The Greengage Summer – Rumer Godden (1958, 187 pages)
I really enjoyed my first experience of Rumer Godden last year, and so it was that I picked up The Greengage Summer with high expectations, which were fully met 😊
The story is narrated by thirteen-year-old Cecil describing how she, her older sister Joss and younger sister Hester, plus ‘The Littles’ brother Willmouse and sister Vicky, are left to essentially fend for themselves at the Les Oeillets hotel in champagne country, after their mother develops septicaemia from a horsefly bite and is hospitalised.
“Perhaps it was this first sight that made me always think of the garden at Les Oeillets as green, green and gold as was the whole countryside of the Marne where, beyond the town, the champagne vineyards stretched for miles along the river, vineyards and cherry orchards, for this was cherry country too, famous for cherries in liqueur. Mother had been thinking of battlefields; she had not thought to enquire about the country itself; I am sure she had not meant to bring us to a luxury corner of France where the trees and the vines changed almost symbolically in the autumn to gold.”
It is reminiscent of Kingfishers Catch Fire, in that it is told from the perspective of someone looking back, who has been rescued from a foreign country by a man – Uncle William in this instance – with interjections from the present.
“ ‘You are the one who should write this,’ I told Joss, ‘it happened chiefly to you’; but Joss shut that out, as she always shuts things out, or shuts them in, so that no-one can guess.
‘You are the one who likes words,’ said Joss. ‘Besides…’ and she paused. ‘It happened as much to you.’
‘But you were glad enough to come back,’ said Uncle William,
‘We never came back,’ said Joss.
So what happened to cause them to leave themselves behind in Les Oeillets? I don’t want to give too much of the plot away…
The children are captivated by Eliot, a charming debonair English man who is having an affair with Mademoiselle Zizi, the hotel owner. Madame Corbert, the manager, is jealous, desiring Zizi herself. This is explained to them by Paul, the not much older but very much wiser hotel boy. These intrigues would be difficult enough, but Joss suddenly blooms, her beauty throwing things even further into disarray.
“I know now it is children who accept life; grown people cover it up and pretend it is different with drinks”
Some things around the hotel, or rather, around one of the guests, don’t add up, and it will be a rude awakening to the cruelties of the adult world for the children when they find out the truth. And it is the truth to a great extent – the author’s introduction to my edition explains the experience her family had, on which she based the story.
“For us champagne will always have a ghost; it can never be a wine for feasts but one for mourning.”
The Greengage Summer is a well-paced, atmospheric read with excellent characterisation. It’s no wonder it was quickly adapted into a film in 1961, starring Susannah York as Joss and Kenneth More as Eliot: