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.


Rumer Godden’s Cromartie vs the God Shiva

virago godden Cromartie vs the God Shiva $T2eC16ZHJF0E9nmFSs4-BRGQFVpQKQ~~_35Rumer Godden’s Cromartie vs the God Shiva is a miniature classic with an over-long title.  It is Godden’s last novel, written at age 89.

Based on a court case resolved in 1994 about a stolen 12th-century bronze statue of the god Shiva that turned up at the British Museum, it explores the issue of whether museums and dealers have a right to art treasures.

In Godden’s novel, a stolen statue of Shiva turns up in London in the possession of a Canadian antique dealer, Mr. Cromartie.  The government of India wants it returned.

After the dense opening pages, which present information in the form of dialogue, this gracefully-written book proceeds at a fast clip.   Sir George Fothergill, QC, and his head clerk, Walter Johnson, debate whether to take on the case representing Shiva acting through the government of India.

Sir George has his doubts.

I don’t want to oppose you, Walter–when have I ever?” he asked.  “But this is too fantastical–a Hindu god going to war.”

“Acting through the government of India, Sir, which seems solid enough to me.”

“It can’t be solid if it’s a spirit, which I don’t believe is active.  No, I can’t bring myself to do it.  We should be a laughing stock.”

Cromartie v shiva godden Jacket.aspxBut his colleague, Honor Wyatt, Q.C., thinks the case is “poignant,” and the firm takes it on, assigning it to Michael Dean, the senior of the junior barristers, who was raised in India.  The figurine of Shiva was stolen from a lovely hotel on the coast of Coromandel, where its value had only recently been discovered.  Mr. Cromartie, the dealer, claims to have known nothing of the theft:  he tells Michael that he won’t return Shiva to India unless properly paid, and claims he was recently been told the hotel was in financial difficulties and the hotel owner only pretended to steal it.

Michael travels to Coromandel to investigate the case.  He admires the beauty of Patna Hall, an old-fashioned luxury hotel built  by the beach and hills by an English businessman in the early 20th century.  The Englishman’s granddaughter, known as Auntie Sanni, now runs it, but it was Professor Webster, an archaeologist who comes every year with a group of tourists, who discovered that the original Shiva had been replaced by a fake sometime in the last year.

Who stole and sold it ?  A guest?  An inhabitant of the village? An archaeologist?   And who made the perfect replica?

And then Artemis arrives, a young beautiful American archaeologist, who is intellectual, vital, and volatile.  She is intensely competitive at everything she does and swims like a mermaid.  And yet there is something lost about her.

Michael falls in love with her.

The  intense  danger of the hotel’s magically colorful private beach is stressed throughout:  the waves are so strong that one cannot swim without wearing a wicker helmet.  Michael goes for an early-morning swim.

Crabs scurried across it, there was an occasional starfish and blue jellyfish.  All along was the barrier of tossing white, higher than his head, as the waves swept in, rearing up before crashing down; he had not realized till last night how gigantic they were.  Beyond them the open sea was calm and azure blue….

“Ours is not a gentle sea,” Auntie Sanni had told Michael, as she told all her guests, when she saw him in his bathrobe.  She always said, “Please remember it is dangerous to go in alone to bathe, even for strong swimmers.  You must take a guard.”

The solution to the mystery is sad,  moving, and complicated.  In some ways it reflects the qualities of Shiva Nataraja, who Godden tells us represents creation, preservation, destruction, concealment, favour.

A lovely book.  Godden wrote another book set in Patna Hall, Coromandel Sea Change.  It’s on the TBR.

Rumer Godden’s The Lady and the Unicorn

Lady and the Unicorn rumer godden 91n+E6XolyL._SL1500_Virago has reissued several of Rumer Godden’s books, and recently reissued her lyrical second novel, The Lady and the Unicorn. Have you ever heard of this book?  I had not.

Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden

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.”

the lady and the unicorn godden penguin 41eT43VDWnL._BO1,204,203,200_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. )