Wednesday, 10 February 2010

"Black Narcissus" by Rumer Godden

I am sure that most people will have seen the film, but I am not going to give away the ending of Black Narcissus. Suffice it to say that it is a very fine novel indeed, that gets inside the heads of its various characters as well as making us care about what happens to them (contemporary writers, please note). To say that is about a nun who falls in love with a man would be simplistic. It is much more complex than that, operating on various different levels that the film, perhaps any film, can never properly convey.

In fact, love may be the one thing that does not truly appear in the book, though that is a matter of opinion. Godden sketches a number of variations on tunes of obsession, stubbornness, fondness and duty, but perhaps the most subtle variation of all plays around the theme of whether imagining oneself to be in love is any less real than actually being in love.

The local colour is drawn from the life, as Godden spent some years living in exactly the surroundings against which she sets her story. I have recently read a biography of Godden, who by the way became the very last writer of all to inhabit Lamb House in Rye before it was gifted to the National Trust. The tensions with the local people in Black Narcissus are given an added piquancy when you read of her real life experience of one of her servants trying to poison her.

Godden came from a whole family of strikingly beautiful women (there are some wonderful photos in Anne Chisholm's biography) and was probably considered somewhat unconventional around the time this novel is set, since not only did she go off to live in the middle of the foothills of the Himalayas, but she later divorced her husband, which was doubtless thought a very scandalous thing to do at the time.

She was an amazingly prolific writer, a fact I had not realised until I looked at the book list at the back of the biography. I count 25 novels, 26 children's books (at least one of which is set in Rye), 7 collections of poems, and 13 works of non-fiction. At the risk of all my posts sounding the same, yet again almost all of these are scandalously out of print. Perhaps Persephone will take a look at rescuing her as they are currently doing with various other neglected authors.

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