Review: The Peacock Spring, Rumer Godden

As I write this review, I am in a state of near-perfect happiness. I will tell you why. I am sitting in an Oscar Wilde-themed cafe in the West Village, drinking coffee from a teacup and eating a scone with clotted cream and raspberry jam. There is a cafe in the West Village called Bosie (I know, right? What a weird thing to name a cafe!), and it has in the back a framed picture of Oscar Wilde (to recapitulate, I am not making this up), and it has these really lovely scones with jam. I am well aware that this sounds like I am telling you about a very pleasant dream I had, but that is not the situation. It is a real thing.

Anyway, after a week that caused me more anxiety and less joy than its events really warranted, it was nice to sit in this nice new little cafe, sipping coffee, nibbling a scone, and writing about Rumer Godden.

Rumer Godden — let me begin by saying — should be more famous than she is. I admit that her books for adults can be hit or miss, but of her books for children, there is barely a loser amongst them. She has a distinctive, oddly lovely way of writing; nobody writes the way Rumer Godden does. Even when she is writing a book that sounds like the most saccharine thing ever — like a family of dolls that long for a doll house — she never comes close to being saccharine. She is piquant instead. Do not ask me how she accomplishes this, because I don’t know.

The Peacock Spring is all about two girls, half-sisters, who come to live with their father in India. Twelve-year-old Halcyon delighted makes friend after friend and falls in love with a deposed rajah, but bookish fifteen-year-old Una resents being taken away from her studies in England. She dislikes her governess, who is clearly having an affair with her father, and fears she won’t be able to go to university as she dreamed. Her only happiness comes from learning advanced math in secret from the under-gardener, an Indian poet called Ravi.

If you want a first Rumer Godden experience, don’t go with this. I liked it in sort of the same way I liked Promises of Love (but I liked that better than this): more because of its total RumerGoddeniness than for it on its own merits. Except with Promises of Love it was the MaryRenaultiness. The governess, Alix, is a very Rumer Godden kind of character — pitiable and selfish and not very nice — without doing that excellent Rumer Godden character thing of turning interesting and sympathetic when you don’t expect it. And there wasn’t enough of my favorite character, a friend of Ravi’s called Hem, who has integrity. Another of Rumer Godden’s many, many gifts as a writer is to write characters who have integrity and are not boring, all at the same time.

In brief: Rumer Godden is the best. But The Peacock Spring won’t necessarily prove it to you. But I promise it’s true. Read A Candle for St. Jude instead or, if it is Christmas, THe Story of Holly and Ivy. The former is wonderful (and Eva is going to like it! She’s going to like it! She is! You are, Eva!), and the latter is among the most heartwarmingly wonderful Christmas stories ever invented.

Who else has read The Peacock Spring? Anyone? Why do people not love Rumer Godden enough? THAT IS WHAT I WANT TO KNOW. I don’t mind about this book particularly, because it’s only fine and not particularly awesome, but some of her books are so great, and nobody has read those either!

34 thoughts on “Review: The Peacock Spring, Rumer Godden

  1. I know I had it on my shelf, but not sure if its still there. I do have An Episode of Sparrows- have you read that one? I keep trying more Rumer Godden to find one I love as much as Thursday’s Children, but sadly so far that hasn’t happened yet.

    • I haven’t read An Episode of Sparrows! I’ve heard it’s very sad. I own it, also, so I’m sure I’ll read it one of these days. Thursday’s Children is also possibly my favorite, although I am very very fond of A Candle for St. Jude and In This House of Brede.

  2. I found a second-hand Folio edition of The Greengage Summer earlier this summer and brought it quickly home. It was a delightful read, a wonderfully tricky look at good and evil, sex and death, innocence and experience. I’ve had An Episode of Sparrows on my wishlist for ages and finally bought it this month in the NYRB sale. There is a wonderful interview with her and she talks about how stories are vouchsafed a writer. She’s marvelously humble for a woman with such an output.

    • I want The Greengage Summer to read too! I had it out of the library last summer and didn’t read it speedily enough, and New York doesn’t have it. Hrmph. I can’t wait to watch the interview with her! I don’t have any idea what she looks like, even, and I love her so much.

      • Jen, I am not sure, but I have the feeling The Greengage Summer will go on the B list for you. It’s good…it’s just, I don’t know, it has that bleak quality that some of her adult novels have. I really like An Episode of Sparrows, though.

  3. I shall, I shall! 😉 I peeped into the first few pages and found them enchanting: I’ll start reading it properly v soon!

    Also, the first paragraph of this post made me smile so much. I’m glad your week is ending on a good note!

  4. I spent this entire post wondering why on earth the name Rumer Godden was so familiar to me. But when you mentioned The Story of Holly and Ivy, I got it! I had NO idea she wrote things besides my most beloved and cherished Christmas story EVER. I really like the sound of The Peacock Spring, but since you say I should start elsewhere, I will put A Candle for St. Jude on my list as well. I’m so excited!

