A Marvelous Middlebrow Novel: Rumer Godden’s “The Greengage Summer”

There comes a time when we realize we are unlikely to visit Washington, D.C., again. Not that we were particularly drawn to the nation’s capital, but right now we are sickened by the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by violent white men in ball caps. Terrifying and crazy.

Once inside, they became distracted by taking selfies. Fortunately, this helped police track some of them on social media.

A very, very, very sad day for our country.

LIFE GOES ON.

I repaired my rumpled human spirit by curling with The Greengage Summer.

Rumer Godden is an underrated, once very popular novelist, and her 1958 novel, The Greengage Summer, was adapted as a film in 1961, starring Samantha York and Kenneth More. (I haven’t seen the film, but it is on Youtube.) Godden brilliantly portrays the culture of outsiders, and in this book the outsiders are English children on vacation in France. Though this is classified as an adult book, perhaps it could double as a children’s book.

The narrator, 13-year-old Cecil Grey, is in a unique position to observe adult behavior, though she does not always interpret its meaning correctly. On a family vacation in France, her mother is hospitalized with a blood infection, leaving Cecil in charge of her three younger siblings in the hotel while her older sister Joss, age 16, stays in bed with an unnamed adolescent malady. Cecil is the most level-headed, and even understands French, though she doesn’t speak it well. She is frustrated, however, by the powerless condition of being betwixt-and-between: “…now I was relegated to a no-man’s-land myself. I could see it was inevitable–thirteen is not child, not woman, not…declared…”

Godden has a lyrical, whimsical style. Her narratives zigzag from present to future to past, as she inserts dialogue from a different times to highlight an event in the vivid present. (Less of that here than in some of her books, though.)

And she clearly plans the structure from the first sentence to the last. The Greengage Summer begins literally and figuratively in a Paradisal garden, which is eventually invaded by sin. (Joss has a dress she refers to as “sin.”)

Here is the first paragraph:

On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness, because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did. Hester of course was quite unabashed; Will–though he was called Willmouse then–Willmouse and Vicki were too small to reach any but the lowest branches, but they found fruit fallen in the grass; we were all strictly forbidden to climb the trees.

To keep them from underfoot, the manager banishes the children into the garden by day. Sometimes they go to the river, but mostly they lounge in the grass and watch the adult goings-on from afar. Madame Zizi, the owner, is obsessed with her handsome, well-dressed English lover, Eliot, who, when he is the mood, takes the Grey children under his wing. After 16-year-old Joss recovers from her illness, Eliot, wants to be with them all the time, because she is beautiful. Joss knows that he is flirting, but remains innocent of the implications until Madame Zizi makes a unforgivable scene. Then Joss plays the person she is not–with calamitous results.

I esteem Godden for her knowledge of psychology as well as her expertly-woven plots. For instance, the emotional situation here is clear to the children–they recognize the love triangles within triangles, though the underlying personal histories of the lovers are not always clear. Okay, perhaps the end is a bit like a children’s book, with the plot rushing off in an almost ridiculous direction. But do you know what? I believed it.

4 thoughts on “A Marvelous Middlebrow Novel: Rumer Godden’s “The Greengage Summer””

  1. I love Rumer Godden! and this is a great novel. Just one thing – the movie starred Susanna York, not Samantha Morton!

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  2. This is one of my favorite Rumer Godden books. All of her novels are good, but I adore The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, Episode of Sparrows and the Greengage Summer. I actually saw the movie first. When I was a teenager, we used to go to a drive-in movie while on vacation. I only saw the first quarter of the movie because it was the third movie of the showing and of course there was no way to call home. I don’t think we even had a phone in the cottage. Luckily, I lived in NYC at a time where two channels played movies almost all day. So while I was home raising my young daughter, I watched this movie at 10 am one day. It’s a great movie and I am so glad that you found it on Youtube. I can’t wait to watch it again. Also, in response to your question about books being twee, Rumer Godden is not twee in my opinion.

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    1. You’re right! She’s not twee. I especially see that now, as I return to her after a period of years. The Greengage Summer is such an elegant book, and really surprising in its perfection of style AND plot. I usually settle for one or the other! How fun those drive-in movies were! I think there’s only one drive-in in our state now. I do love Samantha York and will have to put aside “a movie night” to watch this on Youtube. It is astonishing how many films ARE on Youtube. There is also a film version of Godden’s In This House of Brede, starring Diana Rigg. Now THAT looks very interesting!

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