The Classics Club Spin Spun Me ‘Black Narcissus’ ….

…. and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I fell in love with the cinema adaptation of ‘Black Narcissus’ – by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – many years ago, but it was only a few years ago that I noticed Rumer Godden’s name among the credits, and realised that the book that had been adapted was written by an author whose works for children I had loved.

‘Black Narcissus’ was Rumer Godden’s third novel and her first best-seller.

Black Narcissus - book cover

It tells the story of a small group of nuns from the Order of the Servants of Mary, who had has been invited to form a new community in an old, disused palace, the former home of the harem of an Indian general, high in the Darjeeling hills. It was a place that had a certain reputation with the local population, but the sisters were to run a dispensary, and a school to offer education to native

Sister Clodagh was to lead the community; Sister Philippa was to manage the gardens; Sister Briony was to run the dispensary; Sister Honey was to teach the local young women to make lace; and Sister Ruth was to give lessons to the younger children.

It was a wonderful plan, but nobody was interested; nobody came.

Mr Dean, the general’s agent, an Englishman gone native, offered practical help that the sisters accepted, and sensible advice that they did not.

The altitude, the isolation, the unemployment, began to affect the sisters. One dreamed of motherhood; one longed for romantic love; one dwelt her life as a young woman, before she took her vows; and one realised that an interest was turning into an obsession.

But as the nuns fell in love with the strange beauty of their surroundings, with the village children whose families were paid by Mr Dean to send them to school, with Mr Dean himself, they began to fall out with each other. Long buried emotions had come to the surface.

Sister Clodagh lacked the experience, and maybe the understanding to manage the situation. And, of course, there were consequences ….

Rumer Godden sets out every detail. She is subtle, gentle, but she makes it clear that everything that happens is inevitable. It comes from the characters, their situations, their emotions.

There is a wonderful depth to the women, their relationships, their stories, and yet the narrative feels simple, natural and it is utterly compelling.

There is little plot: a young man is allowed too close to a young woman; a sick child is brought to the nuns; one sister leaves and another snaps …. But it is enough to move the story forward while keeping the focus on the members of the community, and their lives.

The prose is lovely, the atmosphere and the descriptions are gorgeous.

But there was enough space for me to realise that this wasn’t just the story of a group of nuns; it was the story of the British in India.

The book and the film are very different pleasures – the book is gentle and absorbing; the film is striking and melodramatic – I wish I could have read the book without knowing what would happen, but it didn’t really matter, because the book held me in the moment from start to finish, and I didn’t pull away remembering that I knew what would happen once.

I would have liked to now a little more about each woman, but this is a very short – maybe too short – novel. But sometimes it’s best to be left wondering.

And I’m so curious now to see how Rumer Godden grew as writer with the many books she wrote after this very early novel.

Which book should I read next …. ?

10% Report: Reading The 20th Century

I’m ten years into my century, and so I think it’s time to take stock.

The first ten years were always going to be the easiest, with the risk of picking up a book and finding it dated from a year already covered at it’s lowest.

But that isn’t to say there haven’t been clashes: I ordered Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon from the library only to find that they were both published in 1981.

And there have been a few other occasions when I’ve found a book, gone to add it to my spreadsheet, and found that there was another book already in the space I had intended it to fill.

My first ten books are tilted towards the end of the century. I knew I’d have most difficulty with the later years, and so whenever I’ve seen an oldish book on the library shelves or around the house I’ve picked it up.

The eighties and nineties are shaping up well, but the decade I’m really struggling with is the seventies. Suggestions would be most welcome!

But I’m rambling, so here are the books:

1910 – The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston

“The City of Beautiful Nonsense is a wonderful love story. It is terribly sentimental, and rather old fashioned but, if you can accept those things with an open heart, it can take you on a wonderful emotional journey.”

 1929 – The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

“An audacious murder, in the middle of a queue of people, all pressing forward, eager to see the final performance of popular musical. The investigation fell to Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. A detective without the gimmicks, or idiosyncracies of many of his contemporaries, but with a great deal of intelligence and charm, I soon suspected that his creator was a little in love with him … quite understandably …”

1936 – Monogram by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

“I found that what I had was not a coventional autobiography. That, given a free hand by her publishers, the author had decided to do something a little different. She explains, with both erudition and charm, that, while a conventional biography that plots a straight line through a line can be a wonderful thing, it is sometimes more interesting to do something else. To set down three stakes, to run a rope around then to make a triangle, and then to see what is to be found inside that triangle. And that’s just what she does.”

1960 – The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks

“I was engrossed by Jane’s story. She was real, and I understood her, I cared about what might happen to her, and so it was wonderful to watch her coping with everything that life through at her, with new and old relationships, with her advancing pregnancy.”

 1969 – The Play Room by Olivia Manning

“It looked very promising: a coming of age story set in an English seaside town in the swinging sixties. Laura was fifteen, and she dreamed of leaving home for the bright lights of London. She wanted to leave her dull, lower middle class family behind. Her strict mother, her unassuming father, her irksome younger brother.”

