Rumer Godden's (1958) The Greengage Summer is a book to which I return every couple of years. Each re-reading offers further rewards and I suspect that I enjoy it more each time, appreciating the excellent writing that enables it to function on both a teen and an adult level.
It is a coming-of-age story: the Grey family (mother, Joss 16, Cecil 13, Hester 10, 'Willmouse' 7 and Vicky 4 - "Three years separated each of us children - Father's expeditions usually lasted three years") go on holiday to Vieux-Moutiers in the French Marne region in the late 1950s. Things do not go to plan: their mother is hospitalised, the eldest sister Joss becomes ill, and the younger children roam unsupervised about the hotel and its environs. They are unwelcome guests at the hotel, confined to the worst rooms and the dreaded lavatory "à la turque", but their behind-the-scenes status lets them observe that things are not what they seem at the Hotel Les Oeillets. This sense of wrongness is, on one level, overt, as the hotel specialises in entertaining char-à-bancs of visitors on pilgrimage to the battlefields of northern France, for whom the staff put on lunch and a macabre show:
The bullet-holes were real, but when the staircase was painted they were not closed up but picked out again; the stain in the cupboard was made freshly every now and then by Paul with blood from the kitchen; and one day...he beckoned me out into the garden and showed me what he had in its hand, the skull. It was gruesome, with its eye-sockets and long cheekbones...He had to shut Rita and Rex in the kennel or they would have dug it up at once; he buried it under the urn in the middle of the flowerbed and with it put a piece of raw liver. 'Le pourboire,' he said and laughed again.
The story is narrated by the thirteen year old girl Cecil, and Godden's characterisation of her naïveté yet concomitant loss of innocence is astonishingly good. It really is a remarkably candid book, with its references to menstruation, sexual awakening, homosexuality, illegitimacy, rape and murder - all seen from the teenager's point of view. Consider the characterisation of the hotel-boy Paul ("found in the American camp when it was broken up"):
One day Paul said, "J'avais une p'tite soeur.""A little sister?" By then Hester was beginning to understand."Une mulâtre," said Paul carelessly, and, seeing we did not understand that either, he said "Une négresse," and showed half on his finger."Negro? But you are not mulat... what you called it," we said, puzzled, and asked, "Where is she, your sister?"Paul shrugged."Don't you know?"He shook his head. "Elle a disparu."..."Morte?" I asked sympathetically."Perdue," said Paul, "Pssts," and he made as if to throw something away."But you don't lose sisters." Paul's silence said clearly that you did. We felt dizzy.
The children are attracted by a mysterious Englishman, Eliot, who lives in the hotel and Eliot's shady enterprises are increasingly endangered by his contact with the idealistic English children and, in particular, by his infatuation with the ripe (yes, just like the greengages) Joss:
She [Joss] would not undress with me any more, and I was glad because my pinkness was still distressingly straight up and down while she had a waist now, slim and so supple I could not help watching it, and curves that tapered to long slim legs, while her breasts had swelled. I knew how soft these were and that they were tender, for once, out of curiosity, I touched them and she had jumped and sworn at me... "Is Joss beautiful?" I asked with a pang. "Just now," said Mother, "just now".
Eliot's decides to use the motherless children's presence to make his own residence in the hotel seem more innocent. Cecil overhears him explaining to his mistress, Mademoiselle Zizi, the patronne of the hotel, who dislikes his interest in them:
...there was the sound of a kiss; but Eliot said something else, something odd and . . . not pleasant, I thought, "Those children can be useful.""How useful?""Stop people talking.""Let them talk," said Mademoiselle Zizi."Don't be silly, Zizi. This is a little town and you have to live in it. The children will give me a reason for being here. After all, now I'm their guardian. They can be camouflage."
The book is filled with fascinating cross-currents: the ageing Mlle Zizi burning with jealousy over Eliot's infatuation with the young Joss; Mlle Zizi's protectress Mme Corbet loathing Eliot's attentions to Mlle Zizi ("Parce qu'elle en tient pour Mademoiselle Zizi" - "A lady loves a lady?") and writing "the figures into our account as if the pen could poison the paper"; the absent botanist father versus the vibrant neo-father Eliot ("He had a carnation in his buttonhole, a dark-red one, and it seemed to symbolise Eliot for us... Father brought flowers into the house but they were dried, pressed brown, the life gone out of them; with Eliot the flower was alive"); or the only boy in the family, 'Willmouse', crafting couture doll's clothes: at the Gare de l'Est, "Willmouse disappeared. 'Il est parti voir les locos,' said the attendant, but there was a new Vogue on a kiosk and he had gone to look at that."
One of the best-drawn relationships - also the most significant - and one constantly reassessed throughout the novel, is that between the narrator Cecil and the hotel boy Paul who bond, after coming to blows, over a Gauloise and the lees of the day's wine bottles. Paul is a lost boy, old beyond his years, dirty, overworked, amoral and violent:
I did not know about Paul in those days, but even then, in my carelessness and ignorance, I was worried by his face. We had come to see the battlefields and, though we did not know it, this face was a part of them.
Paul provides Cecil with an education of a sort:
He could not know that when he told me small prickles seemed to be breaking out all over me and the back of my knees felt hot. I had to persist. "You mean . . . you made love? When you were fourteen?"
But it is an education which Cecil herself sees as "a stain spreading through my bones": "I had become as stretched and as sensitive as an Indian with his ear to the ground, or as an insect's feeler or the needle in a compass to these doings". But how different is it to the education that her mother has decided to give her "abominably selfish" children?
"I shall take you to the battle-fields of France... So that you can see what other people have given," said Mother, "given for your sakes; and what other people will do in sacrifice. Perhaps that will make you ashamed and make you think... You need to learn . . . what I cannot teach you," said Mother, her voice quivering.
Of course, everything falls steadily apart as the children try to figure out the puzzle that is Eliot and his shadowy ventures:
"Were you ever a sailor? Joss asked..."Probably," said Eliot."Don't you know?" asked Hester incredulous."I know I was a soldier," said Eliot. "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman . . ."
Will Eliot ("I didn't ask to be a hero") redeem himself as the good Englishman?
Joss put her hand on Eliot's knee. "Eliot, what has made you so unhappy?"He looked down at her hand and I shall always remember his answer. "What has made you so unhappy?" Joss asked, and he answered, "Being perfectly happy for two days."
For so many of the adult characters in this book it is too late for redemption or salvation. The narrative's growing 'feel' of wrongness moves relentlessly towards the brutal denouement that ends the children's stay in this lush Eden. As Joss says, "We never came back."
The awakening of the two older children from their childish selfishness and dependency to an acceptance of adult responsibility - and the realisation that the adults they admire do not necessarily share their uncompromising black-and-white moral outlook ("'Must you be so appallingly honest?' He said it so harshly that we stared.") - is deftly handled:
On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault, and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did.
Obviously, I highly recommend this book and I plan to read as many more of Godden's books as I can (especially since many are being reprinted by Pan Macmillan).
If you liked this... try Mabel Esther Allan's It Happened in Arles (1964; sadly out of print).
BTW, the image at the top is of the wonderful cover of my 1959 copy (London: The Reprint Society).