British author Rumer Godden (1907-1998) is a writer I am growing to admire immensely. One of my favourite books when I was growing up was her children’s novel Listen to the Nightingale, which tells the story of ten-year-old Lottie’s adventures in a prestigious boarding school for dancers and her struggle to keep Prince, the beautiful Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy she finds one day in the street. Years later, I read The Greengage Summer and loved it too. The Peacock Spring was my third foray into Godden territory, and no sooner had I started it than I couldn’t put it down.
Fifteen-year-old Una and her half-sister Hal have spent most of their childhood travelling across the world in the wake of their father’s diplomatic career. Now at school in England, Una is finally starting to settle down. But then, unexpectedly, a letter arrives from Sir Edward Gwithiam, summoning his daughters to join him in New Delhi, where he has just been posted by the United Nations. While Hal is delighted at the prospect of going to India, Una is absolutely devastated. She doesn’t want to interrupt her studies, and she certainly doesn’t want a governess! Not even the promise of spending time with her adored father can console her.
Upon arriving in India, however, Una is quick to realize that her father is less interested in her than in her so-called governess, and that Miss Lamont occupies an uncommonly privileged position in her employer’s household. While Hal accepts Miss Lamont’s presence without question and happily sets about enjoying the Delhi social scene, Una spurns all Miss Lamont’s attempts to win her over and it is not long before the two are locked in a fierce battle of wills. For though Miss Lamont is beautiful, she is also cold, calculating, deceitful, and determined that nobody – least of all Una – is going to stand in the way of her becoming the next Lady Gwithiam.
Hurt by her father’s refusal to listen to her, troubled by Miss Lamont’s influence over him, and horribly lonely, Una unexpectedly finds solace at the bottom of the garden, where she makes the acquaintance of Ravi, the under-gardener. Ravi is a Brahmin, and a poet, and as handsome as a god. The gift of a blue peacock feather is the start of a clandestine romance which sweeps Una up into a magical new world. Reality swiftly catches up with her, however, when she discovers that she is pregnant. Afraid of what will happen when the truth leaks out, she and Ravi hatch a desperate plan. But their youth and idealism are no match for Sir Edward, and the events that subsequently take place will change Una’s life forever.
The Peacock Spring is informed by Rumer Godden’s memories of her own childhood and later life in India, and reveals her thorough understanding of the Anglo-Indian culture during and after the time of the British Raj. Her love for her adoptive country is apparent in every line, and her beautiful, sensuous prose brings to life in lush detail the sights, sounds, and smells of India. Yet she is not blind to its faults: quietly but effectively, she criticizes the inherent snobbism and racism of the Anglo-Indian upper classes. However unpleasant Miss Lamont is (and she is deeply unpleasant!) she is also to be pitied for the way she has been ostracized – by Europeans and Indians alike – because of her Eurasian parentage. Her ambition is in proportion to the contempt she endures.
In this context, it is obvious that a romantic attachment between a white girl and an Indian servant can never lead to anything but grief. Rumer Godden tells Una and Ravi’s story with deep compassion and a wonderful gift for story-telling, and through them, she evokes all the difficulties of family life, the intensity of first love, the painful transition from childhood to adulthood, and the sadness that accompanies loss of innocence. I liked both Una and Ravi, but my favourite character in the book was Ravi’s friend Hem. A plain-faced, plain-speaking medical student, Hem is both wiser and more disillusioned than Ravi, and he is resigned to the fact that he will always be outshone by his friend. Though Ravi repeatedly ignores his advice and he is never thanked for his help, his loyalty, integrity, and courage remain unshaken, making him the true hero of the story – by the end of the book, I was utterly smitten!
© Florence Berlioz 2011