Rumer Godden’s China Court

Rumer Godden, China Court (1960, Avon 1970)

chinacourt002 China Court is a dilapidated old house in Cornwall that has been home to four generations of the Quin family. It has witnessed their loves and compromises, triumphs and subterfuges, sacrifices and betrayals. Each generation has changed the building, its garden, and its relationship with the village.

After the death of old Mrs Quin in 1960 (the year of publication), we meet her loving servant, the reformed scapegrace who rents the farm attached to the house, her beloved granddaughter who arrives from Rome too late to see her grandmother alive, her sensible daughters and their even more sensible husbands, an old man who has been called in by Mrs Quin (at the insistence of the most belligerently sensible son-in-law) to evaluate the paintings and other artefacts that have accumulated over the decades, and of course the benign old family lawyer who comes to read the will. Events unfold pretty much as that list of characters suggests: the will surprises all the characters but not the reader, unexpected treasure is found that makes everything work out, young love blossoms, and China Court is saved: no rude shocks there for the readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal, where the novel first appeared as a serial.

But Rumer Godden is a formidable writer. The present-time story unfolds in sentences filled with unexpected pleasures and strange twists and rhythms, using the conventional past tense. And intertwined with that narrative is what makes the book splendid: as if they are emanating from the stones and wood of the house, scenes from the past 120 years are told in the present tense. It’s a simple device, but it allows the narrating voice to switch without pause, explanation or any other signposting from a 1960 conversation in the kitchen to a rhapsodic account of how that kitchen has changed over the decades or to a completely different scene from 80 years earlier. Old Mrs Quin becomes Ripsie, the orphan girl from the village, childhood friend of the sons of China Court; the ferocious Lady Patrick who bullies little Ripsie becomes the aristocratic Irish beauty heartbroken at her husband’s infidelity; maiden aunt Eliza becomes a headstrong girl and a tragic figure as an old woman – at least five main stories, and any number of lesser ones, all woven together brilliantly, and the reader never loses track.

There are any number of reasons why this book and I are wrong for each other.

Gender: Not only are the main characters female but there is seemingly endless detail about flowers, clothes, household ornaments, cooking and domestic life in general, not to mention lots of pining after men in uniform.

Religion: I was brought up Catholic, and the book is high Anglican (though one character is ‘chapel’ and another Catholic). Key to the plot is a beautiful old Book of Hours, and the novel’s sections are named after the hours of the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline and Matins – with a Latin phrase (and translation) from the relevant Hour at the head of each section. My inner Catholic youth was torn between pleasure at being reminded of a prayer cycle that marked out my days from age 18 to 23, and a completely unjustifiable distaste at having those prayers used primarily as decoration.

Politics: Not that the book is overtly political, but it’s shot through with a kind of conservatism we know well from TV’s Downton Abbey (there are a lot of similarities, though the Quins aren’t aristos like the DA family). Early in the book, a family member is described as ‘go[ing] out to his great-uncle’s business in Canton when it has settled down again after the Opium War’ – having just read an Amitav Ghosh novel about the lead-up to that war, I’m alert to the human suffering glossed over in this passing comment, and suspicious when told that that business in Canton was just about tea. An uncritical acceptance of the spoils of Empire is deeply troubling, but doesn’t ruffle the surface here.

Pedantics: As a copy editor I would have gone nuts. The use of run-ons in particular is maddeningly irresponsible. I doubt if Ms Godden and the Chicago Manual of Style had ever been introduced.

There are probably other reasons why we shouldn’t get on. But in the event, I loved it. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, I was eating out of Rumer Godden’s hands. She made me care about a dozen characters. She drives home the tragic effects of sexism and male domination on women, including women of the privileged classes. She fiercely opposes the creeping commodification of everyday life that was to blossom into neoliberalism. She may have cured me of my slavish devotion to the Style Manual.

8 responses to “Rumer Godden’s China Court

  1. What a delightful review. Kept me in suspense until the end wondering whether you were going to be for or against the novel.

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  2. I think it’s a brilliant review of the book although I myself couldn’t see its ‘faults’ as I got so involved with the characters from the word ‘go’.
    Incidentally, I loved Downton Abbey too!

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    • Actually, Swapna, the ‘faults’ lay not in the book but in a particular rule-bound approach to editing that comes from having worked in an educational setting, and also from having been bullied by Style Manuals. Rumer Godden’s departures from prescribed usage is fabulously appropriate to her theme. Even her device of changing tenses would probably be frowned on by some of my colleagues, yet it is just brilliant.

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  3. I loved Rumer Godden’s books when I was younger. I read all of the ones on the shelf in the public library. I wonder how I’d take to them now, having read this.

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    • Hi M-H. This is so interesting! I hadn’t heard of her till I read The Diddakoi maybe 15 years ago. I liked that book a lot, but had no idea how strong a nerve she had struck with so many women when young. I guess I just didn’t go near those shelves, or of course it’s very likely that the shelves in the all-male institutions of my youth didn’t have them in the first place.

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  4. I think liking a book that “isn’t your type” is one of the great pleasures of reading

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