls were released from boarding school and sent back to India.

Rummer was trained as a dancer and as an adult had a dancing school for mixed races in Calcutta, which was very progressive for her time. She had a dreadful first marriage. Her husband abandoned her and her children, leaving them penniless in India. At that point, she began writing books, many of them autobiographical. By the time of her death she had authored over sixty books! 

My favorite book of hers is the delightfully titled An Episode of Sparrows. As is often the case, the heroine of the book would be voted least likely to succeed. But we cannot help but love this unlikely start under Godden's gifted hand. It is the story of a little girl's desire for beauty, and her own place, in a lonely and cold world. Her tenacity and vulnerability are irresistible to any reader. I have given this book to people of many ages and they are all enchanted by it. Although not a children's book, any pre-teen or teenager would love it as will any adult.

In 1961, Godden wrote a very insightful book entitled China Court: The Hours of  a Country House. In a similar style she wrote In This House of Brede, a meaningful book of a very successful British female government civil servant, who, at the age of 40 walks away from everything she has ever known, and joins a convent. It is not a deeply spiritual book but more an examination of the life of the mind and relationships in a closed community. It is one of the richest and deepest books I have ever read, and I never tire of reading it over and over again. 

Many of Godden's books were made into movies. My personal favorite was based on her novel Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time. It became 1948 black and white film Enchantment starring David Niven. It is the story of a London house through several generations of time ending in World War II.  Other books of hers made into movies were Black Narcissus in 1947, starring Deborah Kerr and The Greengage Summer in 1961 filmed in France. An Episode of Sparrows was made into a movie entitled Innocent Sinners in 1985. Her most famous was the semi-autobiographical novel The River which was a major a major motion picture in 1949. This was the first film shot entirely on location in India by the famous director Jean Renoir.

Interspersed with her best-selling adult books Godden wrote many amazing children's stories. My personal favorite is The Diddakoi, also published as Gypsy Girl. This is a very sensitive story about a child from another culture, trying to find a sense of home and belonging. I also like her other children's books such as The Story of Holly and Ivy, Four Dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, and The Kitchen Madonna. 


Godden also wrote two autobiographies: A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep and A House With Four Rooms. Although not a person of faith, in the 1950s Godden became interested in Roman Catholicism and officially converted in 1968. Several of her later novels contained sympathetic portrayals of priests and nuns. 

Godden was the least attractive of four sisters, and least socially adept in a time when formal British manners were esteemed. Because of that, many of her heroines tend to share her social awkwardness. That is why her heriones are so approachable to the average reader. 

Before her death, she was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). She died at the age of 90 after a series of strokes. Godden published her last book a year before her death. 


I rarely visit a library or used bookstore without checking for her books. I encourage you to do the same as these are books that will stand the test of time. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I do! 

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