Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

I have long been an admirer of Powell and Pressburger’s film, Black Narcissus, with its sumptuous, vivid colours and moments of heightened drama. The movie, which came out in 1947, was adapted from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same name (an instant bestseller in its day, it remains Godden’s best-known work). It’s a glorious book, an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and – perhaps most significantly of all – repressed female desire.

As the novel opens, a small group of Anglican nuns are setting out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains – a place steeped in beauty and mystery. Sister Clodagh – newly appointed as the youngest Sister Superior in her Order – will lead the mission, to go forward where others have failed. (A group of Jesuit Brothers has recently returned from the mountains, having abandoned their plans for a school in the very same location.)

Accompanying Sister Clodagh in her quest are four other sisters, each with their own potential role in the new collective: Sister Briony to run the dispensary; Sister Phillipa to establish a garden; Sister Ruth to give the children lessons; and Sister Honey to teach the young women to make lace.

Roles and responsibilities aside, the various dynamics in the group have the potential to hinder progress. Sister Ruth is unpredictable and strong-willed, likely to cause trouble if not carefully managed. There are question marks too over Sister Clodagh’s abilities – not least from Dorothea, the Mother Superior who has already expressed reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for the role, despite the young Sister’s assurances. Right from the start, there is an air of trouble brewing with this mission, a feeling only enhanced by the strangeness of the location itself. Mopu Palace – the building donated to the nuns for their convent – is the former home of the General’s seraglio, effectively a harem or ‘House of Women’.

At first, the nuns are somewhat daunted by the challenge as they struggle to adapt to the high altitude and new living conditions; nevertheless, they soon begin work to establish their community. Assisting the sisters is Ayah, an elderly lady who keeps house at the Palace. Also of note is Mr Dean, the outspoken British man who acts as the General’s Agent in the area.

Mr Dean is quite a character – not one for holding back on his opinions of the sisters’ ambitions, especially when he foresees trouble with the locals. His forthright nature, strong sense of humour and fondness for drink all come as a bit of a shock to the Sisters, who have led quite a sheltered existence to date. The dynamic between Mr Dean and Sister Clodagh is a fascinating one, the kind of sexual tension that can erupt in a passionate disagreement.

‘You’re –’ she said furiously. ‘You’re – you’re unforgivable.’ Then she said vindictively, between her teeth: You’re objectionable when you’re sober, and abominable when you’re drunk.’

‘I quite agree,’ he said, and taking his pony went down the hill. (p. 121)

That said, Mr Dean is a level-headed man at heart, naturally sympathetic to the Sisters’ situation, and he soon proves highly valuable to the mission, assisting with plumbing, construction and all manner of practical jobs – some of which involve careful liaison with the locals.

As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under Mopu’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. For Sister Honey, it is a longing for a baby; for Sister Philippa, the love of her garden; for Ruth, an ongoing obsession with the magnetic Mr Dean; and for Clodagh it is Con, the childhood sweetheart she left behind in Ireland, back in the days of her carefree youth. In short, each woman must wrestle with her own psychological demon.

Sister Honey stopped in her work to listen eagerly to the children saying their lesson in the next room, as if they belonged to her; Sister Philippa straightened her back from her frozen beds and stared across the garden, seeing it in summer, and Sister Ruth watched and waited for Mr Dean. Sister Clodagh’s face was so softened and changed that Mother Dorothea would not have known her. (p. 143)

As the novel moves towards its dramatic climax, tensions between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth intensify, threatening to erupt at any given moment. Sister Ruth becomes increasingly unstable, accusing Sister Clodagh of harbouring feelings for Mr Dean – an accusation driven by jealousy and a kind of descent into madness.

‘All the same, I’ve noticed that you’re very pleased to see him yourself!’ she flung at Sister Clodagh.

Sister Clodagh’s face blazed. She half rose in her chair and then she sank back into it again, holding her desk.

