Rumer Godden (1909–1998) was born in Eastbourne, but was taken to India at the age of six months. She and her sister Jon were sent back to England to school, but their ways seemed wild and exotic to the other pupils, and they changed schools several times. Rumer Godden learned ballet, and later returned to India, and established a dance school in Calcutta. There she had a fling with Laurence Sinclair Foster, and married him when she became pregnant. The baby died, and the marriage did not prosper. Rumer Godden and her two daughters retreated to Kashmir after Foster left them (and his debts) to join the army in 1941. Rumer Godden was by this time already a successful author, having published Black Narcissus, the book for which she is probably best known. She married again, to James Haynes Dixon, a more successful marriage that allowed her to write. She wrote novels for both children and adults, and her horse books fall into both camps.
I bought The Dark Horse, an adult novel, on a whim, intending to sell it in my next catalogue in my bookselling days, but I picked it up and read it, and smartly removed it to my own shelves. Initially, the cover illustration made me wonder what on earth I was going to get, combining as it does several nuns, a racehorse and a backdrop of India. A horse book set in India is a very rare thing, but wherever it was set, this would still be an excellent read. Rumer Godden’s portraits of nuns are always sympathetic, and when they are surrounded by a cast of variously eccentric and determined characters, as well as a horse, the result is intensely readable.
Rumer Godden said of writing for children:
There are several things children will not put up with in a book. You have to have a proper beginning and an end; you cannot have flashbacks. Then you can't have a lot of description: keep it to a minimum. And you must be very careful with wors. I find I use fewer, and they have to fit the case exactly and be chosen with extreme care.
She won the Whitbread Award in 1972 for The Diddakoi: Kingsley Amis described it as 'the sort of book children had to fight for to get it from adults.' I can see what he meant. Supper appeared very late the night I read it.
Finding the books
Dark Horse is reasonably easy to find. The Diddakoi, Operation Sippacik and Mr McFadden’s Hallowe’en are very easy to find in paperback; a bit less so in hardback but certainly not impossible.
Sources and links
Obituary, Daily Telegraph, 14 November, 1998
The website of the Rumer Godden Literary Trust
Encylopaedia Britannica on Rumer Godden
Many thanks to Susan Bourgeau, Hannah Fleetwood, Dawn Harrison and Lynne Goundry for all their help with the photographs.