Out of Time: Rumer Godden’s “The Peacock Spring”

Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden is one of my favorite middlebrow writers, and I’ve been thinking about her because of the lavish TV adaptation of Black Narcissus (the first of her three nun novels, published in 1939). I prefer Godden’s later nun classic, In This House of Brede (1969), but I am fascinated by the disturbing portrayal in Black Narcissus of the dazed nuns distracted by the beautiful Himalayan landscape.

I went through a Godden-mad phase in the zips, when I searched online for her (mostly) out-of-print novels. I was so impressed by these books, and so surprised that so few people read her. Like many women of my generation, I discovered her when I was a child: she wrote several books about dolls, but my favorite was An Episode of Sparrows, about a garden in London. And, as I have indicated above, I was absolutely crazy about In This House of Brede, to the point that I considered becoming a nun–for about an hour.

Now Virago has reissued most of Godden’s books, but I do have several older copies. The other day I was browsing my shelves and found an old book club edition of The Peacock Spring (bought for $1), which I had never read. I am lukewarm about her later books: 1974 is past the date of vintage Godden! This one is not quite as great as some of her others, but Godden’s style is lyrical and witty, and she always has something worth saying.

Born in England and raised in India, Godden manages to be quotidian and unconventional at the same time. Set in India, The Peacock Spring is partly a love story, partly a hate story. Two English half-sisters, fifteen-year-old Una and her frivolous younger sister, Hal, are yanked out of boarding school before the end of term. Their father, Edward, a diplomat in India, wants them to leave school immediately to live with him. The request is very odd, since they have been living with an aunt during vacations.

The situation is especially bad for Una, a math genius who does not want her education derailed. Her sister, Hal, who is completely unacademic, is enthralled by the exoticism of India. But beware fathers seeking their daughters: he has not been straightforward. He has invited them here only so that hisbeautiful Eurasian mistress, Alix, can be their “governess” and have a reason to live with him.

The hatred between Alix and Una grows as Una discovers her hypocrisy and ignorance. Alix simply does not know enough to teach Una. And when, during a battle over calculus, Una declares her enmity by flinging the math book into the garden, she earns the approval of Ravi, a handsome, college-educated gardener who is a poet and who dislikes the haughtiness of Alix. They become close friends, over calculus and poetry.

All of these relationships are muddled and complicated, and can stand in for the political misunderstandings between the English, Indians, and Eurasians. But none of these relationships remain static. Things shift as each discovers his or her strengths and weaknesses–especially weakenesses.

I love the way Godden inserts temporal speculation into the narrative–mostly in the subjunctive mood. This is characteristic even of her early writing.

Edward’s three or four days in Japan had stretched to a fortnight. “Didn’t you miss me?” he was to ask them. “We hadn’t time” would have been the truthful answer or, for Una, rather, “I was out of time.” She felt she might have been in India for an aeon. “Well, the Hindi words for ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ are the same,” Alix had told her, “and the ‘day before yesterday’ and the ‘day after tomorrow.'” Time seemed to have disappeared.

A good, if not great novel!