Friday, February 23, 2024

China Court by Rumer Godden

Title: China Court
Author: Rumer Godden
Publication: Manderley Press, hardcover, 2023 (originally 1979)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Cornwall
Description: When Deborah Quin dies, it is the end of an era. Although she was once Ripsie, a waif from the village, she married one of the sons of the house and has lived in and maintained both China Court and its impressive gardens since then. Now as her daughters and granddaughter return to China Court to bury her and quarrel over the house and its furnishings, the story of China Court is told from the original Eustace Quin and his brood of children to Tracy, his great-great granddaughter, who loves the house despite its lack of mod cons, but arrived a day too late to say goodbye. There is not enough money to update the house but that does not prevent everyone involved from having an opinion about its disposal.

My Impression: I have read and enjoyed a fair number of Godden’s books, ranging from the children’s books about dolls to Black Narcissus to her memoir about growing up in India, but this multigenerational family saga about a house and those who lived there since 1840 is unlike any other. She brilliantly captures the rivalries among siblings, the family quarrels that subside but are never truly forgotten and, especially, the yearning of the outsider to belong. The central character, although she dies in the first sentence, is Mrs. Quin, once known as Ripsie, a neglected child fascinated by China Court and the two sons of the house, brothers slightly older than she:
China Court has always been a halcyon place for children, but the only one of them who realizes this is Ripsie, because she is shut out.

“Don’t let the boys play with her, milady,” Polly cautions Lady Patrick.

“Do you think they will get an accent?” asks Lady Patrick . . . .

It is not the accent that worries Polly. “Better have tears now than later,” she says wisely and does not think of their being Ripsie’s tears. It is strange that Mrs. Quin, mistress of China Court, known and respected through the whole county, was once that outcast child.
The story is told in the most non-linear way imaginable, going from past to present and back - sometimes in the same paragraph. I groped desperately for a family tree, which was hidden in the back of the book, thank goodness, and referred to it frequently until I had really grasped the family relationships. I found the rambling annoying at first but later I decided to be charmed by Godden’s stream of consciousness, which parallels the way Mrs. Quin talked about the past to her impressionable granddaughter. The narrative is interspersed by quotations from a Book of Hours Mrs. Quin cherished, which only makes sense at the end.
There were aspects of the book that reminded me of another great chronicler of Cornwall, Rosamond Pilcher – the love of a garden and a house, the unpleasant adult children who care only about their inheritance, and their criticism of their mother’s friends (erroneously assumed to be as greedy as they).

It is made clear that Ripsie is the illegitimate child of the Quins’ once-mighty neighbor, Lord Harry St. Omer, and that may be one reason why a friendship grows much later between Mrs. Quin and St. Omer’s grandson Peter. Peter is estranged from his family, which has lost its wealth and sold its lands in the intervening years, and become the tenant of Penbarrow, a small farm attached to China Court. Ripsie is ignored by the St. Omers (although the vicar forces Lord Harry to pay for Ripsie's education) and her fate is entangled with the Quin brothers, Borowis and John Henry, one bright and charismatic and one loyal but plodding.  John Henry proposed in order to protect Ripsie when Borowis married an affluent cousin, realizing that she was pregnant with his brother's child.
This is my fourth book for the 2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and it is also a good choice for Siblings Week! The first generation of this family consists of nine siblings, followed by two sons (Borowis and John Henry), then one son and four sisters (three of whom don’t have names). It had a very disturbing conclusion but having read The Dolls’ House when I was about eight, you could say I was primed not to expect otherwise from Godden! She’s almost like Daphne du Maurier in her determination to leave the reader disturbed.  
Source: This book has been reprinted by an independent publisher, Manderley Press, in a lovely new edition and, coincidentally, I had always wanted to participate in #ReadIndies month, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy at Lizzy's Literary Life.
Note that Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow liked China Court even more than I did: here is his review.


Buried In Print said...

That edition does look very nice indeed! I grew up loving her children's stories too (as usual, more kidlit we have in common!) but only have read a few for adults. Including the memoirs you mentioned, which I ended up really loving, but one of them did also require a bit of an adjustment style-wise IIRC, as it felt a little meandery but then I found myself enjoying it very much.

JacquiWine said...

I've only read Black Narcissus by this author but would love to experience more. On the list it goes, especially given that beautiful edition!

Katrina said...

I read this one when it came out but I didn't remember a thing about it when I read your review. I still have a copy so will re-read it soonish.
I should be selling off some of my books too, to make space, but will probably never get around to doing it. I have two copies of that Mary Stewart book!

Cath said...

Rumer Godden is one of those huge gaps in my reading knowledge, which is a shame as I think I'd like her books. Funny, as I was reading I thought, 'This sounds like The Shell Seekers'. I've not read that either but know what it's about and that I ought to read that too!

CLM said...

I did enjoy this (much more than Black Narcissus) but it did not have as strong a sense of Cornwall as The Shell Seekers, which is a pity. As China Court was a big bestseller, I suspect Pilcher read it but anyone could have a house she doesn't want to sell and unpleasant adult children. I recommend both.

TracyK said...

You are adding too many books to my "want to read" list. I think I read some books by Rumer Godden when I was younger but don't remember specific books.

Vintage Reading said...

I've just bought this edition but can't get into it, yet I adored In This House of Brede and of course, The Greengage Summer. I'll try again later in the year. Sometimes books are meant for different seasons!

CLM said...

I agree that some books are seasonal. I had forgotten about reading Greengage Summer as a teen - I think I was creeped out by an inappropriate romance - trying to remember.

Marg said...

I love it when a house is such an integral part of a story!

Thanks for sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Dewena said...

This is hands down my most favorite novel ever! I've probably read it four or five times but not in the last few years so it is time to get it from my yellow bookcase, the bookcase that holds books I never lend out. I was quickly charmed by the past being written in the present tense and the present being written in the past tense. Or at least that's how I remember it. However, I've talked friends into reading this book and it left them cold so maybe it just touched me differently that it does others.

I have to admit to loving her In This House of Brede also even though I'm not Catholic so don't know where that love came from, it just did.

CLM said...

Dewena, I didn't notice about the present tense and past tense but it makes sense; I will have to take another look. It took me a while to warm up to this but then I did like it, except for the blow at the end, which I found very disturbing. Do you agree that Ripsie was pregnant with Borowis' child when she got married?