Rumer Godden’s A Fugue in Time, or Take Three Tenses

Rumer Godden

I’ve never quite known how to classify Rumer Godden:  are her books classics?  Are they pop fiction?  Do we admit we read Rumer Godden? Or do we not mention her?

When Virago began to reissue Godden’s work in 2013, my problem was solved:  her books were respectable. And though I had read many of her novels, Virago published some titles I’d never heard of. And so I recently read Godden’s 1945 novel A Fugue in Time, which was published as Take Three Tenses in the U.S. Why did I read it?  Because of science fiction writer Jo Walton’s post at

Walton wrote in 2013:

You won’t believe how delighted and astonished I am to see A Fugue in Time back in print. It’s been out of print and impossible to find for my whole lifetime. I’ve only owned it myself for a relatively short time (thank you for finding it for me, Janet!), and it’s probably the book I have most frequently read from libraries. It’s in print! And I can therefore recommend it in good conscience!

Walton writes a fascinating piece in which she says it is science fiction.  I think it is more of a ghost story, but it can be read as literature or SF too. Time overlaps:  the present, past, and future happen at once.  In a single paragraph, Godden sometimes switches from the perspective of a character in the 1940s to that of a character in the 19th century.

Number 99 Wiltshire Place has been leased for 99 years by the Dane family, and the house and family are intertwined.  Godden experiments with time, ghosts, and modernism:  she alludes to E. M. Forster’s Howards End,  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker.”

The characters struggle with their feelings for the house. The plot centers on the end of the lease.   Rolls, the last tenant, a retired general,  is furious when he learns from a  lawyer  that he cannot renew the lease, and that the owner intends to pull down the house.  Distressed, he knows his time is up.  And so he experiences the past, present, and future all at once, and Godden writes it all in present tense, with much poetic repetition of words, alliteration and assonance,  as well as the frequent repetition of lines of T. S. Eliot.

Rolls especially doesn’t want to leave the plane tree in the garden, which is like the wych elm tree in Howards End, representing the long history of the house.  Godden writes of the plane tree,

The roots of the plane-tree are under the house. Rolls liked to fancy, sometimes, lately, that the plane-tree was himself. Its roots are in the house and so are mine, he said.

‘You could find another house,’ Mr Willoughby had suggested.

‘I could but I would not,’ Rolls had answered, ‘and where could I find another tree?’… I am that tree, said Rolls.

He flattered himself. The plane-tree is more than Rolls, as is another tree of which Rolls truly is a part; it is a tree drawn on parchment, framed and hung over the chest in the hall by the grandfather clock. Selina draws it, marking the Danes in their places as they are born and die, making a demarcation line in red ink for the time they come to live in the house in the autumn of eighteen forty-one.

The women of the family have always been oppressed–until now, during World War II, when Rolls’ American great-niece, Griseld, shows up on his doorstep, an ambulance driver needing a place to live.  Rolls is not thrilled about introducing a new generation to the house.  He thinks of his mother Griselda, who wanted to travel in the 19th century but was always pregnant and died in childbirth with Rolls.  Her husband insisted on spending vacations in Scotland.  And Rolls’ very intelligent older sister  Selina, who could have been a CEO of a corporation, takes over the house after Griselda’s death. She turns it into Wuthering Heights  after her father brings home Lark, the orphaned daughter of a singer.  Lark, neglected and denied education, is Heathcliff to  Selina’s Hareton.  Rolls, in love with Lark,  is Catherine.  Years later, Griseld is very much like Selina but also like a second-generation Cathy.

Some of Godden’s later books are more subtle, including China Court, another story of a house, but I thoroughly enjoyed A Fugue in Time/Take Three Tenses. Godden’s best novels, in my opinion, are the autobiographical Kingfishers Take Fire and her fascinating nun book, In This House of Brede.  I have loved them all, though.