Godden, Rumer (1907–1998)

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Godden, Rumer (1907–1998)

British novelist and children's writer. Name variations: Mrs. Laurence Foster. Born Margaret Rumer Godden on December 10, 1907, in Sussex, England; died at her home in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, on November 8, 1998; second of four daughters of Arthur Leigh Godden (an employee of a steamship company in India) and Katherine (Hingley) Godden; sister of Jon Godden (a novelist and painter); attended Moira House, Eastbourne; studied dancing privately; married Laurence S. Foster (a stockbroker), in 1934 (separated 1941, later divorced); married James Haynes-Dixon, on November 11, 1949 (died 1973); children: (first marriage) two daughters, Jane and Paula, and a son who died in infancy.

Awards, honors:

commended for Carnegie Medal (1962), for Miss Happiness and Miss Flower; Children's Book of the Year Awards from the Child Study Association for Operation Sippacik (1969), The Diddakoi and The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle (1972), and Mr. McFadden's Hallowe'en (1975); Whitbread Award (1973), for The Diddakoi; Horn Book Honor List citations for Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Little Plum, Home Is the Sailor, The Kitchen Madonna, and The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle; American Library Association Notable Books citations for The Doll's House, The Mousewife, Impunity Jane: The Story of a Pocket Doll, The Fairy Doll, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, The Kitchen Madonna, The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle, A Kindle of Kittens, and The Dragon of Og.

Selected writings—novels:

Chinese Puzzle (P. Davies, 1936); The Lady and the Unicorn (P. Davies, 1938); Black Narcissus (Little, Brown, 1939); Gypsy, Gypsy (Little, Brown, 1940); Breakfast with the Nikolides (Little, Brown, 1942); Rungli-Rungliot: Thus Far and No Further (P. Davies, 1944, published as Rungli-Rungliot Means in Parharia "Thus Far and No Further," Little, Brown, 1946); Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time (Little, Brown, 1945, published in England as A Fugue in Time, M. Joseph, 1945); The River (Little, Brown, 1946); A Candle for St. Jude (Viking, 1948); A Breath of Air (M. Joseph, 1950); Kingfishers Catch Fire (Viking, 1953); An Episode of Sparrows (Viking, 1955); The Greengage Summer (Viking, 1958); China Court: The Hours of a Country House (St. Martin's, 1961); The Battle of Villa Fiorita (Viking, 1963); In This House of Brede (Viking, 1969); The Peacock Spring: A Western Progress (Macmillan, 1975); Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy (Viking, 1979); The Dark Horse (Viking, 1981); Thursday's Children (Viking, 1984); Cromartie v. the God Shiva (Morrow, 1997).

Children's books:

(illus. by Dana Saintsbury) The Doll's House (M. Joseph, 1947); (illus. by Saintsbury) The Mousewife (Viking, 1951); (illus. by Adrienne Adams) Impunity Jane: The Story of a Pocket Doll (Viking, 1954); (illus. by Adams) The Fairy Doll (Viking, 1956); (illus. by Adams) Mouse House (Viking, 1957); (illus. by Adams) The Story of Holly and Ivy (Viking, 1958); (illus. by Adams) Candy Floss (Viking, 1960); (poems, illus. by Jean Primrose) St. Jerome and the Lion (Viking, 1961); (illus. by Primrose) Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (Viking, 1961); (illus. by Primrose) Little Plum (Viking, 1963); (illus. by Primrose) Home Is the Sailor (Viking, 1964); (illus. by Carol Barker) The Kitchen Madonna (Viking, 1967); (illus. by James Bryan) Operation Sippacik (Viking, 1969); (illus. by Creina Glegg) The Diddakoi (Viking, 1972); (adaptor, illus. by Mairi Hedderwick) The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle (Viking, 1972); (illus. by Ann Strugnell) Mr. McFadden's Hallowe'en (Viking, 1975); (illus. by Juliet S. Smith) The Rocking Horse Secret (Macmillan, 1977); (illus. by Lynne Byrnes) A Kindle of Kittens (Macmillan, 1978); (illus. by Pauline Baynes) The Dragon of Og (Viking, 1981); (illus. by Jeroo Roy) The Valiant Chatti-Maker (Viking, 1983); Four Dolls (includes Impunity Jane: The Story of a Pocket Doll, The Fairy Doll, The Story of Holly and Ivy and Candy Floss, Greenwillow, 1983); Fu-dog (1989); Coromandel Sea Change (1991).


Bengal Journey: A Story of the Part Played by Women in the Province, 1939–1945 (Longmans, Green, 1945); In Noah's Ark (narrative poem, Viking, 1949); (adaptor with Jean Renoir) "The River" (screenplay based on her novel of same title, United Artists, 1951); (biography) Hans Christian Andersen: A Great Life in Brief (Knopf, 1954); Mooltiki: Stories and Poems from India (Viking, 1957); (translator) Carmen de Gasztold, Prayers from the Ark (poems, Viking, 1962); (translator) de Gasztold, The Creatures' Choir (poems, Viking, 1965, published as The Beasts' Choir, Macmillan, 1967); (adaptor) Hans Christian Andersen, The Feather Duster: A Fairy-Tale Musical (music by Kai Normann Andersen, Dramatic Publishing, 1964); (autobiography with sister, Jon Godden) Two Under the Indian Sun (Knopf, 1966); Gone: A Thread of Stories (Viking, 1968, published in England as Swans and Turtles: Stories, Macmillan, 1968); The Tale of the Tales: The Beatrix Potter Ballet (Warne, 1971); (with J. Godden) Shiva's Pigeons: An Experience of India (Viking, 1972); The Butterfly Lions: The Story of the Pekingese in History, Legend and Art (Macmillan, 1978); (biography) Gulbadan, Portrait of a Rose Princess at the Mughal Court (Viking, 1981); (with Jon Godden) Indian Dust (1989); (autobiography) A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (Beech Tree Books, 1988).

