Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2021

The River, by Rumer Godden

I meant to read The River for Brona’s #RumerGoddenReadingWeek in December and had set it aside on the bedside table so that I wouldn’t forget, but nostalgia overtook me last night and I read it early. At only 111 pages long, however, it turned out to be ideal for #NovNov (Novellas in November)…

Rumer Godden (1907-1998) is one of my best-loved authors from an earlier stage in my reading life: I read her novels compulsively each time they came my way.  She was a consummate storyteller, and although she can be criticised for her uncritical gaze on British India, she was an astute observer of human nature and her stories are incisive portraits of people.

The River is a coming-of-age story and an elegy for childhood.  The main character is Harriet, on the cusp of adolescence and troubled by the complexities of life.  Her ambitions to be a writer and her first success with a piece published to family acclaim in the local newspaper might be based on Rumer Godden herself. It was too long ago to remember the details, but I’ve read Anne Chisholm’s Rumer Godden, a Storyteller’s Life. So though I know that Godden took up writing professionally to support herself after a failed marriage to a feckless, possibly dishonest man, I recognise Harriet’s childhood desire to write that emerges in the pages of The River.  

Harriet is between two worlds in more senses than one.  Born in India and familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of Bengal where her father manages a jute factory, she knows and loves its festivals and music.  But she is not Indian and her privileged status as an English child in an expat family means that she will always be separate and apart from the culture that surrounds her, though she is too young to understand why.

Being European in India, the flavour of Harriet’s home was naturally different from most; it was not entirely European, it was not entirely Indian; it was a mixture of both.  (p.56)

But Harriet is also neither one thing or another in the family.

Half of Harriet wanted to stay as a child; half wanted to be a grown-up.  She often asked, ‘What shall I do when I am?  What will it be like?’ She often asked the others, ‘What shall you be when you are grown up? ‘ It was always Harriet who started these discussions.  No one else really liked them except Victoria, who was too young to know what she was, even now.

‘I shall be a cross red nurse when I grow up,’ said Victoria.

‘She means a Red Cross Nurse,’ said Nan. (p.12)

Though she occasionally likes to play with her younger brother Bogey, Harriet is not one of the little ‘uns, yet is too immature and annoying for her older sister Bea who likes to immerse herself in books and moon after Captain John, a disabled veteran of the war.

(Although which war isn’t specified, and there is a timelessness about this story, it seems quite clear to me that the war that disabled Captain John was WW2 because he was tortured.)

Most of the drama in The River is concocted by Harriet, whose ceaseless questioning creates squabbles and mysteries, and her rivalry for the attention of Captain John leads to a melodramatic scene with a jealous friend called Valerie stealing Harriet’s private diary and reading aloud some rather embarrassing bits.  However, the presence of this young man does prompt Mother to deliver a talk about Life and babies and the sacred role of women, a scene which is delivered with some coyness by Godden, punctured by Harriet’s lack of enthusiasm for the possibility of womanhood.  As usual she is distracted by her own thoughts at first, and then Mother talked on calmly and firmly, and soon Harriet forgot to look at Bea.  She was listening with all her ears.

Mother’s voice went steadily on.  Then there was a third silence.

‘Well!’ said Harriet. ‘Well!’

She looked down at herself, and it was true that she was exactly as before, the same knees, the same hairiness, the dress with the same stains and marks.  ‘But — I didn’t know what I was, what I am, what I am going to be,’ said Harriet.  For all she knew, had known up to now, she might have been the same as Bogey.  Gone, and she thought regretfully of them for a moment, gone were some pleasing vistas she had seen for herself and Bogey; running away to sea and becoming cabin boys; turning into Red Indians, I should have to be a squaw, and I don’t like squaws, thought Harriet; being an explorer.  No, I suppose women are not really suitable for explorers, thought Harriet, they would be too inconvenient.  And every month… like the moon and the tides… the moon brings tides to the world and the world has to have them… it can’t help its tides, and no more can I.  All at once it seemed exceedingly merciless to the small Harriet… (p.74)

Poor Harriet, her dreams of adventure suddenly constrained by her gender!

The alert reader will notice that the gentle meandering plot includes brief intimations of impending disaster, and it is tragic when it comes.  Harriet learns the hard way that awful things do happen, and that people have to take responsibility, and that there is no alternative but to continue on.  Not as if nothing had happened, but because all we can do, is to go on.

‘Every family’ says the narrator from time to time, keeps the festivals that it needs. 

Every family has its milestones; the first teeth come and the first teeth go; the first number one shoes, the first birthday in double figures.  (p.42)

Every family has something, when it has left home, that is for it a symbol of home, that for it, for ever afterwards, brings home back.  It may be a glimpse of the dappled flank of a rocking-horse, a certain pattern of curtain, of firelight shining on a brass fender, of light on the rim of a plate; it may be a saying, sweet or sharp, like ‘It will only end in tears.’ ‘Do you think I am made of money?’ ‘It is six of one or half a dozen of the other’; it may be a song or a sound; the sound of a lawn-mower, or the swish of water, or of birds singing at dawn; it may be a custom (every family has different customs), or a taste: of a special pudding or burnt treacle tart or dripping toast; or it may be a scent or a smell: of flowers, or furniture polish or cooking, toffee or sausages, or saffron bread or onions or boiling jam. These symbols are all that are left of that lost world in our new one. (p.55)

And for all of us, things go on happening […] over and over again, for everyone, sometime. 

