Author: Rumer Godden
Details: (c) 1987 Rumer Godden; Pub Beech Tree Books William Morrow; ISBN 0-688-07421-9
Verdict: A time to dance, no time to weep is an interesting and readable autobiography
Reasons for reading it: I like Godden's writing and it's generally interesting to read the autobiography of someone you can be confident writes well.
How it came into my hands: I bought it in Montreal back in 2005, and never got round to reading it because I always end up prioritizing fiction over non-fiction.
A time to dance, no time to weep is what an autobiography should be; it gives insight into the author's character and some elements of why she wrote her books and in what circumstances. And it's an enjoyable read because Godden employs her usual skill in evoking people and situations and generally telling a story. She seems to have had an interesting life, too, flitting between England and India and getting into all kinds of bizarre adventures. She gives her true experience behind The Greengage Summer and, almost incredibly, Kingfishers catch fire; apparently Godden herself survived an attempted poisoning by one of her servants in a remote part of Kashmir.
I am not sure I would have liked Godden personally. She seems to be rather indifferent to other people apart from her older sister, Jon. She takes it as absolutely axiomatic that Jon was more beautiful and a better writer than her, and the two seem to have been very close. She also seems to take the attitude that being a writer ought to excuse her from every other responsibility, including looking after her own children, and that it is deeply unfair that she ever had to spend time on practical tasks when she would rather be writing. I suppose is not unlikely that a man of her social class would have literally been able to devote himself to writing and have everything practical taken care of by his wife and servants, so to that extent it makes limited sense for her to resent this. But she is blithely oblivious to whether everybody else in her household might feel like spending their time more creatively than looking after her, complaining that she doesn't have enough or good enough servants.
Probably this slighly bizarre snobbism can be excused in the same way that what looks like racism to a modern reader can be, given that Godden was born in 1907 (though she was writing in 1987, so could perhaps have been expected to know better). Actually, she prides herself on how much less snobbish and racist she is than most other Anglos in India in the 40s, since she actually talks to non-white people (and non-U people more generally) and takes an interest in Indian culture. But still, she keeps making generalizations about racial groups, and referring to people in terms that I don't even know the meaning of (I guess from context that "Eurasian" means mixed white European and Indian descent, but I'm not sure), or that are downright offensive (she talks about "cross-bred" people at one point!)
What I find harder to explain is how she could have written a book like Pippa passes. That was unpleasant enough when I presumed the author to be entirely straight, really more hurtful than a lot of things which are more directly homophobic. But having discovered from aTtDNTtW that Godden herself experienced some attraction to women (she had an intense love affair with another girl as a teenager), I'm even more upset by the book which seems to positively gloat over the misery of her lesbian character, in spite of starting out with a relatively sympathetic tone.
This review has ended up sounding really harsh. I did find the book very interesting, and in spite of all these criticisms I had a lot of sympathy for Godden through most of it. She vividly evokes being dumped in England as a teenager when she only knew Indian culture, and later being bankrupted and then abandoned by her feckless husband, and being left to deal with two young children and little money in the middle of nowhere during WW2. In fact, she comes across as remarkably stoical about the real difficulties in her life, even while she makes a lot of fuss about what seem like petty things. All in all I am glad I read this rather fascinating life-story, and I am particularly glad that Godden wrote it herself with her usual writerly skill.
lisekit, you should really read this, cos a big chunk of it is about teaching dance, as well as the author's lifelong fascination with India.