|First UK edition cover|
"I must have a little more time. For years," she said, feeling the fire on her cheek mingling with that other inner warmth so that she flushed and her cheeks were red, "for years I've trailed along behind Aunt Barbe. Now—I'm just beginning to go on my own—to cast her off a little."
Henrietta (Henry) Castle is a classic Rumer Godden heroine whose widening world unfolds against an uncharacteristically Gothic background. Orphaned, Henrietta lives in France with her widowed Aunt Barbe, a cold-blooded aging beauty who enjoys pushing people to the limit ("I like to interfere. I like to watch what happens. … It amuses me to pinch them in their tender places."). As Godden's fourth novel opens, the pair—along with elderly Nana, who has babied and enabled Aunt Barbe her entire life—are returning to their chateau in rural St. Lieux, where Henrietta spent much of her happy childhood before the death of her Uncle Louis. There, she finds the atmosphere much changed since their last visit five years before, and the locals, who loved and respected her uncle, have come to despise her aunt. Soon, Aunt Barbe's machinations are set on a young gypsy and his family, driving them remorselessly into tragedy.
Gypsy, Gypsy lends itself to a dramatic summary.
And obviously it lends itself to wildly different evaluations as well. Rumer Godden herself, in her wonderful memoir A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987), speaks of the book as one of her lesser works (she must have felt the pressure of following up her first big success, Black Narcissus, published the year before, not to mention that war was looming—and indeed starting—as she wrote). Contemporary reviews were divided. Kirkus said:
Another string to Rumer Godden's longbow, a story altogether different from Black Narcissus, built on a compelling, tantalizing theme, that of evil deliberately set in play, a theme handled with a light-fingered touch that is as distinctive as it is fascinating.
The Chicago Tribune couldn't get past the fact that Godden hadn't written a book exactly like its predecessor, and Time memorably if bewilderingly said "Gypsy, Gypsy might have been written by Emily Brontë if she and her prose had pernicious anemia but were not otherwise seriously indisposed." (It might be noted that that critic doesn't seem to have liked Black Narcissus either.) The Observer dismissed it casually, the Guardian somewhat noncommittally said it was "written with the care and devotion of one who treats novel-writing as an art." And finally, the crème de la crème: Katherine Woods, writing in the New York Times and, happily, engaging with the book on its own terms rather than comparing it to Black Narcissus, more or less raved about it, concluding:
[I]t is always a fascinating story. One is held by it, so, in reading—even before one stops to realize the subtle perfection of form, the natural awareness and troubling suggestion, the strangeness and penetration and beauty, that make it an extraordinary achievement, and leave its echoes calling in one's mind.
Well, exactly. You may have guessed by now that I'm very much in agreement with the Times reviewer. You might say, of course, in hindsight, having read Godden's later work, it's easier to appreciate the best qualities of an early work even if her later brilliance hasn't quite developed yet. But the one modern-day review I found online (which, be warned, gives away the entire plot), written by a Godden fan, is pretty packed with vitriol. The reviewer (see here if you don't mind the spoilers) seems to be personally offended that Godden was trying her hand at something different.
|First US edition cover|
And indeed Gypsy, Gypsy is different from much of Godden's later work. Perhaps influenced by a world descending into war, Godden's vision is a bit darker here than usual, though the charming Henrietta is, as I mentioned above, as quintessentially a Godden-esque heroine as could be imagined. She could comfortably have danced in A Candle for St Jude, plotted against her parents' divorce in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, or shimmered like a ghost in the timelessness of China Court. She is only just finding herself and learning to resist her aunt. She is surely scarred by Aunt Barbe's behavior, both in the present and the past—among them repeated love affairs, which Uncle Louis endured stoically—but she also retains her compassion and love for others, becoming more mature and wiser in the course of the story, and consciously strives to become a very different kind of woman from her aunt. There's a subplot about her uncle's will, which contained a clause suggesting she should marry his nephew and eventual heir, René (no blood relation, though they are cousins by marriage), and Henry's shifting views of this prospective marriage are the feelings of any Godden heroine. There are many passages, too, that could have come from any better-known Godden novel. For example:
She sat down on a bench worn shiny with people sitting and the rubbing of their hands. Now she rubbed hers there too, and once again she had the sense of being one of many, of doing as other people did, and she sat there, dreamily happy, watching the candles.
Then there's Aunt Barbe herself, perhaps the darkest character Godden ever created (maybe the name is short for "barbarian"). And yet, she is a fascinating character, not simply an evil villain, but a woman with peculiar vulnerabilities and damage of which we catch glimpses now and then. Perhaps her behavior is a bit exaggerated, but Godden is too compassionate and subtle to create a Cruella de Vil. Readers will be hard-pressed to find any redeeming qualities in her, but at least they'll get some glimpses of how she turned into such a monster.
|Ghastly ghastly ghastly paperback cover|
There are other intriguing characters too. There's Monsieur Juneton, the new Abbé (who replaced an older one who caught pneumonia rescuing victims of a shipwreck—indirectly caused by Barbe, no less), who thinks Barbe pure evil until he actually meets her, and then falls under her spell, convinced he can save her. There's various servants and tenants and villagers, virtually all of whom hate Barbe for her cruelty or insensitivity or simple incompetence in running the estate after Louis' death. This is summed up by poor Madame Quibel, whose property was auctioned because she couldn't pay her rent, including her donkeys, now grazing uselessly in one of Barbe's fields. She has carefully skimped and saved and comes to buy back one of her own donkeys so her son can sell fish from a cart around the countryside. Barbe refuses merely "to teach her a lesson". Yikes.
Last but not least are the gypsies themselves. In 2019, of course, the whole "gypsy" terminology—which apart from its derogatory associations also derives inaccurately from "Egyptians", though genetic studies have shown the group originated in India—is being replaced by the more neutral "Roma" or "Romani", but Godden didn't, I think, have any ill intent in her portrayal of the Roma family here. There's neither idealization or demonization here. They do, however, remain solidly at a distance in this novel, unlike in Godden's later children's book The Diddakoi. Henry initially fears the gypsies, due to the superstitions of the locals, but comes to admire them as she learns to judge for herself. Aunt Barbe delights in attempting to subvert their traditional habits, luring the children with candy and giving the oldest daughter (whom she calls "the Object") a glamorous makeover. But we can only really guess at what they themselves are thinking and feeling. In that sense, they all remain the "objects" of the anxieties and egos of others. And in a way, this perhaps makes the story more poignant, as we can only imagine what they're suffering as Aunt Barbe leads them to destruction.
|Rumer Godden in Kashmir, 1943|
In Gypsy, Gypsy, Rumer Godden hasn't quite got the hang of her effortless later style, which at its best manages to combine past, present and future events in such a way that they all come alive at once. Likewise, there's not the same depth of characterization here. It's not a perfect novel, but it's a good and compelling one, with a powerful sensibility and a wonderful eerie, disturbing atmosphere that could almost have come from Daphne du Maurier.