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!

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

  1. I read this book a long time ago and liked it very much. It might be one of my favorites except for one scene towards the end that felt unrealistic even in the period it was written. I have Fugue in Time on my TBR which is about another house. Your question about favorite Godden books sounded familiar so I looked through your recent Godden posts and sure enough I had raved about The Greengage Summer, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita and An Episode of Sparrows. We discussed films of Godden’s works. I am thrilled that Greengage Summer is on You Tube. I also discovered that there was a movie of the Battle of the Villa Fiorita but it is only available in a British Dvd which doesn’t work on my DVD player.. But now I am off to search for it on You Tube. I am taking a film class right now and it has been hard to track down all the movies.

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    1. Godden was so popular–fascinating that there are so many films! I loved every bit of China Court, but I also enjoyed A Fugue in Time, which I’d never heard of till Virago reissued it.

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  2. As I read your review, I found myself thinking of A Fugue in Time, which I read just a few months ago. Although I haven’t yet read China Court (it was a “first runner up” when I chose Fugue) the two seem to share some similarities, i.e., a house as a living, sentient presence; temporal shifts in the story-telling and the sense that the main protagonist is a place or an entire family rather than any one individual (maybe less true for China Court?). I loved Fugue and from your review it seems that China Court is every bit as good.
    I really think Godden is underrated as a writer. Of course, with someone as prolific as she, there were bound to be some novels that weren’t quite up to the highest standards but — she’s stylistically sophisticated (those temporal shifts were pretty tricky to manage in Fugue); often has an acute psychological understanding of her characters; displays an ability to create atmosphere and, basically, can just tell an interesting story really, really well. Do you think the fact she was so very popular (and successful) actually damaged her rep with the literary/critical types?
    I’m very fond of Godden’s work and in the last few years tend to go to one or another of her novels when I’m looking for an absorbing and well-told story. Luckily I still have a lot to choose from!
    My favorites so far? Probably (still) In this House of Brede. My least: a minority choice, but I’d have to say Greengage Summer, which many readers put high on their list of favorites.

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    1. She is such a pleasure to read. In This House of Brede is one of her best. My favorites are in flux: at the moment it’s China House!

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