I’m looking for a show of hands, please: How many readers know that Rumer Godden was a mid-century novelist who also wrote children’s books and memoirs? How many know Bruce Willis and Demi Moore named one of their children after her? Bonus question: who can name a movie based on one of her books?*
Godden wrote wonderful children’s books, most of which feature dolls in one way or another: The Fairy Doll, Mouse House, Miss Happiness and Miss Plum. The Story of Holly And Ivy is a heartwarming and beautifully written Christmas story that makes a nice break from Clement Moore and Dickens at the holidays. My niece loved it so much that a reading in pajamas on Christmas Eve became a family tradition.
Her novels for adults are as sophisticated as her children’s books are simple, with adult plots and great settings. She had her own way of blending a character’s inner thoughts and spoken words seamlessly. Try The Greengage Summer, A Candle for Saint Jude (a lovely, short ballet novel), China Court, The Peacock Spring. She wrote two novels about missionaries who happen to be nuns, or vice versa: Black Narcissus and In This House of Brede. Her novels are set in India, in the South of France, in the English countryside.
She herself was a prolific traveller and moved herself and her children to some amazing (and sometimes terrifying) places, driven by finances and a thirst for adventure. I am not much of a memoir reader, but the book she wrote with her sister, the painter Jon Godden, about their childhood, Two Under the Indian Sun, is considered a classic by many. Some of her other autobiographical books include A House With Four Rooms and Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.
From her autobiographies, I learned that my very favorite of her novels, An Episode of Sparrows, was her least favorite of her own books. I think it was written during a hard time in her life and therefore was associated with unhappiness in her mind. For me, it is one of the small, nearly perfect novels I treasure (Aha! An idea for another blog post!). As you can gather, Godden was wonderfully prolific, a plus for those of us who like to read our way through all of a writer’s books. Which is your favorite?
*Black Narcissus, Kizzy, Innocent Sinners, In This House of Brede, The River, The Greengage Summer, Tottie.
The British novelist Elizabeth Goudge’ s books are full of magical, beautifully observed settings, memorable characters and amazing occurrences. These are books you want to walk into and shut the door behind you. Who wouldn’t want to live in the beautiful, falling-down medieval inn, The Herb of Grace of the book of the same name, where the children find the mysterious mural in the jam closet..and then there’s the mysterious couple from the houseboat.
But, as always in Goudge’ s books, the biggest drama is deep within the human spirit. The Herb of Grace is part of a trilogy that explores the repercussions of an adulterous relationship on a family and particularly on the two lovers. So while children explore a mythical-feeling forest and a jaded actor creates a deeply-felt Christmas pageant, the real work of the story goes on beneath the surface, a drama of sin, redemption, acceptance, and grace.
A mystical current runs through all of Goudge’ s work, a blend of Anglican mysticism and nature mysticism. She tackles the impossible, over and over again. What does it feel like to give over your life to God, to experience grace, to repent? Whatever your beliefs, it is fascinating to watch someone take on these questions with such imagination and lyricism. Does she succeed? Is success possible when writing about internal spiritual struggles and states? Try one of these and decide for yourself.
The City of Bells
The Herb of Grace (also published as Pilgrim’s Inn), part of The Eliot Family Trilogy
The Dean’s Watch
Green Dolphin Street
Have I mentioned lately that Goudge also wrote J.K. Rowling’ s favorite children’s book, The White Horse? (Yes, I have). Also one of my favorites, Linnets and Valerians. Much of her work is out of print but sometimes I can find something on http://www.powells.com/ or check out her author page on http://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Goudge/e/B000APM9OA/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1413125822&sr=8-2-ent
*I’m doing a off-and-on series on forgotten women novelists, of whom Goudge is the first. Stay tuned.
Among the children’s books my mother passed on to me from her own childhood, there were a lot of familiar classics: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. There were also some books I have never seen or heard mentioned elsewhere: Bitsy Finds the Clue, Understood Betsy. Almost all of these books contained passages that might seem morbid now, but were an accepted part of children’s literature then, just as, I guess, they were an accepted part of children’s lives. That is, in almost every book a friend or sibling of the main character dies.
Most followed the standard “only the good die young” format. I cried long and hard over dear, gentle Beth in Little Women, and Ed in Jack and Jill. (Being kindhearted and fond of music is pretty much the kiss of death in Louisa May Alcott’s books). As soon as someone is described as selfless and beloved by all, get the hankies ready for a Beth March rerun. Dreadful little Amy,on the other hand, lives through all the sequels. (That girl is too mean to die.) Every once in a while, a bad kid died, maybe just for variety, like silly, flirtatious Ruby Gillis in Anne of Green Gables.
I mourned them all, and since it was my habit to read at bedtime, there were more than a few nights that my mother had to come sit with me until I was consoled enough for the latest fictional death. But none of this prepared me for Billy the puppy. Billy the puppy was a character in Beautiful Joe, a book I have long believed was essentially a propaganda piece for the ASPCA. I looked it up recently and could find no direct evidence, but I stand by my original conclusion. The kids in the book not only scold adults they find abusing animals, they take a detailed pledge, like miniature animal abuse teetotalers, promising to never engage in behaviors like stealing birds’ eggs or nests.
Billy’ s death, only a short time after he was rescued from an abusive situation, was heartbreaking. I don’t think I’ve ever cried as hard, at least not over a book. But there is something pleasurable about luxuriating in grief, when you choose to, like my college friend who never missed a late night rerun of Love Story, box of tissues at hand. Jodi Picoult has legions of fans, and even though I always feel manipulated by her books, I also always cry.
What books have you read that made you cry? Are there any you return to for “a good cry”?
On a very special day in 2002, I waited eagerly, but also somewhat sheepishly, for the mail. When the knock at the door finally came, it was a friendly man with a shoebox-size package, who cheerfully told me, “I’ve been delivering these all up and down the street.”
“Great!” I said. “Thanks.” I resisted the urge to yell “Caitlin, your book is here,” before grabbing the box and hastily closing the door. Which was just as well, since I was single, childless and alone in the house except for Sophie the Shih Tzu, a great little dog but not much of a reader. There I was, a thirty-something, embarrassed to have pre-ordered Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for same-day-as-available-in-stores delivery. Blush fading, I immediately sat down and devoted the rest of the day to reading.
Except for the delivery part, and the imaginary kid, this wasn’t unusual for me. Even before the world discovered the existence of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, some of the best fantasy around was written for the 9-11 year old age group. And I continued to read it (and sometimes buy it) long after I aged out of its target market. All of E. Nesbit’s books, of course. The Narnia books. Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Black-and-Blue Magic. Margaret J. Anderson’s In the Keep of Time. Eleanor Cameron’s The Court of the Stone Children. Andre Norton’s wonderful Lavender-Green Magic. Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge, who also wrote J.K. Rowling’s favorite children’s book, The White Horse.
Many of these books feature regular kids who happen into magical adventures–the new nursery carpet turns out to be a flying one, with a phoenix egg rolled up in it. Their history project turns into a time travel adventure; witches, fairies and other magical creatures overlap with the regular world of school, chores and family. I loved these books as a child. They gave me a sense that something amazing could be just around the corner. They sparked and fed the imagination, and I greatly preferred them to the “reality” themed books my contemporaries considered more grown up, like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret and the rest of the hugely popular Judy Blume oeuvre.
The good news is that kids’ fantasy, which was never entirely gone, is now back with a vengeance. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows came out, most of my adult friends were shameless about taking the phone off the hook and staying up all night to read it. And then putting the phone back on the hook so we could call each other and say “are you done yet?” and discuss the outcome. (I try to avoid spoilers, so if there’s anyone else left on the planet who hasn’t read the ending, I will just say this: Ginny? Really?!)
These days, my eight year-old argues when I come to turn off the light because she’s deep into Rick Riordan’s wonderful trilogy, The Kane Chronicles, where modern kids save the world with the help of, and sometimes from, Egyptian gods. And sometimes I give in and let her stay up longer, because, as soon as she’s done with that second book? I get it next.
Image courtesy of [digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net