A Sentient Country House: “China Court” by Rumer Godden

The copyright page of Rumer Godden’s brilliant 1960 novel, China Court, says: “A serial version of this book appeared in The Ladies’ Home Journal.”

Oh, my goodness! That means my grandma read it. She subscribed to McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. The magazines were neatly stacked on shelves in the sun room and sometimes we spent an afternoon reading them and eating peppermints. The serialization of China Court, however, would have been before my time.

China Court is one of Rumer Godden’s best novels – and one of my favorites – and must have given enormous pleasure to home-loving readers and aspiring homeowners who pored over the women’s magazines for decor suggestions. In this stunning novel, Godden tells the story of five generations of the smart, turbulent, often unhappy Quins at China Court, their beautiful country house.

Godden’s layered, generous prose and temporal flexibility make this a modernist masterpiece – says I, though critics often dismiss her. At China House, inanimate objects are as important, sometimes more important, than the animate. Books and houses are characters in their own right. And each chapter opens with a page from The Book of Hours, which Mrs. Quin reads daily, and the book defines recurring time, from Lauds to Matins, and is a piece in the puzzle of China Court’s survival. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, shifting from one century to the next and back again in successive stories. There is a family tree in the front of the book for when you lose track of the characters.

The house and Mrs. Quin/Ripsie are at the crux of the book. Ripsie is an outsider and a lifelong friend of the boys; she marries into the family and becomes Mrs. Quin, and loves China Court more than any of them. But she, too, suffered an early grief: she was in love with Borowis Quin, a charming ne’er-do-well who dumped her after their affair and married another woman for money. His brother, John Henry, the kind, hard-working businessman who kept everything together, stepped up and announced his engagement to Ripsie at a dance, out of pity and without asking her first. She accepted, and the marriage is happy enough. Long after his death – she outlives him by thirty years, dying in 1960 – she loves and takes care of the house, making sacrifices for it, putting it ahead of everything.

The book begins with a death. Let me quote the beginning, to give you a sense of Godden’s style, and the sense that the house is a living, breathing, sentient character, even through death. It starts with the death of the central character.

Old Mrs. Quin died in her sleep in the early hours of an August morning.

The sound of the bell came into the house, but did not disturb it; it was quite used to death, and birth, and life.

The usual house sounds went on, but muted: footsteps, upstairs, Dr. Taft’s, though he did not stay long – “Cause of death, stopped living,” wrote Dr. Taft on the certificate and said he would call in at Mrs. Abel’s on the way home; then Mrs. Abel’s steps, as, quietly, she did what she had to do and, downstairs, Cecily’s as she carried up the coal and made up the kitchen fire, hers and Bumble’s, the old spaniel’s, padding as he followed her backward and forward, forward and backward;…

Births, marriages, and death dominate China House; and the women, who must tend to the stages of life, tend to be unhappy. For instance, the sparkling Lady Patrick (Mrs. Quin’s mother-in-law) adores her sexy husband Jared, but upon returning a few days early from a retreat at a convent, she discovers him cheating on her in their own bed, and she is shattered and embittered. Then there is Jared’s sister, Eliza, a brilliant but bitter spinster who, after she takes over the housekeeping from Lady Pat, cheats on the housekeeping money so as to buy first editions of rare books. Later, she meets a terrible death after the children and villagers see her visiting the gravestone of the clerk who taught her about rare books. They decide she is a witch.

Ah, poor Eliza! Reading women are always in trouble!

The question after Mrs. Quin’s death is: will her granddaughter Tracy take over, or will Mrs. Quin’s conventional, stuffy adult children have their way and sell?

Are you a fan of Godden? And, if so, what is your favorite of her books?

Do you like her writing, or does it grate on you?

I love it, of course.

Happy Godden reading!