Reviewed by Harriet Devine
Rumer Godden is a remarkable writer, and far less well known today than she deserves to be. So Virago’s decision to reissue some of her novels is very welcome.
An Episode of Sparrows, first published in 1956, is a story about love, though not a love story in the accepted sense. It’s set in post-war London, and in one of those parts of the city (which still exist, though there are fewer of them) where squares of wealthy houses sit side by side with streets where the houses are shabby and the people a great deal poorer. In Mortimer Square live the two middle-aged, unmarried Chesney sisters – tough-minded, busy, successful Angela and gentle, nervous, frail Olivia. Living in nearby Catford Street are Lovejoy Mason, aged eleven, and her friend Tip Malone, who is thirteen. Though they have become unlikely friends, the two childrens’ family lives could not be more different. Tip comes from a large, noisy Irish Catholic family, while Lovejoy is the daughter of a feckless, selfish, and usually absent mother whose interest in her little daughter has decreased sharply since she ceased to be “sweet” enough to be taken on stage as part of her mother’s dancing act.
Lovejoy is one of those children whose lives have been to a large extent subsumed in caring for their parents, though with Mrs Mason so often away she has had to learn to fend for herself. As a result she has developed a tough, resilient exterior though she’s pretty angry and obviously suppressing a lot of pain. Having always adored her mother, she has come to recognise that her mother cares little for her and has, in fact, more or less abandoned her in their rented room. But Lovejoy suddenly makes a discovery which will transform her life – she picks up a packet of flower seeds and gradually, after some false starts, and helped by Tip, she starts to make a garden in a disused yard behind the Catholic church. Needless to say nothing runs smoothly and when the children are discovered taking earth from the square to grow a rose bush, serious trouble descends and things look very black for poor Lovejoy.
There is so much to praise here. For one thing the characterisation is wonderfully perceptive and believable – Godden has really seen into the hearts of these two children, both in their different ways so disadvantaged but both so bright and so sensitive, and all the other characters are also really well observed. I particularly liked Vincent, husband of Lovejoy’s landlady, who struggles to run a high-class restaurant in shabby, poverty-stricken Catford Street, and takes Lovejoy for walks in Mayfair and Chelsea to admire the quality of life he aspires to. As for Angela, prejudiced, blinkered, controlling, unable to appreciate the fine qualities of her timid, warm-hearted sister, she is a rather terrifying but totally convincing creation. The plot moves along at just the right pace, with just the right amount of uncertainty and tension and you are never sure if there is going to be a happy ending. As for the themes — well, there’s class prejudice (Angela vs the poor of Catford Street), religious prejudice (Angela and her housekeeper vs. the Roman Catholics), but above all, as I said earlier, there’s love.
Olivia, who has never loved or been loved, finds comfort and even a kind of redemption in the feeling she develops towards the children and this brings about the novel’s immensely satisfying denouement. But it’s the love that develops between Lovejoy and Tip that is so beautifully handled here. The adults are generally completely bemused by it, though towards the end Tip’s mother comes rather unwillingly to see it for what it is. There are some wonderful moments, as when Lovejoy is being “difficult”, and Tip finds himself distracted by
noticing how she had a ridge of very fine short hairs on the back of her neck, soft as down, mouse-coloured but tipped with gold; they looked as if they were protecting the tender knobs of her spine; gently Tip put out his finger and felt those little bones. It was no good; even when Lovejoy was difficult and ungrateful he found it impossible to be angry; instead he began to coax her.
As for Lovejoy, she is almost horrified to discover that Tip is the only person in the world in front of whom she can cry, and despite her sharpness towards him she misses him desperately when he is not around. So, though I said this wasn’t a love story in the conventional sense, it really is, or it’s what a love story really should be – gentle, understated, innocent.
As for the quality of the writing – well, it’s not showy, poetic or obtrusive, but for me the words just leapt off the page and as you can see I enjoyed every minute of it.
I must admit that when I picked up The Dark Horse, my first thought was, oh, a novel about horses, not my thing at all. But then I read it, and of course discovered that, though it is a novel about a horse, it’s also about people and how that horse affects their lives. Dark Invader is the horse, a great, powerful beauty, who has developed a problem of some kind and failed to win the races he has been thought sure of. Bought by Mr Levantine, a wealthy investor, he has been imported to India and is living in the stables of John Quillan, an English trainer who lives in Calcutta with his Eurasian wife and large brood of wild children. With Dark Invader on the journey has come Ted Mullins, his stable lad, an ex-jockey. Also taking an interest in Dark Invader is Mother Morag, Reverend Mother of the Sisters of Poverty, who, many years ago in another life, trained and rode horses herself.
Nobody really understands why Dark Invader developed such a dislike of racing after winning his first race. But one day Ted is watching the Indian grooms as they gently brush and massage the horse’s neck, and notices how he reacts when they get to a certain sensitive spot, probably an old injury. This leads to the conclusion that the horse has been badly ridden by an English jockey, and this, in turn, leads to a chain of events in which the nuns become unwittingly involved.
This is a truly charming novel. I suppose it was originally aimed at younger readers, who would certainly love it, but I am far from a young reader and I loved it too. It’s tremendously evocative of Calcutta, and India in general, and full of beautifully captured sensitive moments of interaction between a wonderful selection of people, many of them only too human and fallible, but ultimately good-hearted. The novel is actually based on a true event which happened in Calcutta in the 1930s, and the story has apparently been told many times before. But I’m willing to bet it hasn’t been told anywhere near as well as in Rumer Godden’s treatment of it.
So, two excellent novels, and more to come in the future from Virago. If you haven’t discovered Rumer Godden yet, now’s the perfect time to start.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Also read Victoria’s article ‘Five Fascinating Facts About Rumer Godden’ here.
Rumer Godden, An Episode of Sparrows (Virago, London: 2014). 978-1844088515, paperback, 288pp.
Rumer Godden, The Dark Horse (Virago, London: 2014). 978-1844088522, paperback, 208pp.