Rumer Godden was a discovery for me last year, her novel Black Narcissus found a place on my Best Books of 2021 list. Naturally, I wanted to read more and settled on The Greengage Summer.
The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.
Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky).
Cecil’s father is a botanist, often away from home for long stretches of time. Relying on her brother (called Uncle William by the children) for financial and emotional support, Cecil’s mother and the children reside in lodgings in the dreary, seaside town of Southstone.
Southstone lacks character and Joss and Cecil absolutely loathe it. The pair also bemoans the family’s strained monetary circumstances.
I think now that the discontent was because we were never quite comfortable in Southstone and the rudeness came from the discontent; it was as-if a pattern-mould were being pressed down on us into which we could not fit.
Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are.
Excited by the idea of a short stint in Paris on the way for shopping and visiting museums, Joss, Cecil and the gang are in a state of great anticipation but the trip is doomed right from the start. The mother gets bitten by a horse-fly, her feet swell and she begins to develop a fever. Beset by fear, anxiety and a sense of being lost in a strange, unfamiliar country, the family somehow makes it to Vieux-Moutiers region to finally land at the enchanting Les Oeillets hotel.
However, things do not get easier when they reach the hotel – the mother’s condition deteriorates, language being a barrier the children struggle to communicate, and the hotel manager, Madame Courbet, is not particularly welcoming. Madame Courbet refuses to have a sick patient under her roof, and is not keen on the idea of assuming responsibility for the children. Angered by the terrible treatment meted out to them, Joss is all set to storm out of the hotel with the rest of the gang in tow, when Mademoiselle Zizi and Eliot make an entry.
An Englishman, Eliot quickly gauges the predicament of the family, the mother is settled in a room, and subsequently transferred to the hospital. Meanwhile, he offers to be a guardian to the children.
In the initial days, Joss is also struck by illness and is confined to her room. Thus, Cecil, Hester, Will and Vicky are pretty much left to their own devices and given free rein. Cecil is overcome by the newness and strangeness of not just the hotel, but also its people and their unique mannerisms.
The staircase was paneled in pale green, riddled with curious holes, but the holes did not take away from its elegance. The hall was elegant too. It was odd that we, who had never seen elegance before – though it was our favourite word – immediately recognized it.
Reveling in their newfound freedom, the kids begin to explore the hotel, the gardens and the orchards around it gorging on greengages that give the novel its name.
Stepping in dew, my head in the sun, I walked into the orchard and, before I knew what I had done, reached up to touch a greengage. It came off, warm and smooth, into my hand I looked quickly round, but no one came, no voice scolded and, after a moment, I bit into the ripe golden flesh. Then I ate another, and another, until replete with fruit and ecstasy, I went back to my post.
Vicky latches on to Monsieur Armand, the hotel cook. Wills finds a spot under the cherry tree to be alone and pore over French fashion books. Cecil and Hester befriend Paul, the cook’s helper, who regales them with hotel gossip. It gradually emerges that Eliot and Zizi are lovers; Zizi especially is besotted with him. Madame Courbet, devoted to Zizi, despises Eliot but is powerless.
Eliot, meanwhile, develops a soft spot for the Grey family much to Zizi’s chagrin. When Joss, having recovered from her illness, finally emerges out of confinement, things begin to hot up. Eliot is mesmerized by her beauty and can’t take his eyes off her, Zizi is insanely jealous, and Cecil becomes a reluctant spectator watching Joss become embroiled in a messy drama…What’s more, thrown into this mix is the renowned French painter, Monsieur Joubert…
Eliot is an interesting, mysterious character, by turns warm and inscrutable whose motives remain hazy to the children. He is generally fond of them, but Cecil also glimpses the occasional changes in mood, the coldness and curt responses which are a sign to her to keep her distance. There is a part of him that remains inaccessible and bewilders Cecil, but his suave, charming personality endears him to the gang and they find themselves loyal to him despite his faults.
He had a carnation in his buttonhole, a dark-red one, and it seemed to symbolize Eliot for us. Why are flowers bought by men so much more notable than those bought by women? I do not know, but they are. Father brought flowers into the house but they were dried, pressed brown, the life gone out of them; with Eliot the flower was alive.
Blessed with striking good looks, Joss has awakened to her sexuality and is aware of the effect it has on men including Eliot. But it is Cecil who, in many ways, is the show stealer with her flair for storytelling and for being in the thick of things. She has reached that point in her life where she wants to be treated like an adult, but still remains innocent in many aspects. The torment that she suffers because of this conflict has been astutely conveyed by Godden. Compared to Joss, Cecil considers herself plain with unremarkable features, a fact that she resents. But she is a wonderful narrator, displaying the naiveté of her age, while occasional moments of astuteness shine through.
The Greengage Summer, then, is a heady cocktail of themes – the loneliness of entering into adulthood, loss of innocence, the intensity of love, and lies and deceit that pepper the world of adults. Under the veneer of languid summers and the joys of new experiences, run currents of darkness with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings. Cecil, accustomed to the straightforward world of children, is often confused by the behaviour of the adults around her, the ease with they lie and extricate themselves from a challenging situation. And she and Joss are faced with the possibility that Eliot may not be what he seems, he has his own secrets to hide.
We were told not to come back until four o’clock and the boundary we were set was the box hedge. On one side lay the house and its happenings, a shifting and changing pattern of Eliot, Mademoiselle Zizi, Madame Corbet, Paul, Monsieur Armand, Mauricette, the carloads and chars-a-bancs of visitors; when we were away from it, it was as unreal as the cocktails they all drank…
On the wilderness and orchard side was an older, more truthful world; every day as we passed into it, I caught its older, simpler scents.
The novel sizzles with the sensuousness of French summer – the light filtering in through the canopy of lush green trees, the shimmering surroundings burnished into gold by the rays of the sun, the languor of the heat, the liquid, dreamy atmosphere inducing feelings of exhilaration and being alive. The exotic food, delectable pastries, sparkling champagne and various others sights, sounds and smells dazzle Cecil and Joss, it is such a stark contrast to the dullness of their English existence. Breathing in the air of elegance and sophistication, they are intoxicated by the ease and glamour of the French way of living. Godden’s storytelling is wonderfully absorbing and she is great at describing things.
At that time of day the sun sinking behind the trees struck through the landing window and turned the staircase into a funnel of light; even the treads of the stairs seemed barred with gold, and through the round window came the sound of trills and flutings, the birds singing their evening song in the garden, before it dropped to silence. The staircase might have been Jacob’s ladder, stairs to heaven.
And here she is describing the ambience in a restaurant…
…As the patron cooked our steaks in front of us and dusk came down, shutting the little glass-sided restaurant into a world of its own, the disappointment went. Eliot gave us vin rosé, and the rose-coloured wine, the réchaud flame, the lights were reflected in the windows over and over again, shutting us into a warm lit world.
The prose is simple and unadorned and perfectly captures the voice of its naïve yet perceptive teenaged narrator.
What is also astonishing about The Greengage Summer is that much of it is autobiographical, based on true events. My edition of this novel has a preface by Rumer Godden and an introduction by Jane Asher. In her preface, Godden reveals to us the actual events that took place during their French holiday in 1923, the richness of material giving birth to this novel (Cecil is Rumer), while Jane Asher gives a flavor of her experiences of filming the book and of being cast in the role of Cecil. Both make for fascinating reading, but I would suggest reading them after the novel.
In a nutshell, The Greengage Summer is a glorious read with its evocative portrayal of summer, a meaty storyline and a cast of memorable characters. Highly recommended!