Monday, August 12, 2013

The Peacock Spring - Rumer Godden

After a whole pile of trashy romances reading something where a happy ending wasn't the whole purpose of
the book felt good. This book doesn't have what you could really call a happy ending (sorry if that's a spoiler, but a for a book that's been around since 1975 I don't feel bad about giving away spoilers). I think most of the Rumer Godden I've read has been from earlier in her career, and though there was nothing particularly specific to tie this one to the 1970's it still felt very much like a book from the later part of the 20th century rather than the middle part. Curiously the plot is based on an incident from an earlier part of her life. Pre war Godden had run a dance school in India where she had been unusual for accepting Eurasian pupils, amongst the students there were two English girls accompanied by a Eurasian governess between whom Godden sensed a certain amount of tension, there seems to have been gossip about the girls wandering around the bazaar unaccompanied and eventually it transpired that the older girl had fallen pregnant after a relationship with one of her fathers servants.

This is basically the plot to 'The Peacock Spring'; Una and Hal Gwithiam have been pulled out of school in England to live with their respictivley widowed, and divorced father in Delhi, he's something quite grand in the united nations and although the girls and their father have always been close they sense that there's something not quite straight about this move. When they arrive they find that the governess they've been provided with is a stunningly beautiful Eurasian women - Alix Lamont - about whom there are whispers and suspicions. Alix and Una both fear and distrust each other, Una because she soon comes to understand what Alix is about, and Alix because Una is far more difficult to cope with than she had expected.

Una at 15 is in the odd inbetween stage between child and woman, old enough to see and understand more than she might like but still to young to understand the consequences of all her actions, including her affair with the poet gardener Ravi. Alix is seizing a chance for security with Sir Edward and has no intention of letting anything get in her way least of all a couple of schoolgirls but her ambitions and dissembling make her vulnerable. Alix is a difficult character, she ought to be the villain of the piece but despite her behavior she isn't quite - that role is reserved for Sir Edward.

It's Edward who pulls his daughters out of a school where they're safe, happy, and where given a chance Una could achieve her ambition of getting into Oxford to drag them across the world to lend face to the fact that he's installed his mistress in the house as their governess - a role she turns out to be basically under qualified to perform. Having got his way he's far to taken up with work and love to see what's actually happening in his house or to appreciate the effect his selfishness is likely to have on the lives of his daughters. It is, in the end, Edward who has the adult power in the family, his uxoriousness which will cause him to misuse it. Altogether it's a remarkable portrait of the point in a family's development when the child begis to understand the fallibility of their parents, begins to see the double standard between philosophy and actions and starts to judge accordingly. I'm really pleased this is back in print, Godden is to good to lose.

6 comments:

  1. I'm sad that there is no happy ending. I did hope that it would end well for the two girls. Never mind the adults.

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  2. I wouldn't say it was an unhappy ending so much as a truthful one with a lifetime of possibility ahead for the girls - it's a brilliant book and she's a stupendous writer.

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  3. I LOVE Rumer Godden -- I had a run on her novels a while back but have not read this one. I also love India, and books set therein, so this sounds like one I must read soon. Many thanks -- great review.

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    1. It's a brilliant book, there are a couple of mentions of 'The Winter's Tale' which make me think I should read that play again. It also felt like a coming of age book about India as well as in the life of a teenage girl which I really liked.

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  4. Ah, I've got this one to read. Looking even more forward to it now!

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  5. I loved this one Vicki, it felt quite profound, I always find Godden entertaining but everything came together in this one in a way that felt extra special.

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