The River was made into a film in 1951 directed by Jean Renoir.  Wikipedia says she collaborated on the screenplay for the film and it also says that it follows the plot fairly faithfully, but no, IMO, from what I’ve seen of the trailer, it’s unrecognisable.  The River doesn’t have much of a plot, and the film has over-dramatised it, exoticised it, and sexualised it.  Read the book instead.

Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for hosting Novellas in November.

Author: Rumer Godden
Title: The River in a compilation comprising Coromandel Sea Change (1991), The Greengage Summer (1958) and The River (1946)
Cover illustration by Christopher Carr
Publisher: Pan Books, 1995, first published 1946.
ISBN: 9780330345941, pbk., 544 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand from Diversity Books $6.00


Responses

  1. I love Rumer Godden’s books . I read The Greengage Summer the year after it came out. My mother had it on her bedside table and I read it in secret installments, when no one was around! I seemed very racy to me then. I wounder if it would now?

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    • I read it a long time ago too, and I still have it. I may re-read it for Brona’s #RumerGoddenreadingWeek but I confess to feeling a little anxious that I might not like it as much, you know how that is?

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  2. One of my favourite Rumer Goddens is Two Under the Indian Sun

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved that too. She is so very good at writing childhood.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved Chisholm’s biography too: all that talk about marriage and books. Not necessarily in that order.

    Also, random comment: I love seeing a book that I only know from its standalone publication included in an omnibus setting. They seem so completely different. Like how differently your kid acts away from home compared to how they act at home, surprisingly willing to assist with the dishes and household chores and polite and all. Heh heh.

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    • Yes, generally a sympathetic bio, but I remember reading that she was devastated by her last pregnancy because she had thought she would be free to write at last. Imagine being that unwanted child, and reading that…

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  4. I will *always* read the book and not watch the film! I did love The Greengage Summer” and although I’ve not read a lot of Godden she certainly seems to capture that particular age group really well. That quote you give about Harriet’s realisation of her gender and how her life will be different is excellent!

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    • *Snap!* Me too.
      That excerpt really spoke to me, and written so long ago!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The River by Rumer Godden (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  6. So many writers of whom I have never heard. Because my boyhood reading was biased towards empire I read a bit of British fiction from India. It shocks me now to consider how we imposed ourselves on an ancient prosperous civilization AND seriously believed we were doing them a favour when what was really happening was that England was becoming enormously wealthy at India’s expense.

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    • True. But although they get most of the opprobrium, they were not the only ones, and they were the first to let it all go. France, Germany, Holland, Portugal, were all great colonisers, so of course were the Russians both before and after the Soviets, and the US was busy too. Even Australia had a colony for a while, which is often conveniently forgotten.

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  7. I had a little chuckle to self when I first read how you succumbed to nostalgia and started early :-)
    Thankfully I am the most relaxed reading week host ever and will happily include a post that is one month early!

    Hopefully this post (via the NovNov crowd) will bring Rumer Godden Reading week (4th – 12th December) to even more people’s attention.

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    • It’s funny how some ‘weeks’ get a lot of international attention and others don’t. Sometimes I get depressed about #IndigLitWeek and how little attention or participation it gets from overseas, but then I think, that’s not what I’m doing it for.

      Liked by 1 person

      • AusReadingMonth is a bit the same. But even just have a handful of international bloggers who remember to read that one Australian book on the tbr pile in or around November is a win. While for the rest of us, it’s a bit like just another reading month really, where a large part of it is devoted to Australian writers. Cause that’s we do.

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      • But I meant to say that I was blown away by how many responses I got to my Rumer Godden week coming soon post. Hopefully they all remember to turn up!

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  8. I also have this in my sights for Brona’s event! The quotes you picked have definitely whetted my appetite, I’m looking forward to it.

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  9. […] The River by Rumer Godden (Lisa t ANZ Lit Lovers) […]

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  10. I’ll take your advice and read the book. It’s years and years since I last read Rumer Goden (The Greengage Summer and In this House of Brede – for some reason which I can’t remember now, I loved the latter). I also watched Black Narcissus but have no idea how it compares with the novel. Thanks for the reminder.

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    • This House of Brede, that’s the one about the nuns, I think?
      I still have the ones I bought, but not the ones I borrowed from the library.
      However, after checking the library out of curiosity to see if they still stock her books, I now have The House of Nikolaides *and* Black Narcissus the DVD on reserve!
      So I’m for for #RumerGoddenReading Week all over again:)

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      • Yes, it’s about nuns, but about so much more than nuns. I should re-read it, really.

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        • For Brona’s #RumerGodden ReadingWeek!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Update: I have read Black Narcissus, and I will write about it on time for Brona’s reading week. Congrats on the successful PR!

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            • That’s great, I’ll be very interested to hear about the book. I borrowed the DVD from the library because they didn’t have the book….and although it’s a cult classic, I wasn’t super impressed. I suspect that — if it’s like the other Goddens I’ve read — the novel will focus on the interior life of the protagonists which is more interesting to me than Big Dramatic Events which get all the emphasis in film. Plus, the film seems racist now, especially in the way that May Hallett (who was British!) portrayed the ayah.
              Google tells me that there is a sexed-up remake of it now, which at least has appropriate casting!
              (But to see an expert opinion on the 1947 film, you might like to watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sorXKZYV8A8)

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