According to the author, The Greengage Summer is true, or at least partly so. In 1923, when Rumer Godden was fifteen years old and her elder sister Jon nearly eighteen, their mother announced,
“We are going to the Battlefields of France and when perhaps you see the rows and rows of crosses for those young men who gave their lives for you, it might make you stop and think of your selfishness.”
In the Author’s Preface to my copy of the book (a lovely Folio Edition that I picked up for $3 in a secondhand book shop 🙂) she gives a brief outline of her childhood experience that became the basis for The Greengage Summer. In the book the two girls were called Joss and Cecil and they were aged 16 and 13 years respectively. Godden had two younger sisters and the book replaced them with three young siblings, Hester, Willmouse and Vicky.
The Greengage Summer is narrated by Cecil and I nearly gave up on the book in the first chapter until I realised that the thirteen year old’s perspective was so well done that it coloured the whole narrative and seemed to jump around in the telling. I’m very glad I persevered as its quite an unusual story overall as well as a rather scary look at five children who were basically left to their own devices in a foreign country. With their mother very ill in hospital after an insect bite became infectious on the trip to France and their father somewhere unreachable in Tibet on a botanical expedition, Joss and Cecil are thrust into an adult world in post war France – living in a French hotel alongside some questionable characters, expected to pay their way, look after their younger siblings and get by with their limited experience of life – they were quickly initiated into the vagaries of human nature.
Joss’s beauty complicated matters. A jealous Mademoiselle, her enigmatic lover who becomes infatuated with Joss; a feral young waiter and then a murder, The Greengage Summer is a combination of mystery, deception and coming-of-age that depicts young people trying to navigate the world of adults before they’re ready for it. Added to all this is a good smattering of French throughout the narrative.
A tense read at times but it resolves well, and I have to say I LOVED THE ENDING!
The Greengage Summer wasn’t published until 1958 and it would be ten years later that Rumer Godden officially converted to the Catholic Church. Several of her later novels dealt with women in religious orders, for example, In This House of Brede, which is a very different book to The Greengage Summer.
Linking to the 2021 European Reading Challenge: France