I love Godden, a once best-selling novelist whose neglected work is relegated to the dusty back tables at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale and charity bookshops. In 2009 I went on a Godden binge, reveling in old favorites like In This House of Brede (the best nun novel ever) and discovering several I’d never gotten around to. My favorite is Kingfishers Catch Fire , her autobiographical novel about an impoverished mother of two children who moves to Kashmir to “live simply.”
Godden, the daughter of a shipping agent who rejected a safe career as a stockbroker in England, had an idyllic childhood in India, returned to England with her sisters to be educated, taught dance in Calcutta for 20 years, and lived in Kashmir before returning to Britain permanently. Many of her novels are set in India. Her writing is lyrical, her voice sometimes whimsical, the scenes vividly imagined, and surprising twists lead to unpredictable outcomes.
Godden’s poignant second novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, tells the story of the Lemarchants, an eccentric, poor Eurasian family who rent a suite in a crumbling old mansion in Calcutta. It is also a ghost story revolving around a glamorous, sobbing lady and a little dog. Catholicism is a strong influence on the Lemarchants’ lives and imaginations: the novel opens with the visit of a priest. He has come to say that the pretty, sassy Belle must leave the Catholic school because of her inexplicable wickedness. He says her quieter twin sister Rosa must leave , too.
Mr. Lemarchant wants to know what Belle has done.
She has actually done nothing,” said the priest slowly. “She has, actually, said nothing. She has behaved exactly as she has always behaved, but with a difference! It is her attitude, an attitude of mockery, if I have to say it, an attitude of diabolical mockery. A terrible change has come over her. She was so quiet, so modest, and now she seems to taunt us.”
Belle and Rosa are twins, in their late teens, and don’t have much to lose from expulsion anyway. In describing their plight, Godden also vigorously explores the status of Eurasian women, who were despised by the British and the Indians as “half-caste.” Belle is well aware of what the men think of her, that she is loose, easy, and doesn’t need commitment, but she is determined to use the system to get ahead: she knows how to make herself attractive to Mr. Harmon at a party. Suddenly she is his “secretary.”
At that same party, Rosa meets Stephen Bright, a young man from England on his first day in India. He is extremely friendly.
He had been told by his cousin that the girls at the B party were not to be taken seriously.
What’s a B party?”
“A and B girls.”
“Oh, I see… What happens?”
“Usual thing…. They behave very well and we behave very badly, and then they behave worse.”
Stephen considers Rosa pretty and sweet, and befriends her family. When he finds an old European sundial buried under the jasmine, he wants to investigate its origins. The twins and the landlord’s son, Robert have seen the ghost of a lovely woman who looks like Rosa and Belle, and their younger sister Blanche has seen an adorable Pekingese dog, Echo, running after her.
Stephen becomes obsessed with uncovering clues about other artefacts in the house. He is the only one who cannot see the ghost (because he is European?). But when Rosa gets pregnant, he breaks a very important promise to Rosa. He will not marry her. Abortion is mentioned, but Rosa and Auntie are horrified.
The story of the ghost is tightly connected with the Lamarchant family.
Don’t let me forget Blanche, the little sister: she is the dark-skinned girl in the family, an embarrassment to Belle. This strong-willed girl wants a dog, sees the ghost’s dog, Echo, clearly, and saves Rosa from their father’s threatened breach-of-promise suit by grabbing Stephen’s letters and throwing them into the fire.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.
By the way, at my old blog, Frisbee: A Book Journal. I wrote “review-ettes” of Kingfishers Catch Fire, China Court, Breakfast with the Nikilides, The Greengage Summer, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, and the first volume of her autobiography, A Time to Dance, A Time to Weep. )