The Twain Shall Meet

Rediscovering Rumer Godden's Indian novels

01 August 2013

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO THINK of Rumer Godden’s novel Black Narcissus (1939) without remembering Sabu’s jovial face and Jean Simmons’ sultry charm in the 1947 film, against a backdrop of Darjeeling’s painted skies and clouds of gauze, and somewhere, on the margins of all the lush exotica, Deborah Kerr and David Farrar as the nun and the bad boy, attempting to live out their platonic love affair. Godden herself thought the film was tacky and inauthentic, but felt that other filmed scenes from her novels had overlaid her own memories of lives and landscapes.

So when I try to recall that London day in the late 1970s when my sister Shahrukh announced she was going to be researcher for a novelist called Rumer Godden, who was working on a biography of the Mughal princess Gulbadan, I see myself crying out: “Black Narcissus”. That was the book that had ensured her fame, thanks in great part to the film version. It was her third published novel, but the two that came before had been entirely forgotten. Godden would go on to write the screenplay for Jean Renoir’s celebration of Bengal, The River (1951), based on her novel of the same name, while the film The Greengage Summer (1961), that delicate account of adolescent desire set in France, was based on her 1958 novel.

And then there were the novels themselves, which appeared before the films were made and continued to be produced long after. Godden, a contemporary of novelists of the Raj such as Paul Scott, was a British writer whose 60 works of fiction and nonfiction reflect her personal experiences in colonial India and England. This year Virago has released new editions of seven of her novels under their Modern Classics imprint, and Macmillan, which has kept her in print over the years, has reprinted many of the rest.

Aamer Hussein  is the author of six works of fiction, most recently the novel The Cloud Messenger (2011). He is a Professorial Writing Fellow in the Department of English, University of Southampton.

Keywords: colonialism British Empire women’s writing postcolonialism Kashmir Rumer Godden Ruth Prawer Jhabvala