1981 – Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

“‘Still Missing’ was a difficult book to read. It had to be. It was right that I felt terribly unsettled, and it was right that I was forced to consider my own feelings about what was happening. I could do that because the characters, their stories, their relationships, were all perfectly drawn. There were moments when things happened that didn’t feel right. But they were right; answers can’t always be neat and tidy, and politically correct.”

 1983 – The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

“I have read The Woman in Black before, but it was so long ago that I have forgotten the details, save that it was very good and extremely unsettling. And so a re-read, before seeing the film, seemed to be in order. It  is a ghost story built on classic lines: with an isolated house, a bleak landscape, wild weather, ghostly figures, inexplicable events.”

1984 – Mother Love by Domini Taylor

“But maybe Helena wasn’t as fragile as she seemed. Maybe she was disturbed. Maybe she would do anything to serve her own interests … A single, horrible revelation demonstrated that Helena was very dangerous and very clever. I saw that, but nobody else did.”

1994 – Pippa Passes by Rumer Godden

“Pippa Fane was seventeen years old, and the youngest and newest member of the Company of the Midlands Cities Ballet. And she was travelling abroad on tour for the first time. The first engagement of the tour was in Venice. Pippa was captivated. By the city, by the people, by the food … everything! “

1999 – Buried in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho

“Janie Bolitho captured my hometown, as it was back in 1999, absolutely perfectly. And she  created an engaging heroine, who I could quite happily believe is still living just a little further around the bay. Rose is a youngish widow who is gradually picking up the strands of a new life. She has good friends, she earns a living as a photographer, and she has taken up painting – always her first love but not the easiest way to earn a living – again.”

And now I must ponder the lovely book from 1963 that I am going to write about next, and carry on with the intriguing novel from 1946 that I have nearly finished , and …

Pippa Passes by Rumer Godden

“What immediately caught me were the small sketches in the margin, sketches of a water city I had dimly known of but had not visualised. here were domes, towers, pinnacles, arches, stone bridges, small stone-flagged alleyways – it seemed there was not one spacious street; glimpses of canals, big and little with boats, endless boats, barges, many of them long, graceful, elongated craft steered by a man standing on the stern with a single oar; sketches of markets on the canal banks, of a wide lagoon. All far removed from anything I had seen.

I bought that book and read it; even then I recognised how unashamedly sentimental it was – novels were sentimental at the turn of the century and this was a love story – but in spite of that, it’s evocation cast such a spell that it has been with me ever since.”

Many years after she found that book, towards the end of her life, Rumer Godden wrote a book set in Venice.  And she created a young heroine who would find the same magic in Venice that she found in the pages of that book, so many years earlier.

Pippa Fane was seventeen years old, and the youngest and newest member of the Company of the Midlands Cities Ballet. And she was travelling abroad on tour for the first time.

The first engagement of the tour was in Venice.

Pippa was captivated. By the city, by the people, by the food … everything!

Life was wonderful!

Rumer Godden captured this beautifully: atmosphere, sights, sounds, palaces, canals, gondolas and such wonderful light. And she so clearly understood the feelings and emotions of her young heroine as she experiences all of this.

And of course there was the dancing.

Angharad, her ballet mistress, took wonderful care of Pippa her and gave her so many wonderful chances.

But sometimes she had to slip away, to meet Roberto. He was a gondolier and an aspiring musician. He introduced her to his family and friends. He took her out. And he invited her to sing with his band.

It sounds perfect, doesn’t it. Maybe too perfect. Both Angharad and Roberto had ulterior motives.

She was looking for sexual favours from her young protegé.

He was looking for a girl to draw attention to  his band – and for a little fun.

Pippa didn’t realise what was happening each time until it was too late. She was hurt, but she came to terms with what had happened, and she moved on. A little older and a little wiser.

She was such a likeable heroine, and it was lovely to see her delight in all the wonderful new things she experienced. And Rumer Godden captured her coming of age, her emotional confusion, her discovery that things were much more complex than she had realised, just as beautifully.

But the shift from light to dark was too sudden, or maybe the contrast was too great. The story became a little too explicit, and the simply drawn characters that had worked so well when everything was light and happy worked less well when dark shadows fell.

And so I have to record that this was a lovely book, just not quite as lovely as it might have been.

But it has led me to another book. The book that introduced the  young Rumer Godden to the magic of Venice was The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston, and I have tracked down a copy …

The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden


I always have difficulty answering when I am asked for a single favourite of any kind. But if you asked me for my favourite childhood book I wouldn’t hesitate long before answering “The Doll’s House.”

I lost it for a long time. Not the story, that has never gone away, but I couldn’t have told you the name of the book or the author book itself.

My mother passed on many of my childhood books when she thought I had outgrown them. Her intentions were good – giving other children a chance to read them – but I do wish we had loaned them and not given them away for good.

But luck was with me . A while ago, watching the film Black Narcissus, I saw Rumer Godden’s name on the credits and it all came back to me. A wonderful film by the way.

Now, back to The Doll’s House.


