It's hard to pick just one book by Rumer Godden. She has been a touchstone of excellence in writing for me as long as I can remember and I have been reading her books for as long as I've been able to read. The sheer beauty of her prose -- its limpidity, its clarity, its economy -- continues to leave me breathless even though I have been reading it all my life. There are so many of her books that I love, that have meant a lot to me -- The Peacock Spring, a bittersweet companion to teenage fears; A Candle for St Jude, with all its meditations on creativity and compromise, love and loss and the unfairness of those with power; Coromandel Sea Change; The Greengage Summer; Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy; and the soft and deadly magic of Black Narcissus.
I've been collecting her books for years and years, and finding one I don't have -- there are still a few -- is a special thrill.
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower was the first of her books I ever read, ever owned. It was given to me as a Christmas present when I was 5 or 6: I can no longer remember reading it for the first time. I read it so often I can quote it. It was a Young PuffinÂ -- a range of books for children aged 5 - 7 from Penguin Books in the 1960s and 1970sÂ -- all short, all illustrated. The story is deceptively simple: Nona has been sent home to England from India where she was born to live with English relatives, who alarm and confuse her. She's shy, small, silent: her cousins are loud and energetic. Then she and her cousin Belinda are sent a package, two exquisite Japanese dolls -- the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower of the title. The story is how, though making a home for the dolls, who she sees as being as displaced as she is, Nona makes a home for herself also. The end of the book is devoted to instructions on how to make a Japanese-style dolls' house. Godden-style, the book is told simply and yet indirectly, through Nona's eyes and those of the dolls. It is all about feeling lost and alone and abandoned and having to begin again. I was shy, too: I felt close to Nona. I would have liked to have been friends with her, had that been possible: she was a reading sort of girl, like me. And I wanted to make the dolls' house, but somehow that never quite happened. Godden did not write that much for children and much of what she wrote was about dolls and their experiences. That is the key phrase that has sat with me from Miss Happiness, all these years. Dolls are not asked what they want, not asked before they are packed off and sent away to strange places. 'Children are not asked, either.'