Tag Archives: Rumer Godden

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.

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Taking the cure with Rumer.

Is it unnecessary and even unprofitable to analyze my reading habits? Why not just read what I like? Because I don’t seem to know what I like, or what I have the strength for. In times of stress, such as in my current bereavement and during my husband’s illness before that, the intellect still jumps at the chance to read books of theology or philosophy, so I have gone on acquiring stacks of them… only to find that my mind will not be engaged enough to get through the first chapter.

Or, I try a “good novel,” hoping to be pulled into the story and have some vicarious excitement. Aha – that is the problem, as I realized yesterday, sick and sitting by the fire with a quiet book. I need rest, not excitement. I need, as I wrote a few years ago about another novel, to embark on a reading journey “as one takes a needed vacation or The Cure at a sanatorium.”

Rumer Godden is a writer whose presence on the pages of her fiction or non-fiction is always strangely comforting and nourishing to me. I suppose my recent acceptance of weakness led me to take her China Court off the shelf, after passing over it for years. Lately it seems that I have almost daily been wandering among the four rooms that house parts of my library, as I look for the Right Book. As I held this one in my lap I mused about why it is that.

When you need to heal and build strength, where do you like to be? Me, I like to be either alone in an orderly and comfortable place, or with kind and gentle, competent people who take care of the place and might even cook for me. If there is a garden attached, and lovers of trees and flowers who might 27a16-p101064228129fruitstandgardenstroll its paths with me, all the better. I could sojourn in this place indefinitely, until I felt in my bones the renewed energy that would prompt me to go home and dig in my own garden or clean house.

Being in Rumer Godden’s books is like that. And China Court is especially so, because it is about a well-appointed house and the generations who have lived and worked and died there, servants making up beds with fresh, age-softened linens and a grandmother who secretly hand-picks little bouquets for her favorite people to find on their nightstands. It has the drama of stories going back a hundred years, if you want that, but it is mostly about being there with real humans, many of them quite sympathetic, and of course none of them requiring anything of me.

I haven’t read too far yet  🙂 but I was charmed by this one scene and wanted to share it:

In the big house in Cornwall the large Quin Family gathers downstairs while breakfast is being cooked in the kitchen nearby. As the father Eustace reads from the Bible and prayer book… victorian-range

The smell of bacon drifts across the Lord’s Prayer — always for Eliza, the two are mingled, though she does not, at that age, get any of the bacon — and as the smell rises Eustace increases his pace….breakfast is waiting; the children, upstairs, have porridge and milk, white bread and the second best butter; but for Eustace and Adza the morning-room table is laid with porridge in blue and white plates, cream, brown bread, muffins, honey and rolls, while the bacon keeps in a silver dish over a flame, with another dish of kidneys or sausages or sometimes kedgeree.

-from China Court by Rumer Godden

Do you wonder what kedgeree is? I had never heard of it, but when I read on this page Kedgeree and saw the picture, it made me want to try making some myself. Sounds tasty!

Last week I was frying something using bacon fat left over from our Christmas feasting, and the smell of it warming in the pan brought back happy memories of my father and his mountain cabin, my grandma’s kitchen… it was curious how nourished I felt, before I had taken a bite.

I enjoyed reading about this Victorian Era breakfast and the well-supplied kitchen and staff that produced it. I sipped my tea before the fire, glad that I long ago graduated from the Porridge Upstairs stage of life, because I do like a little meat with my breakfast, though I haven’t tried kidneys yet. Winter days are cozy when taken with Rumer Godden, some bacon — and of course, prayer!

Friends and Gifts

The garden is so appealing at this time of year. It’s satisfying to clean things up and trim bushes. I bought some chrysanthemums and snapdragons so I’ll be ready when the zinnias fade…but until then, I don’t know what to do with them. Maybe I was too hasty.

I spent quite a mantis 9-11-14while in the hot sun on Friday and Saturday, enjoying the pungent smell of the santolina that I was shearing down to stubs. It reminds me of the sagebrush of the desert or the bushes that grow at the beach. I met this mantis there. After I studied him and followed him for a while I had to get back to work, and I couldn’t notice if he went into the lavender or the rosemary, both of which had more hiding places remaining. I wonder which herby scent he likes best?

Mexican Evening Primrose

I cleaned up the bed where the Mexican Evening Primrose grows, hoping that it will look like this again next spring. It’s a great plant for dry California summers, only needing water a couple of times all summer long.