    • Oh Erin, she wrote A LOT of just spectacular children’s fiction. She wrote a lot of books that are tonally very similar to Holly and Ivy; i.e., heartwarmingly awesome. The children’s section of the library should have them.

  5. For some reason I thought Rumer Godden wrote.. um… like, new-age philosophy? I don’t know why. I’ll get on that, right away.

    One of my very favorite authors of all time writes characters who have integrity and are not boring: Elizabeth Goudge. Choose any book of hers and you’ll find that characteristic, though I’m guessing you, personally, would like The Little White Horse or Linnets and Valerians best to start with. (My own favorite, but only just barely, is her trilogy about the Eliot family, beginning with The Bird in the Tree.)

    • Oh, Other Jenny, yes yes YES! to Elizabeth Goudge! I love the Scent of Water and The Rosemary Tree also. And my library just discarded The Heart of the Family, so now I have to hunt down a copy.

      Jenny doesn’t mention In This House of Brede, which is my favorite among Rumber Godden’s adult novels. But Jen is dead on about the children’s novels, they are all fantastic, although Miss Happiness and Miss Flower may be my very favorite.

  6. The Rumer Godden books I love I Love–In this House of Brede, Listen to the Nightingale (have you read that one yet? It is a sequel/companion to Candle for St. Jude). But most of her adult books, including Peacock Spring, leave me cold. They are just too un-cozy for my little mind!

    • I have read Listen to the Nightingale and I love it. I don’t mind uncoziness in her books, but a lot of the grown-up ones don’t have characters that engage me. I’m always hoping to find more grown-up books of hers to love. We’ll see.

  7. I had a copy of The Story of Holly and Ivy when I was little, and I LOVED it. I read it over and over every single year. The copy disappeared, I think when my family moved when I was a teenager and “too cool” to care about a story of a doll needing a home.

    What’s curious to me now is that I never had the good sense to pay attention to who wrote the book and look for more. It was only maybe three or four years ago, when someone recommended In This House of Brede to me (must get on that), that I looked up Rumer Godden and realized that I’d loved one of her books already. I must read more—and I must find a new copy of The Story of Holly and Ivy that has the drawings I remember.

  8. Chicago has two bars with Oscar Wilde themes (surprising, right? He must be a literary “it” guy right now), but they do NOT serve real scones with clotted cream and raspberry, immediately rendering them less awesome than the one in the West Village. If I move to NYC, we shall go to there together.

  9. I haven’t read this. Her books aren’t easy to find but did find a beautiful edition of The Greengage Summer a few years ago. I hosted a read-a-long at my blog. Loved that book and had hoped to read more from her. Thanks for reminding me about her. I’m going to try to find The Peacock Spring.

  10. Rumer Godden did use to be hugely well-known, but towards the end of her life her books went out of print and were considered old-fashioned. You know the sort of thing that happens. It would be nice to see a revival of interest in her because she can be fab. I’ve read a couple of her adult novels and enjoyed them very much (not the one you’ve just read, though.)

  11. Nice review, Jenny! I haven’t read any of Rumer Godden’s books, but have seen a movie which was based on a Rumer Godden novel called ‘Black Narcissus’. It is one of my favourite movies and it has one of my favourite Christmas songs / scenes ever. Nice Glad to know that you liked ‘The Peacock Spring’.

    • I know that movie! I mean I haven’t seen it, but I own the book and I knew there was a movie. I’m glad to hear the movie version is good! I’ll have to get it from the library.

  12. The Dolls’ House (also called Tottie: the story of a dolls’ house) was one of my favourite books when I was a child. As an adult I have read and enjoyed The Greengage Summer and The Diddakoi.

    Miss Happiness and Miss Flower is on my wish list.

    • I love that one! Another blogger sent me a copy of that with the Tasha Tudor illustrations, and it looks just like the copy I used to check out of the library when I was little. The Dolls’ House may be my favorite of her kids’ books, but it’s a tight race. Miss H and Miss F (and its sequel, Little Plum) is pretty damn good.

  13. She sounds vaguely familiar — I think someone must have blogged about her, but otherwise all I’ve ever heard of her was The Holly and the Ivy. I don’t think I’ve read it but my library has tons of her books. Naturally, only one copy of each and they’re all at the Central Branch. I’ll have to make a pilgrimage to start flipping through them.

    And are her adult novels anything like Mary Wesley? I thought she was just great, read all her books a few years ago.

    • Can you place holds on them? I promise they’re worth it. Almost all her kids’ books are amazing, so I advise you to start with those.

      I’ve never heard of Mary Wesley! But I am intrigued by what the internet has to say about her, so I will have to investigate. What’s a good book to start with?

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