The daughter of a steamship agent, Rumer Godden and her three sisters grew up in East Bengal, India, where they were educated by their parents who encouraged them to read beyond their age. As children, the girls wrote long books together which were illustrated by Rumer's sister Jon Godden , who also became a novelist. (Rumer and Jon's book Two Under the Indian Sun [1966], describes their Anglo-Indian childhood.) In 1919, the girls were sent to school in England, where they had a difficult period adjusting to a more disciplined lifestyle. Rumer had a particularly hard time and attended five different schools in a period of six years. She finally settled in at Moira House in Eastbourne, a more progressive school where she received individualized attention. She was strongly influenced by the vice-principal, Mona Swann , whom she credits with giving her a thorough background in English and technique.

After training as a dancing teacher, Godden returned to India and opened a dancing school in Calcutta. (It became large and successful, after which she sold it and happily returned to full-time writing.) In 1934, she married Lawrence Sinclair Foster, a stockbroker, with whom she had two daughters and a son who died in infancy. Her first

book, Chinese Puzzle (1936), the result of a lifelong interest in Chinese culture, was published before the birth of her first daughter. It was followed by Black Narcissus (1939), a story about a community of nuns in the Himalayas, which established her as a popular author. In America, the book was a runaway hit, which both pleased and unnerved Godden. "It's not very good for that to happen to you early in your writing career, you really just want a steady climb." Godden also had difficulty with expectations that she would continue to write along the same subject line. "I think the English particularly like you to have a vein and keep to it, so that they know what they're getting. And they are awfully puddingish…. Either you write novels with an Indian setting, or you write novels about religious life, or you write about children; you keep to your vein; whereas I don't."

While continuing to write, Godden also ran a day school in Calcutta, ostensibly for the education of her two daughters. In 1941, her husband left her after going bankrupt, and she took the children to stay on a tea estate in Darjeeling. She later published Rungli-Rungliot, a diary of the experience, in 1943. In 1947, Godden issued her first children's book, The Doll's House, a novel in which adult conflicts and situations are played out through dolls. "I wanted to see if I could write a real novel—it's a murder story—in the tiny compass of a doll's house, and make it acceptable for children." Other doll stories followed, including Impunity Jane, The Fairy Doll, and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.

In 1949, Godden married James Haynes-Dixon and returned to England, where they lived for several years in Lamb House, in Sussex, once the home of Henry James. She later moved to Dumfriesshire (Scotland), where she continued to write. Extremely versatile, Godden also wrote plays, poems, and translations, and contributed to numerous journals and periodicals. She strongly criticized the practice of categorizing novels for young adults, and of writing children's books with a "limited" vocabulary. "As soon as anyone tries to write a novel with a target," she wrote, "he's bound to fail. A book must spring spontaneously; you can't write with a target.… I never try to make my books simple, I never prescribe my words; children adore words." About her own writing habits, she said: "I read all my books aloud when they are finished. To see if they bind. I can't imagine why more writers don't do this… how it sounds, the naturalness of the dialogue, is to me very important."

A number of Godden's books were made into films, with varying results. Black Narcissus, starring Deborah Kerr and adapted by Universal in 1947, was, in Godden's view, disastrous, ill conceived, and even offensive. Some critics, however, now consider it a minor classic. Godden felt that the movie version of her sensitive novel about adolescence, The River, fared better in the hands of Jean Renoir, though, having collaborated with the director on the adaptation, she found working on a movie set boring. Also filmed were her adult novel Greengage Summer (titled Loss of Innocence), for which she co-wrote the film script, An Episode of Sparrows (titled Innocent Sinners), and "In This House of Brede," which was made for television and starred Diana Rigg . Rumer Godden died in 1998, age 91.


Commire, Anne. Something About the Author. Vol 36. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

related media:

The Battle of Villa Fiorita (111 min.), also released as Affair at the Villa Fiorita, starring Maureen O'Hara , Rossano Brazzi, Richard Todd, Phyllis Calvert, Maxine Audley, Olivia Hussey, Ursula Jeans , directed by Delmer Daves, produced by Warner Bros., 1965.

Black Narcissus (100 min.), film starring Deborah Kerr, Sabu, Jean Simmons, Flora Robson, Kathleen Byron , David Farrar, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, produced by Universal, 1947.

Enchantment (102 min.) adapted from Take Three Tenses, film starring David Niven, Teresa Wright, Evelyn Keyes , Farley Granger, Jayne Meadows , Leo G. Carroll, Gigi Perreau , directed by Irving Reis, set design by Julia Heron , produced by Samuel Goldwyn for RKO, 1948.

Innocent Sinners (95 min.), adapted from An Episode of Sparrows, film starring June Archer , Christopher Hey, Flora Robson, screenplay by Rumer Godden and Neil Paterson, produced by Rank Organisation, 1957.

"In This House of Brede," starring Diana Rigg, produced by Learning Corp of America, televised on CBS, 1975.

Loss of Innocence (99 min.), adapted from Greengage Summer, film starring Kenneth More, Danielle Darrieux, Susannah York , Jane Asher, directed by Lewis Gilbert, written by Howard Koch, costumes by Julie Harris , produced by Columbia, 1961.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Godden, Rumer (1907–1998)

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