My friends and relations have been so good to me lately. I recently told you about Garden P1110326Doll who was a gift from my goddaughter. Last month another good friend went to South Carolina and brought me back an Appalachian story-telling doll, who is Little Red Riding Hood, the grandmother and the wolf all in one doll, if you just turn it upside down or switch the bonnet around. I can’t wait to show her/them to the little grandchildren.

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My Dear Pennsylvania Cousin and I had been talking about Rumer Godden’s books, when she discovered this copy of The Mousewife on her shelf, and promptly mailed it to me. I read the story last night and — what a blessing! I may never have read that one otherwise, because the blurb I saw about the story made me think ill of the mousewife. Instead, I found her to be nothing less than a kindred spirit and an inspiring example.

Dolls and books, friends and flowers — sounds pretty typical for me, maybe. But no, each encounter has been a unique anP1110327d new treat. I guess I couldn’t tell you about all of the things I’m thankful for recently, or I’d be writing all day to do them justice. And I like to take some time to browse the good things in other blogs, too.

Which reminds me: I’m pretty sure there are people reading my blog who never comment, and maybe some of you have your own blogs that I don’t know about? If so, please tell me sometime! And to everyone: May your week be full of pleasant encounters with unique gifts.

Maggie and Her Grandma

P1110167 maggie wash car 14After the hubbub of the wedding and the excitement of being a bridesmaid, after playing with cousins and chatting with numerous aunts and uncles, after her dad and brothers departed for home and school, our granddaughter Maggie and her mom Pearl stayed on for another week.

It had been close to two years since I’d even seen this girl, and the change from nine to eleven years is a big one. I’m so thankful it worked out for her to be around all those lazy summery days, so we could enjoy just living our lives together. It didn’t seem necessary to plan interesting outings — Maggie had plenty of ideas in her head and resources at hand, for creative and homey things.

charles hedgehog This hedgehog that had been given to her grandpa had not been named, so Maggie created a contest to choose a name for him. She gathered suggestions from all the family into a teapot and after a few days she had Grandpa choose his favorite. He picked Charles, but Maggie calls him Charlie.  He looked on during many of our fun times.thedollshouse

The first thing the two of us did in the relative quietness was to start reading The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden. I read aloud to her as we snuggled on the couch or on her bed in my sewing/prayer room. It seemed to be the perfect book for our limited time — just long enough, and with a dramatic plot. The doll characters were very well drawn and complex – not fluffy.

We went to the craft store where Maggie bought a big pad of paper to go with ribbons and bows I had on hand, and she created some pretty cards for her grandpa and me.

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I mostly forgot about my chores that week. I could do that because Pearl was always loading and unloading the dishwasher and clothes washer. She climbed a ladder to prune the unruly and invasive wisteria, and one morning she and Maggie washed both of our very dirty cars till they were shining.

Maggie did a lot of flipping, diving and acrobatics in the pool. She had the idea of baking some brownies, but “only if your recipe is the same as my mom’s…?”  Our family has made “Anne’s Brownies” for so many decades, I thought it likely that Pearl was still using the same, and when I handed Maggie the card she said it was the Right One. (Anne, when you read this, you will know who you are.)

She added the peppermint extract and a buttercream icing she makes kind of free-form, and Voilà! we were blessed with mint brownies that she decorated with findings from the garden. Mr. Glad thought he didn’t like something chocolate mint, but he gave them a try and said they were yummy like Thin Mints, so he is still finishing the leftovers.P1110178 mint brownies

At the time of The Brownies, we were getting down to the last day or two of our extended reunion, and Maggie and I both were feeling some anticipatory pain of separation. We started watching more episodes of “Bleak House” with Grandpa — even though Maggie hadn’t been around to see the beginning of the series — and playing marathons of Bananagrams, which we both love.

Maggie makes us word-lovers proud with her skill at discovering words among the tiles. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, words may be formed going up as well as down, and from right to left as well as in the usual direction. This was one of Maggie’s crossword arrangements, and I think it was for a game that she ended up winning.

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I have a dream of someday offering my services to families as a spelling tutor for young readers. I would go to their houses with nothing but my bag of Bananagram tiles and a dictionary, and just play this game side-by-side with the kids. It’s excellent for a broad range of ages, because each player is doing her own thing, competing against herself, and winning a game has nothing to do with how many words you’ve formed by the end.

I won’t be playing with Maggie anytime soon, though, and we will go back to writing e-mails or talking on the phone about our gardens and books and cooking projects, and about her busy 6th-grade life. I love being a grandma!