Rumer Godden is the author of more than sixty books, mostly novels for adults and children, but also biographies, plays and poetry.
She was born in 1907 and spent most of her childhood in a remote village in East Bengal where her father worked for a steamship company. She first went to school at the age of twelve in Eastbourne but soon returned to India. She married in 1934 and had two children but later divorced and returned to England after the war where she devoted her time to writing.
Her novels Black Narcissus and The Greenage Summer were made into films, as was her Indian epic, The River, directed by Jean Renoir. She wrote two volumes of autobiography, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987) and A House with Four Rooms (1989).
A few of her works were co-written with her older sister, novelist Jon Godden, including Two Under the Indian Sun, a memoir of the Goddens’ childhood in a region of India now part of Bangladesh.
Rumer Godden died on 8th November 1998, at the age of ninety, after a series of strokes; her ashes were buried with her second husband in Rye. I interviewed her in 1993.
From India to Dumfriesshire is a long journey in any life. Have you been able to regard Scotland as home, or is India still where you belong in spirit?
I’m always divided. I’ve never regarded Scotland as home, but I’m deeply attached to England. I’m like the character in the Gilbert and Sullivan play who was a fairy up to his waist and a human above. I have India in my bones and when I’m in England I’m homesick for India and when I’m in India I’m homesick for England. It’s very difficult.
When you were 19 you read Forster’s A Passage to India which changed your life. It made you ashamed of what you call your ‘blindness and ignorance’ – how little you understood of the India you inhabited. Can you recall those feelings?
When I was a child in India the old shibboleth still prevailed, that the men had contact with all the Indians, but the women and children were not supposed to mix. My father spoke Bengali and Hindi, but we were not allowed to in case we caught the accent and became ‘chichi’, as they called it. We were not allowed to play with Indian children, nor they with us, and as for the Anglo-Indians, those of mixed marriages, they were absolutely outré. We sometimes used to escape and get over our garden wall into the bazaar without anyone knowing. And so even as a child I saw perhaps more of India than my mother, but if I asked questions they were never answered. It was A Passage to India that suddenly made me see that we were like the Turtons. After that I astonished my father and mother by insisting that I was given lessons in Hinduism and allowed to visit Indians and speak to them.
Late on you wrote; ‘in India, for many people, especially women, the pastiche was their life, and nearly was mine.’ Was this pastiche a reference to the hierarchy of colonization?
Probably, but it was unconscious. For instance, I never heard the word British Raj; that was an invention that came after independence. And my father had deep compassion and fellowship with his employees. What enabled me to avoid the pastiche was that I was a born writer and writers are very curious; they like to understand where they live and not feel shut off. Later on I broke away from my family and after training as a dancer, I outraged everybody by opening a dancing school in Calcutta, an unheard of thing. My father was shocked and told me that I would be ostracized by my fellow English. These attitudes lasted a long time. Even when I went back to India as a married woman with my children, the Swiss Italian nanny, who was very dark, used to take the children swimming. I was soon rung up by the secretary of the club to say that my nanny had been seen swimming in the pool and since she was half-caste, that was not allowed, not even with the children. The narrowness was incredible.
Much of your writing is related to the extraordinary events of your life, and in a sense writing was not a luxury but a necessity, a means of earning a living. Do you think there was an element of necessity being the mother of invention?
I think it brought it to fulfilment, but I believe writers are born. My sister was far more gifted than I was, but she married an extremely rich man and was very spoiled. I had no option, I had to work, and I had a very stern apprenticeship when I got back to London after the Second World War. I was practically penniless, and I wrote anything I could, articles, essays, anything that came my way, and it was a wonderful training. It was something I had to do because I had two children and no husband.
Certain books you read in your younger days seem to have had a very significant effect…Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, for example, made such an impression that for a long time no man could measure up. Can you recall the intensity of that feeling, or does it now strike you as absurd, looking back?
No, I have it still today. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice 13 times and every time I fall in love with Mr Darcy. Nothing has changed. There is still a lot of the child in me, and though I’ve been through a lot of adversity, I have retained that feeling of wonder which enables me to fall in love with Mr Darcy again.
Your own romantic path did not run smooth. How much do you think was to do with colonial life and the restrictions and expectations placed upon it?
