Saturday was change-over day at Patna Hall.
For my inaugural Rumer Godden Reading Week, I chose Coromandel Sea Change, first published in 1991, as I was keen to read one of her novels set in India. This was her third last book before dying at age 90 in 1998.
My edition comes with an Introduction by Raffaella Barker, who I confess, I had not heard of before. So I found her author page here, and discovered this lovely reference to her reading life,
I read and re-read all the time. I see reading as half of writing. I cannot imagine one without the other. Reading transports and transfixes me.
She, like so many of you, discovered Rumer Godden as a teenager. The Greengage Summer is obviously one of those books that captures the hearts and souls of many a young girl. Barker likens it to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy in its timelessness. Barker claims that Godden’s gift is her ‘ability to create a magical and vivid world and to people it with characters whose lives are visibly enriched by loving these places‘.
Coromandel Sea Change captivated Barker with its personal and political subject matter. She claims the ‘political story offers light relief from the unhappy marriage at the centre of the narrative‘ but it is Godden’s ability to understand what it is to be ‘young and passionate‘ that make her stories resonate all these years later.
Did Coromandel Sea Change resonate for me?
Most definitely! I devoured it one La Niña wet Sydney weekend.
Thankfully I know nothing of unhappy young marriages, but I do love an Indian setting. Patna Hall hotel shares some of the charm and fun to be found in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s run by Aunty Sanni and her husband Colonel McIndoe with an assortment of staff. The newly employed young hotel manager, Kuku, provides Godden with the perfect vehicle for introducing all the characters and showing us how the hotel runs. Ageing British diplomats are mixed in with a mysterious older woman on her own, an undercover journalist, a group of travelling Americans (the ‘cultural ladies‘ as the staff refer to them) on an archaeological tour with Professor Aaron who brings a group every year, plus Dr Coomaraswamy and Mr Srinivasan, the political campaigners with their twenty-odd electioneering assistants. Into this mix arrives our young honeymooning couple – Blaise and Mary Browne with an e.
The scene is beautifully evoked by Godden, from the house to the daily rituals, the smells of morning and the pleasures of the garden and beach.
Patna Hall was the only substantial house on that stretch of the Coromandel coast…it rose three storeys high to a parapeted roof. The porticoed entrance faced inwards towards the village of Shantipur with its palms and simile trees, the cotton flowers scarlet; behind them low hills, where coffee grew, cut off the horizon….On the other side of the house facing the sea, a garden of English and Indian flowers sloped to a private beach that had a bungalow annexe….On the foreshore of hard sand, the great rollers of the Coromandel Sea thundered down, giant waves that rose to eight, even ten feet, before they crashed sending a wash far up the sand.
I was very curious about the ‘simile’ trees that Godden mentions a number of times throughout the story. I suspect she has misheard a Hindi word, semal, which refers to the Bombax ceiba or red silk cotton tree. In Bengali it is known as shimul. It flowers in the spring (March-April), which was useful to know as this was the only seasonal reference in Coromandel Sea Change.
Many of the guests at Patna Hall were regulars who return every year for a week. As such, Godden has designated her chapter headings with the days of the week, starting with the Saturday all the guests arrived.
Mary is only eighteen years of age, and it only takes her 24 hours into her honeymoon to cry out (on the inside only of course), “Oh, I wish something would happen, or somebody come to rescue me.” In the next paragraph we are introduced to Krishnan Bhanj, one of the local candidates for the Root and Flower Party. Mr Coomaraswamy is the campaign manager and in despair (which earns him the nickname Mr Gloomaraswamy!) because Krishnan is not following his carefully devised plans. Mary’s interest is piqued.
One feels that the reference to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at this point is portentous indeed, with it’s themes of infidelity, jealousy and resurrection.
The older mystery woman, Olga Manning, also has some fairly bitter words about marriage.
None of us should marry, unless we love a man so much we would go through hell for him, which we shall probably have to do.
Naturally we are left to wonder what kind of hell she has been through for love.
Godden was 83 when she published this story – sixty years after her own first disastrous marriage, yet the pain of it still feels very fresh in this story. In her stories, women are confined and constrained by marriage. Bullying behaviours and some violence are to be expected from the husbands. Thankfully Sir John and Lady Fisher provide a counterpoint to this rather depressing view, as do Aunty Sanni and her husband. Perhaps these well-matched older couples reflect her own happier second marriage.
As an aside, Godden wrote in her diary after her second husband, James, died in 1975 “I never want to be consoled. I never want another man in my life.” Her despair gave me the hope that she did indeed come to know love and a happy marriage second time around, even if the first one haunted her until the end.
Given that Coromandel Sea Change is set in 1991, Blaise is incredibly old-fashioned in his thinking, and given that Mary was not pregnant, I do not understand why her father thought it a good idea that she should marry at 18, once he found out about the relationship. For a long time, I thought this book was set in the 60’s or maybe 70’s, thanks to this marriage and the occasional reference to being a feminist. The ageing diplomats and Blaise’s approach to his work also felt very pre-Partition. But right towards the end, Aunty Sanni talks about needing computers to help run her business, but not knowing how to use one. And one of the political campaigns uses a private plane, yet there are no televisions and the phone service sounds like one from another century. Perhaps that was the reality of rural India in 1991 though?
Curiously, none of these inconsistencies struck me at the time, I was too busy being swept up in the nostalgic charm of Godden’s world. Because despite the impending tragedy, this story is completely enchanting. Losing myself in this exotic, bygone world was just what I needed.
I could spend a whole lot more time discussing the Hindi myths, legends and beliefs woven into this story. The choice of animals felt significant, with the donkey being befriended by Mary and Krishnan’s affinity with the elephant and squirrel. Blaise’s lack of tenderness for any of the animals around Patna Hall did not speak well of his character either.
But I will leave it to Lady Fisher to sum up our time at Patna Hall.
Many people are bewitched on their first encounter with India…bewitched or repelled.
Like Mary, I am utterly bewitched.
Title: Coromandel Sea Change Author: Rumer Godden ISBN: 9781447210993 Imprint: Pan Macmillan Published: 2013 (originally published 21st Aug 1991) Format: Paperback Pages: 269 (which includes the 20 pgs containing Summer Diary: The Herbogowan at the end)
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.