Furthering my mission to read the many unread books on my bookshelves this summer, I plucked the very seasonally appropriate The Greengage Summer out of its dusty oblivion last week. I bought it for mere pennies a few years ago in a tiny secondhand bookshop in Woodstock, Oxford, after being enchanted by its lovely cover. I know plenty of bloggers love Rumer Godden, but I’ve never read anything by her, so I was excited and intrigued to find out whether she was going to turn out to be an author I liked. I knew from the very first page that I had found something wonderful; atmospheric, lyrical and exquisitely written, the novel launched me directly into the oppressive heat of a glorious French summer ninety or so years ago.
This is a fascinating coming of age story, narrated by Cecil, who, at the time of the events, is 13 years old. Cecil and her gaggle of siblings live in a dull British seaside town, supported by their equally dull Uncle William, as their father has turned out to be rather a failure and spends most of his time abroad on expeditions to find rare horticultural species. Their vague and often harrassed mother is pushed to make the sudden decision to take the children to France on a holiday she can’t afford when their ungrateful behaviour makes her determined to teach them a lesson by showing them the battlefields of WWI. However, the trip is doomed from the start when the childrens’ mother gets septicaemia from an infected insect bite, and is clearly dangerously ill by the time they arrive at the coolly glamorous hotel, Les Oeillets, in the heart of the Marne’s golden countryside. With their mother taken to the local hospital and the oldest of the children, sixteen year old Joss, incapacitated by ‘the curse’, Cecil and her three younger siblings are left to their own devices, much to the annoyance of the hotel’s proprietors, Mademoiselle Zizi and Madame Corbet, who resent having to be responsible for them. However, Mr Eliot, an enigmatic and handsome British guest, who is in a tempestuous relationship with Zizi, agrees to step in and oversee their care, much to the horror of Zizi, and the delight of Cecil and her easily awed siblings.
Lazy days of pleasurable picnics, bathing and roaming the local medieval town with Eliot follow, with Cecil and her younger siblings forgetting their poor mother entirely in their happiness at such freedom. They adore the charming Mr Eliot, who is so smart and handsome and indulgent, and speaks French with such flair. His mysterious trips to Paris and his volatile relationship with Zizi only add to his air of glamour, but everything changes when Joss recovers from her week of illness and appears one night at dinner, radiant in her delicate beauty. Mr Eliot cannot take his eyes off her, and soon makes every excuse to accompany the children on lavish days out, revelling in the opportunity to be close to Joss. The other adults at the hotel are quick to notice Mr Eliot’s evident admiration of Joss, and Mademoiselle Zizi can hardly contain her fury at being supplanted by a teenager. With the temperature rising both inside and outside of the hotel, the children begin to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the position they are in. Mr Eliot’s behaviour becomes more suspicious with every passing day, and he displays moments of anger that are highly unsettling. The children begin to wonder whether Mr Eliot is really who he says he is, and whether Les Oeillets is the safe haven their Mother imagined…
This initially seems to be a novel about every child’s secret dream; the opportunity to run free without any adult supervision, spending all day simply pursuing your own pleasures. However, as the plot develops, it becomes increasingly clear that the adults at Les Oeillets cannot be trusted, and their intense, secret and passionate lives impress themselves strongly upon Cecil, whose innocence is slowly eroded by seeing the baser side of human nature. Alongside this, the reader is treated to an intriguing mystery in the form of Mr Eliot, who is an absolutely fascinating and appalling character in equal measure. Rumer Godden writes with such style, perfectly evoking the languor and faded beauty of post-war provincial France, and the emotions of an impressionable teenage girl. An entirely absorbing world is created on the pages, and I was transported effortlessly back in time through Godden’s ability to write with such vivid detail of the dusty, pastel coloured French streets, flower filled gardens, crisp linen, silver cutlery, and cool shaded rooms that form the setting of this remarkable tale. It really is a must read, and should be a classic of young adult literature. I think it’s definitely time for a Godden revival.