Not much. I don’t think I was in love with my first husband but I was in love with the idea of being married and he was a very charming person, though he was not all he should have been. But my second husband was wonderful to me, absolutely wonderful, the most understanding man I ever met, and totally unselfish.
You broke off your first engagement, and wrote of your fiancé: ‘I hurt him abominably, but not as much as I would have done had I married him.’ It must have taken tremendous courage to do what you did, especially in the face of family opposition…
Yes, my parents were furious with me. In fact I left home for a while. They so wanted me to marry him. He was a very desirable match, and it seemed to be so perfect, because he fell in love with me when I was only 8, and he waited all the time that I was at school until I came back to India with the unwavering conviction that he was going to marry me. I was barely 18, and I just knew I couldn’t.
In 1934 you married Lawrence Forster, whom you described as ‘unfailingly kind’. That description seemed to condemn rather than to praise…
Well, it wasn’t meant to. I just didn’t know what else to say about him. When I first wrote my autobiography I left him out, but my dear publisher said I had to include him. He was absolutely charming and like very many charming people, not to be trusted. I have a deep distrust of charm. I was never really in love with him, but I tried again and again to save the marriage, because I had the children and he was their father. He had perpetual money trouble, but by then I was earning quite well from writing. Black Narcissus was a real bestseller and brought in a tremendous amount of money which is why I thought I could afford a nanny and a nice house. This was before I realized that my husband had gambled on the stock exchange and was deeply, deeply in debt. I used up all my money in paying off his debts, which was perhaps the most foolish thing I ever did because it didn’t save the situation. But I was very pleased by my father’s reaction when I told him what I’d done. He said, ‘He’s your children’s father. It was the only thing you could have done.’
You were pregnant when you married…was that rather a shocking thing in the 30s?
Oh frightful…dreadful. And had I not been pregnant the marriage would not have taken place.
Sadly that baby lived only four days, ‘a piercing grief’ as you describe it…
Yes, it was a sadness I have carried around for the rest of my life. And he was the only boy. I went on to have two daughters, but he was my son. I was so alone because nobody would have anything to do with me. My mother rallied to me, but my father was very shocked. What I should have done was to go back to England and have the baby and not get married; but I hadn’t the courage.
Do you believe that suffering helps the creative process?
Yes, I believe in the garret. This is what makes me so sad about young writers nowadays who won’t do anything till they’ve got a commission. Money and safety are more important to them than creativity, and of course they put themselves into a straitjacket. I never try to take a penny until I’ve got the book approved and finished, and I can say to myself, now there is a book.
In your autobiography you write: ‘It’s frightening what intensity of feeling is aroused when anyone derides or desecrates something holy or simply beautiful – I cannot stop myself burning with anger.’ These words were written with reference to your first husband, but is it something which extended beyond the marriage, something you have felt all your life perhaps?
Oh yes. People spoil and desecrate things, they take away a child’s innocence. When I see mothers shaking their children and telling them not to daydream, I really feel like shaking them. It outrages me, I cannot bear it. It especially grieves me with religion. In Scotland where I live there is a lot of intolerance. I am a Catholic convert, and the feeling against Popery, as they call it, is very bitter. I once had to meet a nun, a very fine woman, travelling back from London to the convent near us. When she got off the train she was very pale. I asked her if she was all right and she told me she’d been standing by the carriage door waiting to get out – because I had warned her that the train only stopped at this little station for two minutes – and two women came by, and when they saw her in her habit they called out ‘Satan!’, and spat all over her. Now that is a terrible thing.
Why did you convert to Roman Catholicism?
I searched for a religion for a very long time. I nearly became a Hindu. Then I tried the Anglican Church which my grandmother was a great supporter of, but it seemed to me full of hypocrisy. When I went up to the alter rail to take communion I saw that people were looking at me. I went to the vicar and asked him why, and he told me it was because I had been divorced. He then said that he would prefer me not to come to communion on any of the big feast days at Christmas or Easter when people would see me. It was then I realized that the Anglican Church was not for me. With the Catholic Church, you know where you are. It was about 16 years before I could become a Catholic, because of my divorce, and I believe that a church which lays down such rules is not a hypocritical church. It is also the only Christian church that was founded by Christ; all the others were founded by men for expediency.
