A House With Four Rooms by Rumer Godden (William Morrow: $18.95 Ill.; 319 pp.)
"I am a storyteller," Godden tells us in the course of this altogether engaging autobiography, picking up the narrative in 1945, where the first volume, "A Time to Dance, A Time to Weep" stopped. The reminder is hardly necessary--the second book is as elegantly structured, the characters as memorable, as if the memoir were actually a novel. Though the framework never shows, and friends and relations are introduced as casually as if we met them in one of Godden's several houses, still the storyteller's sensibility is plain, bringing order out of confusion, filling in gaps and tidying up stray threads.
Candid and modest, these are the recollections of a courageous and determined woman in the process of becoming a remarkably versatile writer. In addition to more than a score of well-received novels, she has produced 8 volumes of nonfiction, 5 of poetry, and another 20 children's books, now considered classics of the genre.
Born in England, Godden was taken to India almost at once, where she lived first as the daughter of a foreign service family stationed there and later as a young wife and mother of two small girls. When that marriage disintegrated, she returned to England with her daughters, expecting to live, at least temporarily, in a cottage on the property her parents had bought as a retirement house in Cornwall. Arriving with virtually nothing except the worn clothes on their backs, an Oriental silk rug, and the manuscript of her ambitious novel of Indian life, "The River," she had barely recovered from the grueling voyage when she realized that staying on at the cottage would be impossible.
Not only was it needed for the other Godden children and grandchildren, but it was far too remote from the literary life of London. Godden knew almost at once "the very contentment and protection would undo me." Afraid that she'd never "amount to anything" if she stayed on, she hastily established herself in the city, living in far less comfortable circumstances, but amounting to more than even she imagined when she stunned her parents by rejecting their selfless offer of hospitality.
To her beloved sister and occasional collaborator Jon Godden, she wrote: "I have found a house in London, not I suppose a proper house, but I can pay for it." At that point, she had already written "A Fugue in Time," and "The River" had promptly found a publisher. Fortunately, the not-quite-proper house was so tiny that it needed virtually no furniture; all to the good because in 1945, hardly anything was available. Victims of the blitz had priority on the little that was being manufactured, while others in need could either hunt for antiques or make do with packing cases. Godden did both, and while the house was barely adequate, her time there was productive and satisfying. By 1946 she had met James Haynes-Dixon, the man she eventually married after a long and marvelously recounted courtship; a love story that not only fills the book with warmth and charm, but provides an inconspicuous but essential continuity to the various adventures that follow.
Imaginative, strong and unfailingly dependable, Haynes-Dixon is a significant presence from his first appearance to his death 27 years later. Endearingly, he would wait until Godden had particularly admired or enjoyed something, then buy it, put it away, and present it at precisely the perfect moment. There are several such incidents here, each a romantic cameo in itself.
Though her private life seems remarkably tranquil, professionally Godden lived in a state of almost perpetual motion, not only producing the amazing \o7 oeuvre \f7 in rapid succession, but traveling widely, moving frequently; never scanting parents, children, or her constantly widening circle of friends and admirers.
One of the most absorbing episodes of the book is the account of her sojourn in India with Jean Renoir, working with the director on the film made from "The River."
Later there's an entertaining and generous account of her extensive lecture tour in America, an experiment in which her delight was reciprocated by huge and appreciative audiences. She was, in fact, such a success that she could have gone on indefinitely, playing to packed houses from coast to coast, but "it's not writing," she said firmly, and returned to her desk, now in Scotland, to continue as a storyteller first and foremost.