It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose, they can only be chosen; the cannot do, they can only be done by; children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost.

Tottie has been lucky. She is a small wooden doll made years ago and handed down through the generations of one family. Mr Plantaganet and Birdie have not been so lucky, but Charlotte and Emily have found them and repaired them and cared for them. Apple, a tiny plush doll and Darner, a dog made from a darning needle and pipecleaners, round out the doll family.

They are a happy family, but they are uncomfortable living in a shoebox and they dream of a dolls house, like the one Tottie remembers from years ago. It is great day indeed when that very house, dirty and dilapidated, is found. Charlotte, Emily and their mother set about repairing the house and eventually the dolls move in.

The repairs were expensive and Tottie is loaned to an exhibition to raise funds. It is there that she meets again another doll who lived in the house and was found with it. A doll that she had forgotten – Marchpane! The very name should strike terror into your heart.


Marchpane is a beautiful doll, made of china and kid, with real hair and dressed in exquisite white clothes. But she is cold and haughty. A nasty piece of work.

“One wouldn’t want to be played with, said Marchpane. “When I was at the cleaners, people said I ought to be in a museum.”

“It is cold and dark dere,” said the walking doll again.

“It is grand and fine,” said Marchpane.

Tottie and Marchpane are both returned to the dolls’ house and the family’s peace is shattered. Tension grows as the story moves to an emotional and dramatic conclusion.

Rumer Godden writes quite beautifully.

The dolls’ characteristics are clear and distinct and rooted in their histories and what they are made of. Tottie is made of wood and she is warm and sensible; Birdie is made of celluloid and she is vague and flighty; Darner with his spine made of a needle is rather prickly …


The story is packed full of wonderful moments: the wax doll at the exhibition who is overwhelmed when a child reaches out to touch her, ths furnishing of the dolls’ house, Mr Plantaganet’s pride when a toy post office arrives and he can go to work, Birdie singing as she dusts her new home…

But best of all is the execution, the way you can believe in the dolls as wonderful characters while at the same time accepting that they are toys being played with by Charlotte and Emily. And yes, dolls cannot choose or do, but if they wjish hard enough they may be able to influence the children who play with them. And what wonderful possibilities that presents!

“Don’t waste time hating,” said Tottie. “You must wish. I wish. We must wish.” But the wishing showed no signs of changing anything, or perhaps Marchpane was wishing harder”

The Dolls’ House has both joyful highs and moments of utter heartbreak – it really is a wonderful tale.

Teaser Tuesdays / It’s Tuesday where are you ?


I am Tottie. I live with Mr and Mrs Plantaganet in a shoebox. Emily and Charlotte play with us often and we are content, but we would love the chance to live in a proper house.

It’s Tuesday, where are you? is hosted by raidergirl3.


Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“Tottie was made of wood and it was good wood.She liked to think of the tree of whose wood she was made, of its strength and of the sap that ran through it and made it bud and put out leaves each spring and summer, that kept it standing through the winter storms and wind.”

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB

This all comes courtesy of The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden

(Re-reading for the Childhood Memories reading Challenge.)

Library Loot


Library Loot is a weekly event hosted by Eva and Alessandra to share the library books we find each week.

i’ve taken out three books this week:


A House to Let by Charles Dickens

Another Hesperus Classic. I loved The Haunted House so I ordered a couple more of Dickens’ portmanteau novels. This was the first to arrive and it looks very promising.




In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

I loved Rumer Godden’s books for children but I forgot until quite recently, when I noticed her name on the credits of the film “Black Narcissus” that she wrote for adults too.




The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

I read Laura Thompson’s excellent biography of Agatha Christie last year and it inspired me to reread a few of her books. When I saw a nice facsimile edition of Mrs Christie’s first novel on the library shelf it seemed like a good place to start!

Childhood Favourites Challenge


I was thrilled to find this challenge this morning. It’s a wonderful idea and it brightened up a dull work day.

It’s being hosted by Lynda and it has a dedicated blog here.

The challenge runs from 21st December 2008 – 21st June 2009

Here’s how it works:

  • Read a minimum of 5 books which you loved as a child. Anything from Dr.Seuss and Beatrix Potter to Water Scott – you choose your favourites. They must be books you read as a child, not new children’s books.
  • Start this challenge on or after 21st December 2008. Finish by 21st June 2009.You therefore have 6 months to complete the challenge.
  • Send an email if you would like an invitation to post on the challenge blog.
  • Post your choices on your blog and/or the group blog.You can choose in advance or pick as you go along.
  • Cross overs with other challenges, audio books, eBooks all acceptable.

I have chosen 6 books:

  • The Owl Service, by Alan Garner
  • Anne of Green Gables, by L M Montgomery
  • A Dolls House, by Rumer Godden
  • Little Women, by Louisa M Alcott
  • Alice In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
  • The Borrowers, by Mary Norton

There are some books I’d be worried about going back to in case they didn’t have that same magic now I have joined the ranks of the grown-ups, but I have great confidence in the ones I have selected.