You have always been captivated by beautiful places and have written very movingly of the beauty of India. That country also contains a lot of ugliness, squalor, deprivation, hunger. How did you reconcile the two aspects?
By living with both. When I had my little house in Kashmir, I became the village wise woman in the sense that they all came to me if anything went wrong. The suffering in winter was simply terrible there. Women wore just a quilted cotton garment, nothing underneath, bare legs and bare feet and straw sandals. I tried to alleviate the suffering, though I couldn’t do much. And when I was running my dancing school I took the Anglo-Indian children, which shocked people of course, but I wasn’t going to have that kind of discrimination. I trained a troupe of very poor Anglo-Indian girls so that they could do cabaret and earn money. So one knew all about the squalor and the filth. Quite a lot of us women who had a conscience did.
Apropos the number of broken marriages in India during the 30s, you say: ‘I cannot understand now why we could have broken those vows we made, though then there seemed nothing else we could do.’ There seems to be an enormous amount of pain behind those words…
Yes, that’s true. A broken marriage is a very dreadful thing but I didn’t know what else to do. My father said to me, ‘You will never bring up your children properly while you’re married to that man.’ Of course if I had the belief then that I have now, I would never have divorced; but then I would never have met James, and I had such wonderful years with him.
Both you and your sister Jon divorced. Was there a degree of stigma attached to divorce in those days?
Not in India. It became extremely common. Calcutta is a terribly corrupt city, you know. They say if you put a bag of Calcutta dust under the bed of a virtuous woman she becomes corrupt overnight. There are a tremendous lot of broken marriages and unfaithfulness and affairs going on … it’s a rotten society.
After the separation there followed some difficult years in India on your own with the children. Since it was wartime and the men were in any case away, did that make your own circumstances appear more normal?
My circumstances then were absolutely abnormal. We were what they call an abandoned family, though we were much more abandoned than most, because the custom was that if the husband was taken away or volunteered to go to war, his firm paid the wife half his salary and kept his position open for him. My husband had been sacked, and I had no money, absolutely none, which is why I went and lived literally like a peasant.
Looking back on that time when there was illness and shortage of money and uncertainty about the future, do you wonder how you had the strength to come through it all?
I cannot imagine where I got it from. Everybody said to me that I must get a job, but I knew I had to get my writing established. My dear father and mother who were then living in Cornwall offered me their home, but after thinking very deeply about things, I decided to live in London and write.
The ‘Four Rooms’ of your second volume of autobiography divided into the physical, mental, emotional and the spiritual. Have these rooms all enjoyed equal importance?
No, the physical room is very barely inhabited, because I injured my back when I was very young and I’ve never played a game in my life. The mental room of course is the one I’m tempted to spend a lot of time in, but that is now balanced by the spiritual. The emotional has always been there.
Your future looked bleak when you stood on the Liverpool docks with two small children after losing nearly all your possessions … were you despairing or did you manage to remain hopeful?
I think it was determination more than anything else. I knew I had to do it for the sake of the children, quite apart from anything else.
You wrote then: ‘To despair is traitorous to your gift.’ Do you think that creativity requires hope?
I suppose it does. You see, I am a strange person – I don’t believe in self-expression. All these young people, and particularly women say, oh we want to express ourselves, but writing is not self-expression. The writer is simply an instrument through which the wind blows and I believe it is the third part of the trinity, the spirit, the Holy Spirit, that makes the artist creative. My writing is something outside me that I’ve been chosen to do, and I think that is what has enabled me to go on.
It seems you had a very practical unsentimental approach towards life. Most mothers would have clung to their children in your circumstances, but you sent your daughters off to school, knowing that it would be best in the long run for both of you. Did you ever regret that?
I regret that I couldn’t find a way to keep them at home. If I had been able to find a good governess or nurse, I would have sent them to day school, but just after the war domestic help was terribly difficult to sustain, and I couldn’t expose them to the kind of life I led when they were at school. It would have meant hours and hours shut away from them.
Black Narcissus was made into a film and has become a classic, but you thought it was a travesty of the book. Did there come a time when you stopped worrying about that?
