Monday, March 4, 2013
A Fugue In Time - Rumer Godden
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.