The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden


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.



  1. I LOVE this book…and pretty much all of her other books. I’ve been reading Rumer Godden since I was little, as she’s one of those rare authors who writes for both children and adults equally well. Although, her children’s books are not average children’s books, and her adult books have a degree of whimsy in them that isn’t typical of adult literature!There is a lovely film version of this book, which is very well done. I can’t for the life of me remember who’s in it, but it’s definitely worth chasing up. I think I now have most of her books, including her two part autobiography, and an authorised biography. A truly extraordinary writer, and one whose books I treasure.

    1. I feel like I have been missing out! She certainly seems to be an author who straddles a line between young and adult, which is rather unusual. Maybe a bit Elizabeth Goudge-eque? I need to track down this film – thank you for the tip!

  2. I’ve not yet read any Godden but I have the same edition as you sitting on Mount TBR – and now I *so* want to read it!

  3. I half-remember this book – and seem to remember writing a book review about it during my schooldays, although I hadn’t read all of it over the summer. Time to reread it if I can find it!

  4. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but the way I learned about Rumer Godden and started reading her wonderful books was when Demi Moore and Bruce Willis named their first daughter Rumer in honor of the writer. I’d heard of a couple of her books–such as The River and Black Narcissus–because of the movies made from them, but only started reading her books out of curiosity because of a celebrity baby’s name! I went on a reading binge and read quite a few of her books–all of which were lovely and imaginatively written. I, too, still have this one on Mount TBR; I shall have to retrieve it now.

    1. Well, I never knew that fact, so thank you for that Deb! I always wondered why she had such an unusual name. You must read this one during the summer – it’s a very quick read and so evocative of the season.

  5. I was introduced to Rumor Godden when a movie of The Greengage Summer ran as a surprise third feature at a drive-in movie when I was a teenager. I can not remember what the first two movies were but spent years trying to track down the movie and then the book. The movie has a youngish Kenneth Moore and a very young Susannah York. Of course, I went on to love Rumor Godden. Read the Battle of the Villa Florita next if you can find it. It is wonderful. Virago has recently republished some of her books. Also, Harriet Devine has reviewed a number of her books over the past couple of years. She’s a fan also.

  6. Since I have been after you to read Godden for at least the last 50 years, I am delighted that you have finally taken the plunge. The River is a perfect book and I would have it in my Top 50 if I ever compiled such a list. In This House of Brede and Black Narcissus have always been my favorites, but I was totally blown away by Kingfishers Catch Fire which I read more recently. If you cannot find the wonderful old editions, I know that Virago is reprinting her but I do not know which titles. I also may have some duplicates which I could send you, and keep an eye out for two more Ngaio Marsh’s which are on the way.

    Almost forgot to mention the film of Black Narcissus which is totally over the top and a must see. The visuals alone, and the lovely Deborah Kerr, are perfect.

    1. Ellen, I thought of you the whole time I was reading! I will get on the case with reading more asap, don’t worry! And the films sound marvellous…I can sense a summer of Rumer coming on! Thank you for sending me more books…you are too good to me. Where would I be without you?! x

  7. There’s something in the air, clearly: I was reminded of this lovely book when I wrote about books for the summer last week. Rumer Godden is unfashionable now, so here we are at the cutting edge of the revival (thoroughly approve of your friend’s recommendation of Ngaio Marsh as well!). Very best wishes from the Northern Reader (enjoying cooler and more comfortable temperatures here in Hadrian’s Wall country)

    1. Dear Northern Reader, Now that we have found each other (fellow
      Ngaio Marsh fans) I will be checking out your blog. So glad to have introduced her to Rachel. I think as she is every bit as good as Christie at plot development, but better at character development and reality based tales, plus she avoids the racism and classism Christie engaged in long after she should have known better

      Nice to meet you! EllenB

  8. Isn’t always rewarding when a long held book with a inviting cover is finally lifted off a shelf and let’s us in? I love the cover and am intrigued by the storyline as you explain the plot, Rachel. I’ll be on the lookout and know it will be for a vintage addition.

  9. Rumer Godden was a very popular writer when I was young.  I know I have read at least one of her books but I don’t know if it was this one.

  10. I haven’t read her for forty years but remember loving her. I am going to reread her. I remember she wrote an autobiography that was wonderful too. You really have a gift for reminding me of all the wonderful authors I used to read. I remember seeing the movie too

  11. This sounds wonderful. I haven’t heard of this novel before but, after your review, I think I’ll try and read it very soon!

  12. I adore Rumer Godden, and I am solidly behind the notion of a Rumer Godden revival. Oh, you should read In This House of Brede next. It’s one of my favorites of her adult novels — so lovely. And my true favorite of her adult novels: A Candle for St. Jude. But maybe hold off on that one. It’s SO good I’m worried you would read it and then find all future Rumer Godden books disappointing. :p

  13. I haven’t read a book where someone (well, a lady) has been incapacitated by the curse in far too long! Thanks for the fabulous, and very tempting, review – I’m sold. If you’re so inclined, do yourself a favour and get your hands on a copy of An Episode of Sparrows. My heart melts every time I think of the little girl in the story and I know you would love it.

    1. Ha! I think we should all be entitled to a week off for it. Meals brought up on a tray and plenty of peace and quiet…bliss! I know you’d love this Darlene – I shall also seek out your recommendation!

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