No, I’ve minded about it always. I won’t see it. I saw it only once, but never again. It is an absolute travesty of the book, I cannot bear it. Micky Powell, the director, said he saw it as a fairy tale, whereas to me it was true. I stipulated that they should send a unit to India, which they did, but they never used a foot of what they shot there. They might as well never have been near India, and my young Rajput prince was played by some coolie boy with a snub nose and lots of charm, but no more Rajput than I’m Rajput. The whole thing was an abomination.
You vowed you would never allow another book to be made into a film, but relented in the case of Jean Renoir and The River. Did you ever regret that decision?
No, it was the greatest two years of my life. What I learned from Jean was absolutely extraordinary, and I could feel myself growing as I worked with him. He was a wonderful man, a real genius. In Paris the film broke all records, and now it goes on and on and has become a classic. It’s also beginning to go in India now.
Before long James Haynes-Dixon came into your life, but you held out for a long time against marrying again … why was that exactly?
Because of the experience I’d had before. I wasn’t going to tie myself down.
It seems that marriage came about more through perseverance and persistent kindness on his part, rather than a passionate romance. There was certainly no coup de foudre. Do you think perhaps that made for a stronger basis in the end?
I think it did. After being very patient he laid down an ultimatum when I went to Beverly Hills to do the script for The River, and he said that if I would not agree to marriage he would not be there when I got back. The idea of life without James was more than I could bear, so I married. I needed him. I’d been fighting so long on my own, and he was like a wall behind me, always supportive and entirely unselfish.
Do you still miss him?
Oh terribly … and I never want to be consoled. It’s not given to many women to be loved like that … absolutely selflessly.
Marriage then seemed to weigh rather heavily for a time and you missed your freedom, but as you put it, ‘we grew content’. Did this take a long time?
About three or four years, I think. I hadn’t been prepared for James to take complete authority over me and the children; we weren’t used to it, and the children didn’t like it, so life was very difficult. They were very fond of James before I married him, but then he started feeling responsible for us and asserting his authority. My mother helped a lot and used to talk to him about this. The children eventually had to come round to him because he was so extraordinarily good to them, though I think they always had reservations, even to the very end. But they were terribly affected by his death.
Pekinese dogs have always been important to you. I was struck by the story of the two sad dogs you inherited and how you did not try to cajole them out of their sadness, but instead respected their grief. Have you applied the same philosophy to people?
Yes, when I’m with people who have had a tremendous grief I always say to them not to try and be too brave. Grief is good, but not self-pity. I can’t stand people saying ‘why should this happen to me?’ when it’s the law of life.
Twice in your life you lost all your possessions – once in India, and once when your house in Sussex burned to the ground. Do you think people who have experienced loss on this scale have a different attitude to life?
Oh yes, it changes you completely. I don’t want things now … I know they’re going to be taken away. As you get older, you’ve got to shed your possessions as fast as you can, and I have arrived at that critical time of not wanting things. I want books of course, but those are part of living. I like my house uncluttered. I like space, I like emptiness, and I like silence.
You set great store by the power of prayer. Have you ever been troubled by wondering what kind of God it might be who is persuaded to change His mind on certain matters, as a result of people praying to Him?
I’ve seen wonderful things done by prayer. I think that He can be swayed. And I also think you’re meant to pray, to put yourself in touch with God. Everything may be preordained, but I have actually seen the most wonderful things happen after prayer.
What is your attitude towards death?
I’m not afraid of death. My mother put it to me wonderfully when I was a little girl. I was a very sensitive child and although I wasn’t afraid of dying myself, I was terribly afraid of my mother or my sister dying. One night when I was crying in bed my mother came, and said to me, ‘We cant understand what is going to happen to us after death, in much the same way that if we told a little two month old baby that we were going to take it to America, the baby wouldn’t have the faintest idea of what we were talking about.’ And that’s how I think of death – we have no idea what’s going to happen to us.
Do you think that without pain and suffering it’s not possible fully to appreciate the great joy in life?
Some people seem to be born with the spirit of joy, and they don’t seem to have much trouble in their lives, and people always wonder why. It may be that they are what I would call very old souls, they’ve been here before, quite often, and they’re very happy and joyous. For most people, however, the pain and suffering make them prize the joy.