I have very dim memories of the BBC television series The Dolls’ House which aired during my early childhood, then I read Rumer Godden’s book upon which it was based when I was nine – although this with a slightly patronising attitude since the book was clearly too young for me. It was a big lie – I just loved it. I felt genuine sadness when I read recently that The Dolls’ Houseis not only out of print but recordings have also been destroyed. It was a far more haunting imagination of the secret life of toys than anything Pixar could ever come up with. I have always been impressed by Rumer Godden since she was first published aged five and that was my long-term ambition also. The Greengage Summer is her most well-known book but despite a vague familiarity with the premise, I had never read it before. It turned out to be an atmospheric and unsettling read.
The story is told by Cecil, second-eldest child of the Gray family and somewhat improbably a female. Given that Rumer Godden’s elder sister was called Jon and Cecil’s is called Joss, one could be forgiven for suspecting an element of autobiography in this novel and indeed it is apparently loosely inspired by a summer the Godden children spent in France. There is something slightly Edwardian about this tale of innocence lost, with the children tramping about the French countryside, but the consequences are far more alarming than anything the Railway Children ever have to come across. The five Greys are Joss, Cecil, Hester, Willmouse and Vicky. The eldest is sixteen, with three year gaps between each child since ‘three years is about the length of Father’s expeditions’. Set in the 1920s, they live with their mother and despised Uncle William and it is the children’s lack of manners that prompts their mother to take them to France to see the war graves and gain a better understanding of their own situation.
With their mother taken seriously ill on the journey, the children arrive at the country-house hotel Les Oeillets without adult supervision. Taken under the guardianship of fellow guest Eliot, they become an object of serious suspicion for the owner Madam Zizi, Eliot’s jealous lover. From the very beginning, Cecil signposts that the summer will not end well and as the novel progresses, the heavy hand of doom is cast over proceedings. The French staff characters teeter dangerously on the edge of stereotyping, with varying degrees of hostility towards their English guests. The shadow of the war lingers, with visible bullet-holes around the hotel, although suspicion is cast on the hotel’s inhabitants as Cecil discovers that although the bullet-holes were genuine, each time the area is painted over, the bullet-holes are dug out again to provide interest for the guests.
The eldest child Joss becomes aware of her own sexual power over the course of the summer, but lacks the understanding of what it all means. She is able to attract men, she is not able to control them. Aged thirteen, Cecil feels confused and angry at what is going on around them, particularly as Joss becomes an unwitting sexual rival for Eliot’s affections. The scene where Madame Zizi confronts her is upsetting and bewildering for a group of children who have no parent to protect them. Eliot’s attentions are easily-distracted and the mystery of his true character is only slowly revealed.
In many ways, this novel felt only partly-realised. Although disaster is threatened, it never quite occurs. However, while a more dramatic resolution to Eliot’s infatuation with Joss might have given the novel a more sensational tone, it might have lost its dreamy and ethereal feel. The pleasure of The Greengage Summer comes from its vivid description. One can imagine the fresh baguettes, the hot sunny days and the green countryside around. Cecil wanders the fields with Hester, occasionally visiting her brother Willmouse who has set up his own fashion design atelier under a tree, all the while young Vicky enjoys herself sneaking food from the kitchen. It is almost a children’s adventure story, so many of which manage to lose their parents and find adventure but The Greengage Summer highlights the vulnerability of their situation. In an entirely untended way, they are learning the lesson their mother wanted them too. Cecil is telling us the story peppered with her Uncle William’s reactions from when he discovered what had happened; the reader knows that they will return to normality but also that something terrible will happen along the way.
I was reminded of A High Wind in Jamaica in the tone of much of what happened, although there is less overt criticism of the heartlessness of children. Still there was a similar sense of normal rules suspended. Five year-old Vicky announces to Uncle William afterwards that she never went to bed before eleven o’clock once when she was away; there is nobody to tell them how to dress, what to eat, what to do or more importantly how to behave. Cecil and Hester react in horror to Eliot’s overly generous pocket money, knowing that there is something very wrong. So when Uncle William blunderbussed onto the scene during the finale, he is announcing the return of British values and the children are finally grateful for his strict boundaries. The Greengage Summer is not a novel of sensation, but rather about children experiencing that adult sense of being alone and without a safety net – particularly in the final section, Cecil’s panic leaps from the page. It is a novel about childhood but it is not for children, it speaks of innocence lost too soon and the selfish concerns of adults.
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