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Margaret Rumer Godden (December 10, 1907 – November 8, 1998) was a novelist and memoirist born in Eastbourne, Sussex (England) and raised mainly in India at the height of colonial rule. Her life was as dramatic and colorful as the stories she so skillfully wrote.
Rumer and her sisters spent an idyllic childhood in the Bengal region, now actually part of Bangladesh. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be a writer. She was sent to Britain to be educated, as was the custom at the time, and traveled back and forth from England to India frequently.
After being trained to be a dance teacher in Eastbourne, Rumer returned to India in 1925 and, at age 18, started a dance school in Calcutta. The school allowed both English and Indian children to attend together, something that was scandalous for its time and place. Despite this impediment to success, she and her sister Nancy kept the school running for some twenty years.
The start of a prolific writing career
Within this time period, Rumer married Laurence Foster in 1934. She was pregnant when they married, and it was an ill-fated relationship from the start. The couple had two daughters and for the most part, lived separate lives. Rumer was determined to continue to write and to reconcile her need for expression with the demands of a growing family.
In 1939, her first novel, Black Narcissus, was published to immediate acclaim and became a bestseller. The story is set in a cloister high in the Himalayas. A group of nuns in a convent in northern India is the backdrop for a story of cultural conflict and obsessive love. Black Narcissus set the stage for a succession of novels that are defined by vivid settings and realistic characters in masterful storytelling that was sometimes described by contemporary reviewers as “deceptively simple” and “subtle magic.”
After eight years of marriage, Rumer and Foster split up. She left Calcutta with her daughters to live first in the tea plantations in Assam, then in the mountains of Kashmir. They first lived on a houseboat, then on a farm.
A mysterious poisoning
While in Kashmir, it appeared that a servant attempted to poison her and her daughters (this incident was later fictionalized in her 1953 novel Kingfishers Catch Fire). The notoriety of the case forced her to take her daughters briefly back to the more familiar territory of Calcutta in 1945, and the next year, they moved back to England. The attempted poisoning incident is explored in great length in the biography Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life by Anne Chisholm (1999).
Though she was passionately devoted to India, her relationship with the culture, as an outsider, was complicated and ambivalent.
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Quotes by Rumer Godden, Author and Spiritual Seeker
Rumer incorporated other personal experiences into her novels. A Candle for St. Jude (1948) harks back to her years as the proprietor of a dance school. Though the fictional version is set in London, it features the clashing temperaments and personalities that she likely experienced in Calcutta.
Feature films and television adaptations
Black Narcissus was released in 1947 as a film starring Deborah Kerr, becoming the first of nine adaptations of Rumer Godden’s novels for the movies or television.
In the late forties, Rumer collaborated on the script for a film version of The River, based on her novel of the same title. A coming-of-age story set in India, the film was very true to the book. It was directed by Jean Renoir and released in 1951. It was well received and won the international award at the Venice Film Festival that year. It later became a great favorite of Martin Scorsese and later also influenced director Wes Anderson. It’s still considered a classic of midcentury film.
Other books of hers that were made into films or adapted for television included The Greengage Summer, The Peacock Spring, and In This House of Brede.
The influence of religion
Rumer remarried in the late 1940s. In the early 1950s, after returnin to England, she became interested in Catholicism. Shifting from the lyrical and atmospheric novels set in India that she’d become known for, she began exploring themes of secular life in her novels. These included Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy and In This House of Brede. In these works of fiction, she explores the spiritual side of human nature, and what it means to commit to a life devoted to religion. She officially converted to Catholicism in 1968.
Children’s Books and Memoirs
In her nearly 60-year writing career, Rumer produced dozens of books in many genres including more than two dozen books for children. Her memoirs, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep and A House With Four Rooms are fascinating glimpses into an extraordinary woman’s life. She wrote a number of other works of nonfiction, including a biography of Hans Christian Andersen.
In 1994, already elderly, she returned to Kashmir, India for the last time to be interviewed for a BBC documentary about her life and work. Rumer Godden’s emotional, witty, and energetic prose spanned the bridge between real life and fiction. Though not as well known as they once were, a number of her books are still read and relevant today.
Rumer Godden died in 1998 at the age of 90.
More about Rumer Godden on this site
As mentioned above, Rumer Godden was incredibly prolific. Those listed below are among the best known of some twenty-five novels she wrote for adults. And in addition, as also noted, she wrote some two dozen books for children as well.
- Black Narcissus (1939)
- Gypsy, Gypsy (1940)
- The River (1946)
- Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953)
- An Episode of Sparrows (1956)
- The Greengage Summer (1958)
- China Court (1961)
- The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1963)
- In This House of Brede (1969)
- The Peacock Spring (1975)
- Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy (1979)
- Thursday’s Children (1984)
- Coromandel Sea Change (1991)
Autobiographies and biographies
- Rumer Godden Literary Trust
- Reader discussions of Godden’s books on Goodreads
- Rumer Godden page on Amazon
Articles, news, etc.
- Rumer Godden: Influential but Underrated
- Rumer Godden’s Life Story is a Story in Itself
- Rereading the India Novels of Rumer Godden
Television and film adaptations of Godden’s novels (selected)
- Black Narcissus (1946)
- The River (1951)
- Loss of Innocence (1961) – retitled from The Greengage Summer
- In this House of Brede (1975)
- The Peacock Spring (1996)
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