Tuesday, May 8, 2012

on Rumer Godden, author of An Episode of Sparrows

One of the reasons why I want us to read An Episode of Sparrows is really because we could do well to read just about anything written by Rumer Godden.

As the title of an article written by the UK's The Telegraphs states, "Rumer Godden's life is a story in itself."

And, while Blogger is here trying to correct my spelling of this woman's name, I am reminded that she has also drawn me to have some bit of respect for Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, who named their daughter after the author. Despite their crazy Hollywood lives, they must have some good, down-to-earth roots in there somewhere to give their daughter such an honor.


Rumer Godden was born in Sussex, but raised in India where her father ran a shipping company. She and her 3 sisters had a pleasant childhood, somewhat removed from the societal standards of England and the brutalities of World War II. "I always thank God" wrote Godden "that we did not have sensible parents".  She was the 'plain one' of the 4 girls and was a bit jealous of her older, beautiful and talented sister Jon.  "Everything she did was marvellous," Rumer Godden recalled at the end of her life, "and nobody took any notice of me, which was very healthy. To be ignored is the best possible thing for a writer. My writing was an effort to outdo Jon."  

Once grown, she ran a mixed-race dance school in India, became pregnant, married and lived with her rather unkind husband in Calcutta. She had an unhappy marriage, and ended up parting with her husband and moved back to Kashmir to raise her two daughters. They lived like the locals, in a small house, with no electricity or running water. She ran an herb farm and wrote to support her daughters and pay of the debts left to her by her husband. 

In 1947, she returned to England, remarried a good man and entered into the burgeoning English/American literary scene. Around 1950, she became intrigued with the Catholic Church, although she did not convert until 1968 at the age of 60. While researching for her novel In This House of Brede, she spend several years living in the guest house of the Stanbrook Abbey run by the Benedictines. It is said that is where her love for the Church began. After her husband died, she moved to Scotland to live with her daughter. She died at the age of 90, writing until the end. 

Her first published novel, The Black Narcissus, was written almost entirely on a ship voyage from India to England while her infant daughter slept in the bunk below her. 

In the end, she wrote over 60 books, nine of which were turned into movies. Some of my favorites are:

An Episode of Sparrows
In this House of Brede
The Diddakoi
Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy
The River

only because those are the ones I've read...
"There are several things children will not put up with in a book," she reflected. "You have to have a proper beginning and an end; you cannot have flashbacks. Then you can't have a lot of description: keep it to a minimum. And you must be very careful with words. I find I use fewer, and they have to fit the case exactly and be chosen with extreme care."
She wrote all her works in longhand with a fountain pen.  She said "that as an artist has to dip his brush into the paint so a writer should dip his pen into the ink and this gives time for thought. She thought many modern books were too wordy as authors just ran away with words on their computers."

Discussing writing, she once stated firmly that she never believed in self-expression. "All these young people, particularly women, say, `We want to express ourselves', but writing is not self-expression. The writer is simply an instrument through which the wind blows and I believe it is the Holy Spirit that makes the artist creative. My writing is something outside me that I've been chosen to do and I think that is what has enabled me to go on."

I like her because she was different. She was strong.  She had dignity. She loved her daughters fiercely. She never stopped thinking. She didn't let cultural standards keep her from the Church. Even in her later years, she never stopped learning.  She was always herself. These are all things I hope for myself and my children. 

"When I was a young writer, I and my contemporaries, wanted one thing more than anything else for our books. It wasn't money, or success, although of course we wanted those things, too. The thing we wanted was for our books to last. And I believe that a book that is written slowly, carefully, words chosen, do last. And in a small way, in a very small way I admit, I have proved it. Black Narcissus was written in 1937 and it's never been out of print. And now, my publishers are bringing back the old books, books I wrote quite early on. I had 6 books republished just last year. And, it's a little bit of the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And I was very grateful for that."

To appreciate her books, you should read about her life. Here is the wikipedia article.   Here is the Rumer Godden Literary Trust, set up by her two daughters after her death in 1998. Here is a nice review of An Episode of Sparrows from the Catholic Media Review blog. Here is the obituary published by the UK's Daily Telegraph.

Here is a youtube video interview with Rumer Godden produced by Off The Page, a Scottish literary and culture series. I could listen to her talk forever... a very good way to spend 25 minutes.


  1. "and nobody took any notice of me, which was very healthy. To be ignored is the best possible thing for a writer. My writing was an effort to outdo Jon."

    This resonates strongly with me! Not that I wanted to outdo my older sister, but I think growing up under someone's shadow offers a person a very fertile ground for becoming a writer who is keen in observation. The only place I can find my own voice is when I put a pen down to paper.

    I hope I get a chance to explore the world of Rumer Godden. Thank you for introducing us to her, Lauren!

    1. Yes! And, I admired the way that she didn't let her envy destroy her, but allowed it to prompt her to become 'more herself'. I think writing always does that. And, writing in private more than published media or on blogs or social media. I think quiet, private, reflective writing allows a person to explore thoughts in freedom. Some may be worth sharing later. But, I think it's best to write without that in mind. I know that, growing up, whenever I wrote in my journal 'Anne Frank Style' as if someone in the future would find it hidden in a dark trunk in the attic and publish it as a great work (yeah, right!) I just couldn't write anything! I was too worried about what people would think, if I was portraying the correct image of myself. So then, I journaled with the promise that I'd never show ANYONE. That was much better. And, I haven't to this day broken that promise to myself.

  2. I loved this: "I always thank God" wrote Godden "that we did not have sensible parents".

    1. Me too! She had such an adventurous childhood. I think, had she grown up as a typical English child during that time period, we may have none of her books today!

  3. Lauren, I've had that same thought. I have a linen closet full of journals that I half pray someone finds and publishes and the other half hopes someone burns! If I ever get around to writing my ILLUSTRIOUS and SCINTILLATING memoir, I guess I would pull from those. Did you know there was a Memoir writing class through the city of college station? Not sure there are many enrolled under the age of 70 but I'd go there happily!

    1. (I was being very sarcastic about me having an interesting memoir to read - just wanted to clarify - haha) :)

  4. In This House of Brede is one of my very favorite books. Thanks for this informative post about Rumer Godden; now I'm off to put Episode of Sparrows on my wish list.


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