What makes Mrs. Quin happy.

gl-1-10-p1060501When Mrs. Quin was a wisp of a girl, the house called China Court was her favorite place to be, though she was only grudgingly allowed to cross the threshold, and that by the back stairs. She grows up and by strange twists and turns becomes the main character, an old lady who dies in her sleep in the first sentence of Rumer Godden’s novel China Court.

“Shouldn’ us pull the blinds down?” asked Mrs. Abel.

“She wouldn’t like it,” said Cecily. “She always says, ‘Don’t shut out the garden.'”

Soon begin flashes back to a younger  and younger Mrs. Quin at various stages of her life. We get to know her through the memories that play in the mind and heart of her in-laws and other people who held powerful positions in the family over the generations. Bits and pieces of stories of a score of relations, their suitors and servants are gradually revealed to the reader in a very realistic way. Haven’t we all had the experience of knowing someone personally for many years before we learn a surprising or even shocking fact about them?

In the case of this novel, we are taken back to the building of this granite house in the mid-19th century, and the first parents who birthed nine children there. Some of that first “Brood” marry unhappily, and some behave very badly, but by the end of the book you see them all, and the following generations peopled with similarly bumbling humans, with varying degrees of understanding. I think this is because of the example of Mrs. Quin, who has the ability to accept happiness when it comes to her, and to keep humble in the awareness of how little can be known, even of the ones we love and communicate with.

Homes must know a certain loneliness because all humans are lonely, shut away from one another, even in the act of talking, of loving. Adza cannot follow Eustace in his business deals and preoccupations….Mr. King Lee, kissing Damaris, has no inkling of the desolation he has brought her….Jared hides himself from Lady Patrick, and John Henry and Ripsie, in their long years together, are always separated by Borowis. The children especially are secret….It is better not to ask questions…. “Even if they told you,” says Mrs. Quin, “you would never really know.”

This kindness and compassion for her characters is one way in which Rumer Godden reminds me of author Elizabeth Goudge. Also, as with Goudge, there is the feeling that things will work out in the end, that in kairos, or God’s time, He will gather all the loose ends and broken parts together and even we will see the sense of them. For me, reading China Court was a chance to see a century’s worth of this household’s loves and sorrows with a fraction of that heavenly perspective.

Mrs. Quin had many years’ experience with being treated cruelly, and not getting what she so much wanted. But she early on seemed to learn the wisdom of seeing that she was quite content at present, so why make a fuss about all this water under the bridge? One of the things that always gave our protagonist great satisfaction and rest for her soul was the garden, so I can relate to that major aspect of her character.

A fact of history that didn’t seem to be fair, Mrs. Quin discusses with her daughter-in-law:

“I think that’s sad,” says Barbara.

“Sad and glad,” says Mrs. Quin.

How can something be sad and glad at the same time? For most of the Quin women, it has been like that. “All unhappiness,” says Mrs. Quin, “as you live with it, becomes shot through with happiness; it cannot help it; and all happiness, I suppose, is shot through with unhappiness. But I was usually happy….”

I enjoyed the descriptions of the girls’ Victorian party dresses, and of the old furniture that Mrs. Quin never bothered to re-upholster, and of the teatime ritual: “Two teapots stood ready and warmed; the cups had to be warmed too for, ‘If the tea touches anything cold it loses the aroma.’ Mrs. Quin impresses Tracy with that. ‘Only vandals,’ says Mrs. Quin, ‘put the milk in first.'” Towards the end of the book the serving of tea even brings a brief respite from squabbling among some relations whom Mrs. Quin would likely have relegated to the category of Vandals.

A thread that connects all the parts of the story, shown to us in Mrs. Quin’s bedroom in the first chapter and on the introductory page to each chapter after that, is a medieval Book of Hours. Other old and rare books and an old maid of the Brood who collects them come to play a crucial part in helping Mrs. Quin, in her death, to right many wrongly drifting tendencies in the family and to bring a very satisfying ending.


12 thoughts on “What makes Mrs. Quin happy.

    1. Interesting comment. It gave me pause. BUT not for long. GJ’s reminder stayed with me:

      (God gathers “all the loose ends and broken parts together and even we will see the sense of them. For me, reading China Court was a chance to see a century’s worth of this household’s loves and sorrows with a fraction of that heavenly perspective.”)

      I’m on my way to the library to get my reserved copy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Albert, did you read this? If so, you would have had your unique engagement with the story. I wonder, only two years after, at this review I wrote, and feel that I must read the book again! But maybe it is enough to be reminded here of the glimmers of light that fell on me then…


      2. And when the library notified me, I went right away, collected the book, read page after page, often going back, usually stopping before too many events tired me and inhibited reflection, picking up the story again next reading day. It was a very good experience for me. Later I got others of her books (not quite so suited to my mindset, but interesting if only in a biographical sense). Later still I found Elizabeth Goudge’s personal story–can’t remember the title now, two years on–and was so so inspired. Some books are indeed Godsends.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Your mention of this book in another post intrigued me so I bought it on my Kindle. I am not very far into it, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. I favor books that cover several generations of a family, and that have characters you wish you could meet. Thank you so much. I’m also reading (thanks to you) “Acquiring the Mind of Christ.” I’m not of the Orthodox tradition, but I am loving this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was making my book list this week. It’s always a big day when I make the trek to our big library. They have the best selection of old authors. I will look for this one by dear Rumer.

    I started The Scent of Water today at the dentist office while I waited for my son to have his wisdom teeth out. It is so wonderful to share these lovely authors that we love and call our friends. I love your book reports! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. i’ve begun ‘the scent of water’ and am eagerly awaiting my copy of ‘china court’. rumer godden and elizabeth goudge have been two of my favourite authors ever since i discovered them many years ago. ‘the dean’s watch’ is my advent reading almost every year and never fails to bring me to tears. as you pointed out, both authors have so much compassion for their characters. there is a serene light that shines throughout, even in the midst of conflict. have you ever read any of miss read’s books? ‘miss clare remembers’ is a lovely reminiscence of a long, steady and faithful life and her Christmas tales (‘no holly for miss quinn’, ‘the christmas mouse’ and ‘village christmas’) are treats. happy reading to all!

    Liked by 1 person

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