‘You’re trying to tell me I’m not fit to be a nun,’ cried Sister Ruth. ‘Well, let me tell you that no more are you. You should never have entered either, and you know it for all your honours and success. Wonderful Sister Clodagh. Clever Sister Clodagh. Admirable Sister Clodagh,’ she mocked, ‘and all the time you’re worse than I am and that’s why you’re trying to bully me.’ (p. 127)

Another factor in the novel’s undeniable sexual tension is Dilip Rai, the General’s nephew who comes to the Palace for lessons with the Sisters. While there, Dilip falls for Kanchi, a flirtatious girl who has been pestering Mr Dean, much to the latter’s annoyance. Black Narcissus is Sister Ruth’s nickname for Dilip Rai – a rather dismissive term coined from the women’s perfume he likes to wear. However, it also holds a significance for Sister Clodagh, whose relationship with Dilip can be viewed as a kind of metaphor for her repressed desires.

In terms of style, the novel is wonderfully sensual, rich in detail and imagery – aspects that capture the lush appearance of the surrounding natural world.

Just before Easter the knife wind changed to boisterousness, playing round the trees and rattling at the windows, and snatching at skirts and veils; with its roughness it was warm, scented with the orange flowers from the groves in the valley, a languorous scent blown roughly. The snow was melting and the streams were full; their own stream pelted down the hill, swelling up round the bamboos; over the slopes came a green bloom with a blueness in it like a grape and the rhododendrons opened in hundreds, and the magnolia behind the house budded into thick white flowers. (p. 178)

While the novel is rooted in a very specific time and place, there is a strange, dreamlike quality to the narrative – a little like a fairy tale or powerful spell that gradually works its magic on the unsuspecting reader. It all makes for an evocative reading experience, the essence of which is reflected in Powell and Pressburger’s luxuriant film.

In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, irrespective of your familiarity with the story.

Black Narcissus is published by Virago Press, my thanks to the publishers for a reading copy.

40 thoughts on “Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

  1. Radz Pandit

    Brilliant review, Jacqui! I haven’t yet read any Rumer Godden, but this sounds marvellous. I was educated in a convent school, so the setting too appeals. And the Virago edition is stunning.

    Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Wonderful review, thank you very much. I’m very fond of Rumer Godden, although there are many of her books I’ve yet to read. I tend to save them for particular moments when I want an interesting, character-driven story told in very nice prose, with an exotic locale thrown in. Black Narcissus has definitely been on my list; now I’ll move it up a notch!

    Reply
      1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

        Aside from In this House of Brede, I liked Peacock Spring a great deal & Breakfast with Nikolides. Oddly enough, I also liked Godden’s debut novel The Lady and the Unicorn, which doesn’t quite work for many. Despite some structural flaws all the stuff you love is still there — the surprisingly realistic look at the prejudice faced by Anglo-Indians, the great writing and exotic locale and the semi-tragic story. Most readers seem to love Greengage Summer, which I did enjoy, but less than some of the others.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s great, thank you. The Greengage Summer is the one I’d heard about before, but it’s interesting to see that it’s not your favourite. The setting is different, isn’t it? France as opposed to the Far East. Maybe the Himalayan settings are Godden’s speciality, the lush scenery echoing the turbulent emotions of her characters?

          Reply
          1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

            I’m not sure WHY I didn’t like Greengage Summer as much as most . . . I was fine with the setting (although I do think one of Godden’s strengths is her Indian locales) but something about the plot rang false to me. I did enjoy it, just not as much as the others I’ve read.
            Not, you understand, that I demand realism in my plots. Being of a suggestible nature and at a dangerous stage (i.e., finished one book and not quite at ease with its successor) I decided to skip Saki’s Unbearable Bassington (for the moment) & go with a Rumer Godden novel. I’m halfway through A Fugue in Time and loving every page. Set in London during WWII, it’s a non-chronological story of a family bound up with a house, with a supernatural element thrown in (there was something of this nature in Lady & the Unicorn but it’s much better done here). The novel has a wonderful villain and gives a fantastic portrayal of the horrors of the gilded cage enclosing an upper class Victorian woman.
            Just goes to show that reading book blogs can be very unsetting (in a NICE kind of way) to one’s reading plans . . . . .

