Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 4, 2021

Breakfast with the Nikolides, by Rumer Godden

Well, I jumped the gun a bit with my previous post about Rumer Godden’s The River, but this time I’m on schedule for #RumerGoddenReadingWeek at Brona’s This Reading Life…

Breakfast with the Nikolides is, according to Rosie Thomas who wrote the Introduction for this Virago edition, one of three early novels that reflect the themes and settings that are central to [Godden’s] works.

Godden was a writer who continually drew on her own life experiences, frugally mixing and recasting the elements to give them fresh significance, but always relating her work back to the the people, places, human passions and frailties that she knew and understood best.  Here, the place is Northern India, the people are pre-Partition British and the Indians they governed, and the themes are sexual desire, treachery, the conflict of cultures and the loss of innocence. (p.vii)

The central character of Breakfast with the Nikolides is Emily Pool, taken by her mother from India when young but brought back in panic because of the Nazi invasion of France.  Her mother hates India and everything about it, and although there are hints that Emily glimpsed something of her mother’s trauma, the novel is an uncompromising depiction of a child who feels torn between her warring parents, and who judges her mother harshly.  Louise’s faults are many, and Emily is aware of them all, especially Louise’s blatant preference for the younger child, Binnie, who is pretty and biddable (and surprisingly, given Louise’s preference for this child) the product of marital rape).  The characterisation of Louise, from the child’s point of view—even when Louise is the narrator—is vivid and entirely unsympathetic.

Emily’s father treats his problematic wife with indifference, salted by occasional acts of spite.  Louise has two Pekingese lap dogs,  but he gives Emily a dog of her own called, Don.

I asked Charles not to give the children a dog.  I asked him not to give them Don.  He gave them Don…

He gave him to Emily.

‘Why Emily? Why not Binnie?  Why Emily?’

‘I think,’ he said, ‘that that little girl needs love.’

In her surprise Louise had stared.  ‘Emily! Why, Emily won’t have love.  That shows how little you know of her.  She is hard.  She is completely oblivious of everyone but herself. She doesn’t care an atom for anyone.  She is almost unnatural.’

‘You don’t like her, do you?’

She answered icily, ‘I love Emily more than you could begin to understand.’

‘You may love her, you don’t like her.’

‘I love her and I know her better than she knows herself.’ And she said, ‘I must ask you not to interfere with the children.’ (p.63)

There is an authenticity about this dialogue that suggests auto-fiction, from Godden’s own disastrous marriage.

Don is not cossetted in the same way as the Pekingese, and Emily is only too well aware that her mother resents the dog. To annoy Louise, she openly defies the rules about keeping it confined due to the risk of rabies.  The time comes when it displays alarming symptoms and Louise packs the children off to the nearest neighbours, the Nikolides, so that she can make her decision about the dog unimpeded by Emily’s hostility and stubbornness.

The marriage of the Indian vet who becomes complicit in Louise’s treachery, is a complete contrast.  The ‘Untouchable’ Narayan Das, who can’t reconcile his wife’s faith with the westernised science that has enabled him to somewhat transcend his caste, is married to the uneducated, superstitious but deeply religious Shila, who knows that her rival is not another woman but a young Brahmin called Anil, a bromance that is quite surprising given the era in which this novel was written.

Anil is married to a fourteen year old girl to please his father though (mercifully) the marriage is unconsummated; his mental health is fragile because of his father’s expectations.  And whereas Louise is shrill, demanding, arrogant, unkind and often irrational, Shila is humble, subservient, and too intimidated by her husband even to speak to him most of the time.  Brought up in the countryside, she is terrified even of answering the phone, one of many timidities which exasperate Narayan.  Whereas Charles has no respite from domestic warfare, Anil is a sparkling conversationalist, and Narayan escapes the dull atmosphere at home whenever he can.  The sexual tension within these fraught marriages is understated but palpable.

The characterisation is not the only strength in the novel.  The settings show Godden’s awareness of the great differences between the governing class and the governed while also showing that privilege does not mean happiness.  Charles runs a model farm with an attached agricultural college where he teaches farming, but his house is still full of broken, badly mended furniture from when his violent rage precipitated the separation.  The children, privileged as they are, are easily lured into visiting the Nikolides because they are wealthy and extravagant.  Narayan’s house OTOH is bleak and empty, bereft by his decree of the vibrant religious symbols that make up an Indian home. And then there are the Indians who live on the street…

The ending is tragic, and utterly unexpected.

Author: Rumer Godden
Title: Breakfast with the Nikolides
Introduction by Rosie Thomas
Publisher: Virago Modern Classics, 2013, first published 1942
ISBN: 9781844088454, pbk.,220 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. […] Breakfast with the Nikolides | 1942 – reviewed by Lisa @ANZ Lit Lovers […]

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  2. The “themes are sexual desire, treachery, the conflict of cultures and the loss of innocence” all of which perfectly describe the story I’m a third of the way through – Coromandel Sea Change.

    I’ve only read a few Godden’s so far, but I know to watch for the sting in the tail at the end…and that happy ever after is not her way.

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  3. Wow, sounds fascinating. I’ve not read this author but now want to. Too many books!! Great review.

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    • I hope you can find it in your library:)

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  4. I remember reading a couple of her kids novels but if I read any adult ones it would have been back in the 70s and gone from the memory. She sounds worth exploring but I don’t imagine I will find time this month. I’ll try to keep her in mind, and Brona’s page will be a useful resource.

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    • She was very popular in her day, but never won any awards. I went through a phase of reading everything I could find at the library, and I’ve got some that I picked up at remainder tables.

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  5. Sounds a really interesting read, especially the setting. Great review

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  6. Your description of the story sounds far more bleak than I expected from reviews of others of her books. I might give it a try (no Rumer Godden on BorrowBox).

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    • Borrow Box is where you get your audiobooks?

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      • My first source of audiobooks is the local library for CDs. I change libraries every two or three years. I have an Audible account which gives me one book per month (and sometimes a freebie), but before I buy a book I check that it’s not available from BorrowBox.

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        • No wonder you find so many to listen to!

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  7. I just skimmed this Lisa as I’m hoping to read this during the week. It sounds excellent, her characterisation is so vivid.

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    • Oh good, I find that some of the reviews I see are nostalgic, written many years after the book was read, and I’m keen to see what readers of the 21st century make of her novels.

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  8. […] Breakfast with the Nikolides | 1942 – reviewed by Lisa @ANZ Lit Lovers […]

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  9. […] In my next life, I want to have Breakfast with the Nikolides, by Rumer Godden […]

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