The book opens with the death of old Mrs Quin of China Court in Cornwall. The bell tolls eighty one times but ’In the midst of life we are in death’ was the message of the bell; the house seemed to answer, ‘In the midst of death we are in life.’ While Mrs Quin lies upstairs the life of the house goes on: the range lit, animals wanting to be fed, the gardener calling. Instead of chapters, the book is divided into the hours of the day, Lauds, Prime, Terce and so on. A Book of Hours is important to the plot, such as it is, but more significant in that the book is about the small daily tasks and events of life. You have to tune into the narration; everything happening in the present (about 1960) is described in the past tense while past events are in the present, as though they were still happening. As the narrative switches between eras, a picture is gradually built up from stories and from inconsequential scraps of conversation until the whole history of the Quins of China Court is known.
First on the scene is Tracy, Mrs Quin’s granddaughter; she was summoned but arrived too late. She has had a wandering life but three years of it was spent at China Court with Gran and she loves both. Her aunts and uncles arrive and irritate her by seeming not to grieve but to be mentally pricing up everything in the house and grumbling about ‘poor Mother’s’ foolish ways. They are scandalized by Mrs Quin’s desire to be buried in the local churchyard rather than be cremated, but Tracy knows it is right. It wasn’t like a going away, it was a joining.’ The children think Tracy old-fashioned, which she is; they are in for a shock.
Re-reading this book I found myself disliking most of the characters, including Mrs Quin, whom you’re obviously expected to admire. That doesn’t matter at all because the pleasure of reading it comes from passages like this:
The dresser is on the same scale (as the Eagle range) and holds sizes of dolphin-handled dish covers, copper moulds, japanned, trays and china, (sic) while its drawers are always bursting with mysterious odds and ends, and there is an untidy pile of recipe books on its bottom shelf. The table, ‘big enough for three kitchens,’ says Bella, is scrubbed white and has a coffee grinder fixed to one end. The kitchen chairs are wooden and there is a rocking chair with a blue cushion. The floor is stone flagged with a rag rug on the hearth and there are always plants of the window-sills, geraniums now but, in winter, white chrysanthemums, and early bulbs in spring. On the sills too, the gardeners put their pasties to be warmed for their lunches; there is a great deal of warming, of cloths and bowls, of cream, of yeast and, usually, of a cat on the hearth-rug or armchair. There’s much more of the same. Since Mrs Quin married the brother she didn’t love and cares little for her children, she has devoted her life to gardening.
In summer the beds are like the flowered stuffs sold in shops, blue, white and pink. The garden is filled with the scent of lilies that sometimes wins against the clove scent of the pinks, and at night there is the scent of stocks and white tobacco flowers. In late July, great bushes of hydrangeas, blue and purple, have heads as big as dinner-plates and sway across the drive if they are heavy with rain.
I think you can see why this is one of my favourite ‘housekeeping’ books. I find Rumer Godden’s work variable, liking some books much more than others. A Fugue in Time is another book about the history and secrets of a particular house and I like that one, too. I have a first edition of it, dated 1945, but I see Fantastic Fiction have its publication date as 1969. Wrong!