Rumer Godden’s Anti-Escapist Fiction

Rumer Godden’s Anti-Escapist Fiction

Sally Thomas shared an interesting essay, “Nostalgia for a Life Never Lived and The Work of Rumer Godden” by Olena Jennings. As the title suggests, the author is nostalgic for the feeling she had when she first read Rumer Godden as a teenager. I’m all too familiar with the desire to re-read to recapture the feeling I had the first time I read a book. But like the author, I’ve found that that feeling is elusive. Jennings identified with Godden’s novels when she was younger because she identified strongly with Godden’s recurrent theme about outsiders. She was an outsider, Godden wrote about outsiders, there was an affinity. She also read to escape into an unfamiliar world, Godden’s monasteries and her India both seemed equally exotic to. But Jennings can’t recapture the feeling she had when she was younger, so although she seeks out the books in used bookstores, she takes them home and lets them gather dust rather than immersing herself in their worlds once again.

Jenning’s essay provides a fascinating glimpse of that inner life of the reader, but much as I like to think about the subjective experience of reading and re-reading and the experience of nostalgia, I pass over it for now to get to the even more interesting topic of reading to escape. Here, I find that although Jennings is truly insightful about Godden’s outsider themes, she misreads when she says that Godden writes about escape: “When Godden isn’t escaping into the scents and colors of India, she escapes into a world of nuns.” It’s a case of reading her own experiences into the book rather than a genuine insight into the heart of the novels. For Godden’s fiction is the antithesis of escapist.

What attracts me the most in Godden’s work is how grounded it is in reality, both psychological and spiritual realities. And a major theme in many, if not most, of her works is how we cannot escape the things that we run away from. We must confront the past, the faults we would like to wish away, our selves, our wounds, and other people. Again and again her characters are forced to confront the things they are fleeing. And again and again in that confrontation there is grace that heals the wounds of the past, that heals the deep hidden recesses of the self, that heals relationships. Often the grace works, as grace does, not as we would have it, to erase the things that we want to forget, but rather it perfects nature, builds on it, and finds a space for new life to grow in the ruins of the old.

In Peacock Spring Una and Ravi want to escape. She wants to escape her father’s house where she feels herself to be a prisoner of the governess who is having an affair with her father; he wants to escape his life as a gardener, to be respected as a poet and intellectual. But neither of them are able to escape. The novel is pretty much about the impossibility of escape.

And while Godden’s novels about India might have an exotic feel to them, they all show India to be a place of extreme inequality where both the British colonizers and the colonized Indians are unhappy, not to mention the Eurasians who are caught in the middle of both worlds. It’s clear that while Godden loves India, and wants to be at home there and in some ways feels more at home there than in England, at the same time she never *can* be at home.

Godden was always something of an outsider no matter where she lived. Likewise, all of her protagonists are outsiders. But no matter how much they try to run away from circumstances, they are always forced to make peace with what *is*. They never escape to a fantasy life. Even in her children’s stories when there is a happy ending, as in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, there’s something very prosaic about the way Nona finds peace with her exile in England by making a dollhouse for the Japanese dolls. She finds herself a place by making a place for those who are even more outsider than she is. And even when the way the characters get to the happy ending feels somewhat providential, as in The Story of Holly and Ivy, which emphasizes the power of wishing, still, Ivy’s attempts to run away to find her fictitious grandmother end with her sleeping in a cold shed and finally she is caught out in her lie by the policeman Mr Jones when she leads him to his very own house. It is true that everyone’s wishes come true, but the story emphasizes how tenuous those connections are: if I hadn’t, if I hadn’t, if I hadn’t. And Ivy ends up finding not the grandmother of her dreams, but Mrs. Jones, the slightly sad, childless policeman’s wife.

Likewise, at the beginning of In This House of Brede it does seem as if Philippa’s friends fear she is running away. But if there are aspects of her past that Philippa is running away from, her grief and pain at the loss of her son, her own weaknesses and faults, Brede is not a place where she will be allowed to run away. Her past arrives at the monastery in the person of a new novice, Katie Farren, whose mother had been nurse to Phillipa’s son. Try as she might to avoid Katie, Phillipa finally catched chicken pox from her and they end up in the same quarantine ward where Katie nurses Philipa and Philipa finds that after all the confrontation is And ultimately Philippa isn’t even allowed to stay at Brede but must leave, against her will, dying to her own self and her desire to remain at Brede, following her call to lead nuns in the new the foundation in Japan. No, Philippa is allowed no escape. 

At the same time, in a sort of mirror of Philippa’s story, there is that of Sister Cecily who while she has a genuine vocation, also is running away. But though she tries to escape her mother and Larry Bannerman, the man her mother wants her to marry, finally she must confront them, confront the life she’s not choosing. She has to entertain deeply the idea of marriage and motherhood and fall in love with them and be forsaken of them before she can take her final vows. Until she stops running away and trying to escape she cannot find the much deeper peace of Christ.

And then there’s Dame Veronica, who, long before she came to Brede, had changed her name from Maisie Shaw to Margaret Fanshawe. She was running away from her family, from her mother’s being a housekeeper, from the suggestion that she be a servant, and all the family problems she was trying to escape followed her into the monastery. And she steals money from the abbess and her crime is met with grace. She’s not left off the hook, in fact she’s assigned work that will earn back the money that she stole. And yet, the work is deeply meaningful to her, in continuity with her call as a poet. And yet it draws her beyond a certain self-pleasing kind of writing into a writing that is focused on the other and not on herself and her own gifts and in order to complete the translation properly, she must turn to Dame Agnes, who she wronged. This writing under obedience helps her bloom into a much better writer and helps to quash her over-exaggerated sense of self. Instead of writing allowing her to escape from her troubles, it becomes a much-needed cure

One could be excused for thinking that in Brede Godden has set herself the project of showing how the religious life is not an escape from the problems of the world; but of course the novel is much more than a thesis about the religious life. And yes, grace does offer sometimes unexpected solutions to all the problems.

And that really is how grace works in all her novels, isn’t it? It’s not about escaping from the wounds of the past, but confronting them and allowing the wounds themselves to become the site of healing and new life. It’s the opposite of escape. It’s grounding, it leads to rootedness, to the characters becoming more perfectly who they always were, their broken selves made whole.

O where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn
and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
even there your hand would lead me,
your right hand would hold me fast.

—Psalm 139: 7-10

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him . . .

—Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven

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