“You have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.”
In just this sentence, one of the characters, the rather naive Indian “general” Dilip sums up Rumer Godden’s twentieth-century classic. I was familiar with the 1947 Powell and Pressburger film starring Deborah Kerr, which I love, but have never got round to reading the novel- until now.
A murmur or flap (collective nouns- looked them up- both would be acceptable) of nuns arrive at a remote disused palace in Mopu, a trek away from Darjeeling. Here in the mountains they intend to set up a school and a clinic in a location already abandoned by a group of monks who had stayed just five months. The women have to deal with winning over the locals and developing their plans in an environment that dominates. There’s something about this book and the same thing is also in the film which I just love and it’s to do with its almost hypnotic atmosphere. The location gives a lushness and a sense of heightened emotions which borders upon the overwrought. It should be a calm retreat for the Sisters but it is not.
Partly this is to do with the local agent, Mr Dean, who gets some of the nuns a-fluttering with his unconventional behaviour, partly to do with the local traditions and people and also other characters such as Ayah, the female caretaker; the flamboyant Dilip and the smouldering Kanchi who is being housed at the convent to stop her trying to seduce Mr Dean.
Whilst a holy man remains silent and serene in the grounds the nuns attempt to change old traditions, which they cannot comprehend, but their lives are equally bound by restrictive tradition and routine. With so much turmoil stirring aournd it’s never going to end well.
The cover of this Virago paperback terms the book “a haunting classic” and there are comparisons to Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” and both seem fitting.
You can tell that this is written by someone who knew the India she fictionalised. Godden grew up in Narayangay and spent many years in India. Published on the eve of World War II it is both a tale of a lost world and an attempt to tame that world, something which would have resonated with its early readers.
From the Sister Superior, Clodagh, with her need to be in charge, from the endearing Sister Honey who throws herself (perhaps too much) into this new setting and to the neurotic, tense Sister Ruth these are vivid and memorable characterisations that will haunt me long after the book has been put back on the shelf.
I think I’m ready to watch the film again now……..
Black Narcissus was first published in 1939. I read the Virago paperback edition.