The 10th December marks the birthday of Rumer Godden (1907-1998), acclaimed author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction for adults and children, most famously Black Narcissus. To celebrate, her daughter Jane Murray Flutter shares some memories of her mother.
I am Rumer Godden’s eldest daughter Jane and my mother’s writing has always been part of my life. Following this year’s new editions of the novels by Virago, I have been giving talks about my mother’s life and work. I call my talks ‘Sometimes’, as many years ago, while accompanying Mother on a lecture tour in America, a fan came up to me and said, ‘It must be wonderful to have such a famous mother,’ to which I replied, ‘Sometimes,’ and that is what it is like to be the child of a dedicated author.
The writing was paramount in my mother’s life and we knew that when the study door was shut it meant, ‘keep out’. We knew she did everything to be a good and caring parent and she had to earn a living, but the writing always came first and totally influenced our lives.
The books were part of our lives and when I reread them I can get mixed up between fact and fiction: in the Kingfishers Catch Fire, I am Teresa in the novel and my sister Paula is Moo. The places, sounds and events are all biographical as we lived a very rural life in Kashmir. I can remember the day I bit on something shiny and it was ground glass that had been put into our Indian lunch dish of dhal and rice. The cook for some time had been poisoning Mother so he could get financial control of her affairs. There is a more dramatic climax in the book. The first-aid treatment was to eat cotton wool sandwiches – I can feel the taste now!
India played a large part in our childhood. In Calcutta my aunts had racehorses and we often went to the races. The recently reissued The Dark Horse is based on a true story from the Tollygunge race course in Calcutta. It is about an order of nuns and their horse and cart and an unusual racehorse called Dark Invader.
Rumer Godden had a wonderful rapport with children and she believed strongly in reading aloud to children of all ages. We always had a book at bedtime and later on often read aloud around the fire on a Sunday evening. She always wrote a children’s book between a novel as she said it was a very good discipline as you must never write down to children or use too much description. Mother loved the miniature and her first children’s book was The Dolls’ House, first published in 1947. She wanted to see if she could set a murder story in to a dolls’ house and see if anyone would notice – no one did!
Mother was a special grandmother and she would give dolls’ tea parties for her small grandchildren. They were sent tiny invitations and had to bring their favourite doll or teddy and come dressed up. They borrowed the grownups’ hats and high heels. The food was miniature – tiny sandwiches and thimble-size jellies. Afterwards she read to them and showed them her tiny treasures.
Many of the children’s books are about dolls and mice and the ballet. We were often taken to see ballet at Covent Garden and I once went to Royal Lodge, the ballet school, with Mother as she was doing research for Thursday’s Children, which has been republished by Virago and is based on this school. It is about a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer.
My mother got ideas for her books from many places and one came from a newspaper cutting in the 1940s about a small girl who was arrested for stealing earth from a London square as she wanted to make a garden in a bombed-out church. This turned in to the novel An Episode of Sparrows,which Virago just released this spring.
The Diddakoi is a children’s book about a gypsy child and it won The Whitbread Award. In it the little girl’s beloved grandmother dies and it also deals with the problem of bullying. This little book has helped many children cope with bereavement.
I now look after the Rumer Godden Literary Trust which was set up after my mother’s death in 1998 and it is heartwarming to see the renewed interest in her life and work. My mother published over thirty-two books in her lifetime and was also a poet and short-story writer. She has been translated into many languages; I have just signed a Korean contract. There are even students studying Rumer Godden for their PhDs and using the archives in Boston University and here in Scotland. We have a website at www.rumergodden.com where you can find out more about my mother’s life and work.