Well, it's only February, but I definitely know one book that belongs on this year's Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen. I've been planning for a while to get back to reading Rumer Godden. She has long been one of my favorite authors, but somehow, quite stupidly, I had complacently assumed that I had already read all of her best work—The Greengage Summer, Kingfishers Catch Fire, An Episode of Sparrows, The River, Black Narcissus—amazing and magical books all, and that's not to mention her two riveting memoirs, which I highly recommend.
Somehow I had it in mind that China Court was one of her lesser novels and might prove a disappointment after all of those brilliant books. It wasn't until the seductive new Virago editions became irresistibly cheap at Book Depository (every cloud has a silver lining—buying books from the UK has been cheaper than ever since Brexit weakened the pound…) that I finally gave it a chance. And was completely sucked in and unable to put it down for all of last weekend, then immediately moved on to A Fugue in Time.
Among other things, these two novels reinforced for me just how experimental Rumer Godden manages to be, even while remaining accessible, character-rich, and utterly compelling as a storyteller. Her books might be called Modernist Lite. And the two books do have more in common than the fact that I've read them both in the past week. In many ways, they utilize the same technique—Godden telling the stories of several generations of one family, not chronologically but rather weaving them together, all in the present tense, into one elegant, lovely tapestry. But Fugue seems like an initial attempt to achieve what China Court accomplishes brilliantly, and although Fugue seems to have been popular and well-received when it appeared, I wonder if perhaps Godden was unsatisfied with her initial experiment. Or if she merely felt, fifteen years later, that she knew how to do it more smoothly and successfully. And indeed she did!
The technique is crucial here. When I say that she tells the stories of multiple characters from different generations, all in the present tense and all interspersed together, it sounds like it could be rather chaotic. And indeed, initially there are some startling moments, such as this line from page 5:
The Eagle has flues that Bella cannot wrestle with but Cecily understands it: 'I ought to, I have known it for nearly fifty years,' ever since, at fourteen years old, she comes - 'as kitchen maid then,' says Cecily - from Wales.
Fifty years ago, but "she comes," not "she came." Or this one just one page later:
Though books nowadays are sold with their pages cut, she still keeps a paper knife in the shape of a sword on the table, the hilt damascened in black and gold; John Henry, her husband, gives it to her, long ago in Toledo.
But it's a testament to Godden's skill as a storyteller that these moments serve as cues, and one gets the hang of her technique so quickly that by a few pages later it became—for me at least—second nature, as if I'd been reading novels written this way all my life, with characters who lived at different times both acting in the present tense within the same paragraph, or even in the same sentence. And the effect it all creates—the events in one character's life reflecting off of those in her grandfather's, or the fate of another character lending deeper meaning to a moment in her descendant's childhood—is so intricate and lovely that it practically shimmers.
As much as I love the technique, though, and as astonishing as it is that Godden was able to pull it off so compellingly and even suspensefully, giving us bits and pieces that gradually build until I was practically gasping to see what she could do next, it's really the characters that make the novel so special. Here as elsewhere, Godden's women absolutely step off the page, living and breathing—you can practically feel the draft as they pass you by.
I loved all the characters here, even the ones who were deeply flawed (Godden excels at making one forgive her character's flaws and love them anyway). But one in particular, and indeed one of the most flawed, stood out for me. Eliza, the great-great-aunt of the modern day Tracy, who returns to the house following her grandmother's death, is surely one of the most poignant spinsters anywhere in literature. For her frustrations and anger, which make her undoubtedly difficult to live with (and which lead her eventually to become fabulously dishonest in a way few readers will condemn her for) stem from the stifling limitations she faces as an intelligent woman in a society that has no place for her:
Eliza will not get up because she does not want to get up. 'What is there to get up for?' asks Eliza.
Anne is up early to practise before breakfast. Her piano playing - 'never very good,' says Eliza - is the solitary accomplishment left of all that Eliza and Anne bring back from school where, at Eliza's continual 'worritting' as Polly calls it, they are sent for a year, to be 'finished'. 'Finished, we haven't started yet!' says Eliza.
'We learned some French, which we shall never speak, the use of the globes, for places we shall never see, and we brought it all home in a portmanteau of pride,' says Eliza.
Indeed, her eventual descent into dishonesty (which I won't give away here, as it's so much fun to read about) is a central and far-reaching plot development which will reverberate in the novel's present, with modern day Tracy, seeking her own unlikely happiness at China Court.
In fact, a good many of the women who have lived at China Court have had tragic lives, though this doesn't make the novel ultimately any less uplifting. Somehow, Godden was able to remind me at times both of the Brontës and of William Faulkner (of all things), and yet there's a fundamentally hopeful, compassionate perspective in the novel that's quite diffferent from those darker works.
At any rate, enough said. I loved it. I'm planning to read it again soon. If you haven't read it (or, heaven forbid, if you haven't read anything by Godden yet), then for Pete's sake get a copy and read it.
As I mentioned, from China Court I immediately went on to read the earlier A Fugue in Time, and I also quite enjoyed it. It felt familiar to me after China Court, and the technique and characters are similarly seductive. But for me, there's just no comparison. Fugue has many of the same elements, but the technique seemed to me not nearly so polished. For example, one of the strategies Godden uses here to evoke all the different periods in the house's past is to make lists—lists of sounds the house has heard over the years, of all the types of notes that have been written, of people passing by outside the house, of the various possessions of the house, of holidays celebrated, of births and deaths in the house. Some of these are quite interesting, mind you, but they do rather slow the pace and force you out of the novel's narrative.
There are also vividly portrayed women here, and Selina, neglected daughter and frustrated woman, is a sort of rough draft of Eliza in the later book, and Griselda, who, adapting to managing a house, ordering meals, supervising servants, worries that the house will consume all her life and energy, is a striking character herself.
There is much to like in Fugue, and I suspect that if I had read it first I would have enjoyed it even more. But for me, there's no doubt that China Court is the richer, more lively, and more brilliantly executed novel. As such, I can't recommend it highly enough.
(On the other hand, author Jo Walton wrote in more detail about Fugue here, and it was interesting to read someone's take who clearly loves the earlier book more than the latter.)