Monday, March 4, 2013

A Fugue In Time - Rumer Godden

Of all the Rumer Godden titles Virago have just released this is the one I was most anticipating - it wasn't one I'd heard of before (though I suspect there are a good few more of those) but this one promised a brash young American turning up at her uncles house in war torn London, a history of the family including a mysterious orphan, and a love story or two which all sounded like fun. It also sounded quite a bit like 'China Court' (I thought I had blogged about 'China Court' but must have read it just before I started) which I remember as being gently enjoyable.

The first few pages went on to feel a lot like 'China Court' and I was momentarily disappointed - much as I had liked I didn't want to read essentially the same book over again - and then it developed into something much better than I was expecting, though now I've checked Godden's bibliography I see that 'A Fugue In Time' precedes 'China Court' by some 16 years (I don't know why this has surprised me but it has).  'A Fugue In Time' is also, and I didn't expect this either, a response to T. S. Elliot's East Coker, specifically this passage: Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
                    The world becomes stranger, the pattern more
                    Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
                     Isolated, with no before and after,
                     But a lifetime burning in every moment
                     And not the lifetime of one man only
                     But of old stones that cannot be deciphered,
                     There is a time for the evening under starlight,
                     A time for the evening under lamplight
                     (The evening with the photograph album).
                     Love is most nearly itself
                     When here and now cease to matter.
                     Old men ought to be explorers
                     Here or there does not matter
                     We must be still and still moving
                     Into another intensity
                     For a further union, a deeper communion...
                     ...In my end is my beginning.

It is the story of a home and a family that have lived in it for 99 years. An elderly and disgraced General, Rolls Dane, has retired into his family home to live - I would say with the past but that's not quite right. The house doesn't forget the people who have made their lives in it. John Ironmonger Dane who took the lease and made a home for his young wife Griselda, Selina their daughter who takes over the housekeeping when Griselda dies giving birth to Rolls, Lark Ingoldsby whom John brings home as a young orphan and delivers into Selina's resentful care, there is Rolls/Rollo/Rolly, There is Grizel the young American niece who will also have her future in the house, and then there is Mr Proutie, and Mrs Proutie, and Mrs Crabbe, and all the others who have made the house what it is above and below stairs. All their stories are told, or at least parts of them are, and they're all told at the same time.

Each story belongs to the house as much as the furniture, the china, or the glassware - much of which is described in glorious lists of inventory - a home is made by the people that live in it, but it is also made of things, all the things which are loved and cherished and invested with memories.

This is an extraordinary book - thinking about it makes me think it shouldn't work, but it does, it really does. Godden does so many things with it, of which for me the most interesting is how she explores women's lives through their relationship with the house, and again to me the most interesting is Griselda. Married at 17 Griselda is a stuffed into the role of the angel in the home which really doesn't fit her very well. She's desperate for a life beyond the walls of her home but she's trapped by convention and love. There are plenty of ways to illustrate the plight of a respectable upper middle class Victorian housewife, Godden  does it by pointing out that Griselda doesn't have a key to her own front door. She has the interior keys, excepting the cellar key which is the property of master and butler, but she can't come and go from her own house as she pleases, not without being observed and not without tacit permission. The implications of that are still bothering me.  


  1. I have never come across this one - and now I'm wondering how I missed it. I'll be looking for a copy (I've already added a copy of Miss Cayley's Adventures to my TBR stacks after reading your review).

  2. I've just discovered that this was published in the US as Take Three Tenses, a title I do recognize (but have still never read).

    1. I really enjoyed both books. Miss Cayley is a peach, and Godden hasn't let me down yet, though reading her at the moment is making me realise how much there is to think about in her books, something I hadn't really remembered about her.

  3. I am so much enjoying these reprints. I really whizzed through this one as well, and it led me to pick up Lucy M Boston's memoirs (Peverse and Foolish and Memory in a House) again which some how read especially well after China Court and this one. Brilliant review from you as always Hayley which captures feel of Fugue perfectly. I do feel Goudge, Godden and Boston deserve to be easily available again.

    1. Thank you for saying such nice things Donna :) I'm not yet familiar with Goudge or Boston, but Godden I have a lot of time for. I find her a really interesting writer and this book particularly is a 'nice' one. I've just finished 'Breakfast with the Nikolides' which was very good but also much more disturbing.

  4. I rather like the sound of this, I love stories with a house solidly at the heart of the tale!

    1. In which case you should love this one Alex, it really as much about the house as anything else.

  5. This has been so hard to find for my whole lifetime, I can hardly believe it is in print again and I can in good conscience recommend it.

    Even Grizel, even modern Grizel, was living sixty years ago and in terrible expectations of women's possibilities.

    1. That was one of the things that interested me - Rolls and Proutie's memories link the Victorian house with the then contemporary 1940's which is now my grandparents generation - I guess 'living memory' can about span a century but nothing more, but there's something very satisfying about that.

      After your comment I tried to imagine what Grizel would have been like had Godden written this book five or ten years later as at least the war opened up women's expectations and experiences. I'm really pleased these books are back in print, she's an excellent writer who deserves plenty of attention, and this particularly is a lovely book.