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Haha, well that sounds just perfect! I love a wartime London setting, so it’s sure to be right up my street. One for the future for sure. In the meantime, I’m glad to hear that my post has reignited your interest in Godden’s work, that’s such a fortuitous result!

              Reply
  3. Jane

    A couple of friends and I had a read/watch group a year or so ago and this is one that we read/watched! it is dreamlike, almost hallucinatory in its vividness which I thought came across really well in the film – they almost saturate the screen with colour don’t they? This cover is perfect, I might have to treat myself when the bookshops open!

    Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    So is the book best, Jacqui? :D I’m a huge fan of P&P films, but I’ve not sure I’ve seen this one. Similarly, I think I’ve only ever read one Godden, and I did enjoy it but this sounds on a different level. Certainly those quotes are marvellous!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well yes, I think the book wins out, but it’s a very close run thing between the two. The novel feels a bit more nuanced (or less dramatic, perhaps), in spite of that feverish finale… ;)

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Wonderful review. You have really brought the book back to me. It’s such an evocative story. I am quite a fan of Rumer Godden so I hope you continue to explore her novels now. I am so glad that I have this stunning edition too, for when I want to reread it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you, Ali. I’m glad this revived a few memories for you. It’s such an immersive story – a truly escapist read, especially in the current times. Where would you suggest I go next with Rumer Godden, now that I’ve read her most popular novel? Are there any in particular you would recommend?

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    The film is a great favourite of mine. Wonderful actors; David Farrer, Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons, but I had no idea Rumer Godddn’s wrting was so good. Another writer to explore.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s an amazing cast. And Kathleen Byron is particularly good in the role of Sister Ruth. There’s a shot of her eyes towards the end of the film, an image that captures the deranged nature of her mind – I don’t think I’ll ever forget it!

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    This might be the only book/movie where I’ve seen the movie and not read the book. And loved the movie and embarrassingly have been meaning to read the book forever.

    I remember when Ali wrote about it and how struck I was by that gorgeous cover. Now I really must read it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, it’s taken me a good forty years to get around to reading the book, so I’m sure you’re not the only one in this position! It’s an excellent novel, good old-fashioned storytelling in the best possible sense. I can see why it was ripe for an adaptation back then…

      Reply
  8. Jonathan

    I’ve seen the film and recently watched the TV series, which I thought was done really well. I’d love to read the book as well, of course.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s good to know. I’ve sort of shied away from watching the recent TV series in spite of my fondness for Diana Rigg. (I can totally see her in the role of Mother Superior!) As for the book, it’s absolutely worth reading, even if you’re very familiar with the story. There’s a richness to it which is echoed in the P&P adaptation (especially in the vivid colours).

      Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    You had me at nuns and misguided actions! (Okay, I’m already on the Godden train, but, still, that was a fun description.) I think the first of hers that I enjoyed was In this House of Brede, and more recently I read her autobiographies and the book she wrote with her sister about growing up in India. Such an interesting life (and marriage)!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I can well believe it. You’re the third person to have mentioned House of Brede (either on here or on Twitter), so I shall have to investigate. Many thanks!

      Reply
  10. minametry84

    I liked your blogs, they are wonderful, if you do not mind let me follow your blogs and i would be more than happy if you grant me the honor to follow my humble blogs

    Reply
  11. Mary Daniels Brown

    Every day I receive a couple of newsletters that offer heavily discounted ebooks, and this author’s name comes up a lot. Thanks for this great review. I think this is probably where I should start.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      As it’s the only Godden I’ve read to date, I can’t make any comparisons with her other work; but as a novel it is own right it’s gloriously immersive. Good old-fashioned storytelling in the best possible sense!

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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