The youngsters in Rumer Godden’s novel The Greengage Summer, set in the 1920s, are blessed with the usual requirements for an interesting fictional childhood — a set of quirky siblings and unconventional absent parents.
Goaded into action by the brattish behaviour of her five children, Mama Grey whisks them away from Belmont Road, Southstone, their dull habitat on the south coast of England, to the Champagne area of France, to visit the battlefields and pay homage to those who died in the Battle of the Marne.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS. This article contains details of what happen in The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden.
A horse-fly bite causes Mama to be hospitalised, leaving the children by themselves in the fabulous faded elegance of the Hotel Les Oillets. They are under the care of Eliot, a charming Englishman who is an important personage at the hotel and who assumes responsibility for them in their mother’s absence.
The story is told through the eyes of the second-eldest girl, Cecil, whose narrative beautifully captures the atmosphere of the hotel and the small French town, home to poets and artists, with its shabby houses of blistered pink and grey-green paintwork, overlooked by the honey yellow tones of the ruined monastery on the hill.
The children embrace the unfamiliar smells and tastes, which are described in such evocative detail that you find yourself lingering over the kind of passage you sometimes skim in eagerness to get on with the story.
The sight, smell and taste of the greengages (introduced in the first sentence of the novel) which grow in such abundance in the hotel garden pervade the children’s senses.
The greengages are irresistible, tumbling off the trees into their hands. The flesh of the fruit shows amber through the clear green skin, and if the skin is cracked the juice is ‘doubly warm and sweet’.
Cecil describes eating another and another until she is ‘replete with fruit and ecstasy’. And when the youngsters gorge on the fruit they becomes sick and feel guilty — and there we are, at the heart of the story.
Tangle of intrigue and jealousy
With a light and certain touch, Godden presents a range of characters caught in a web of passion and desire.
The children’s temporary ‘guardian’ Eliot is adored by his lover, Mademoiselle Zizi, but he is mesmerised by 16-year-old Joss, so Mme Zizi becomes fiercely jealous of Joss. Cecil also has a crush on Eliot and is jealous of Zizi. Zizi, in turn, is passionately loved by the concierge Madame Corbet, who is fiercely jealous of Eliot.
Joss, caught at the point of growing up at which her youth and loveliness are at their peak, is infatuated with Eliot and intoxicated by her newly-discovered sexual power.
Paul, the teenage kitchen-hand, is the son of a woman who ‘went with the soldiers’. He works from dawn to midnight, sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs covered by ‘the kind of blanket given to dogs’ and simmers with resentment and desire for — well, anyone really, but crucially Joss. It wasn’t like this in Bexhill-on-Sea, one of the children remarks in the film version.
The emergence of Joss as a young femme fatale is beautifully handled in a series of images which contrast her artless allure with Zizi’s nervy striving to keep Eliot’s interest.
Zizi rouges and powders like no one’s business. She dyes her hair, pencils in false eyebrows and applies ‘false bosoms’, as the children note. Joss comments on Zizi’s dark roots as, watching herself in the mirror, she brushes her own soft mane, ‘impeccably its own black’.
In a cruel juxtaposition, we see Eliot look at the feet of Joss and Zizi as they stand side by side. Zizi’s toenails are painted deep red, but her toes are brown and twisted and she has corns and bunions.
Joss, naturellement, has pretty, slim unblemished feet and pearly pink toenails. Poor Zizi. The part of you that will never be 16 again wishes that Joss would get just one corn, maybe on her little toe.
And when Joss makes her triumphant entrance to the ball, poised on the staircase in a dress of ivory silk with a tight skirt and low-cut neck (dubbed Sin because she bought it with money intended for a raincoat), she becomes the belle of the ball… if only her mama were there to quote Mr Bennet’s words in Pride and Prejudice when he halts his daughter’s piano recital — ‘That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough’ — and send her off to bed.
Perhaps because it is painfully clear to the reader that disaster is inevitable, Godden does not need to build up tension and keep us in suspense.
From the beginning we see that Eliot is dodgy, and not just because he falls for an almost-child. His mysterious movements, his readiness to pretend that he and the children are a family group and his sudden departure when he almost comes face to face with the Top Cop who is after him all point to him being a criminal.
The narrative contains comments that the children’s Uncle William makes later, such as his observation that the unassuming nature of the hotel with its mix of foreign visitors and its position midway between Paris and the German border suited Eliot’s nefarious purposes.
References to the River Marne, the barges, the children’s chant ‘rich man, poor man’ which is interrupted before the word ‘thief’, Eliot’s sharp paper knife, the photo of Eliot taken by Hester, the new barge Marie France which suddenly appears, move us as steadily as the river towards the end.
The final sentence is a knock-out. As the police discuss the roads that Eliot might have taken to escape to the border, just one line tells us all we need to know: ‘From the river, into our silence, came the hoot of a passing barge.’
The 1961 film version (retitled Loss of Innocence in the US) of the book is far less subtle. Its linear approach lacks the layers and subtleties of Godden’s chewy, more demanding narrative with its mix of past, present and future, action and reflection.
The film highlights some of the darkness in the book, for example by adding a scene showing Paul attempting to rape Joss (which is not in the novel), but then leaves out some sinister episodes from the novel such as a child being drugged and a dead body being found in the garden.
The novel, which was published in 1958, is semi-autobiographical. In the introduction to its third edition, Rumer Godden recounts the events in 1922 on which The Greengage Summer is based and which led to the creation of this captivating, atmospheric, complex work.
In more recent years, it is possible that a writer would be persuaded to ramp up the sexual content, include more violence against the female characters in particular, and make Joss and/or the other children captives in one of the Champagne Cellars fearing for their lives at the mercy of a rapist or serial killer. It would have a title like The Girl In The Dress Called Sin™.