This 1958 novel crackles with foreboding. It is based on the apparently artless retelling by a teenage girl of a summer spent in France with her elder sister and their younger siblings. It seethes with barely understood sexuality, and, in the absence of any reliable and responsible adults, the dangers that Joss and her sister Cecil pass through are amplified by the reader’s horrified reactions. No-one really gets hurt, no-one is permanently damaged. The 1961 film (reissued at some point as Loss of Innocence, starring Susannah York as Joss) looks more luscious than the novel, which has a more desperate feel, more worried and less languorous.
Joss and Cecil, and Hester, Willmouse and Vicky, are in France for the summer with their mother. Father is abroad, as he always is, on botanising expeditions (the children were conceived in the three-year intervals when he returned to deposit his specimens). Mother was unfortunately bitten by a horsefly the day before they travelled to their holiday hotel, and now she is in the town hospital with sepsis and delirium. The children speak hardly any French, and are not particularly tidy or clean after their long journey. Mme Corbet, the hotel concièrge, is disinclined to allow them to stay, until an Englishman intervenes. He is Eliot, the friend of Mme Zizi, the not quite so young and beautiful proprietor of the hotel. He organises a nurse and a doctor for Mother, gets the children fed and some rooms to sleep in, Mother is taken to hospital, and so the summer of unsupervised freedom begins.
Eliot is a debonair temporary guardian, but the children know nothing about him. He is sympathetic and generous is a way that reveals what he lacks in his own life, which is absolutely not on the right side of the law. He vanishes to Paris daily, sometimes returning at night, sometimes not, and Mme Zizi is alternately despairing and tolerant, which affects her attitude towards the children he expects her to house and feed. The hotel staff insist that the children behave with propriety, yet Mme Zizi is quite obviously sleeping with Eliot, and Mme Corbet is quite obviously longing for Zizi to come back to her. Thirteen-year old Cecil cannot quite comprehend the social nuances, or what she is witnessing, but her painstaking account twangs with tension.
Sexuality thrums in the hot summer air. Joss is prostrate for the first few chapters with appalling PMT and migraines. The kitchen-boy, Paul, casually feels down Cecil’s shirt and dismisses her development as being nothing more than lemons. Cecil has her first period, and is kindly looked after by Eliot, who orders hot tea and bread and butter for her, after giving her her first adult kiss. When sixteen-year old Joss finally gets past her period, she appears in the hotel like an angel of beauty around whom all the men flock, and trouble ensues. There is a dance, there is illictly-acquired champagne, there is teenage drunkenness.
The children are banished from the hotel in the daytime, so they lie on the beach, or roam through the fields, or play in the gardens. Willmouse creates his miniatiure atelier daily, making dresses for his dolls. He is seven years old, if the three-year conception joke is accurate – yet he advises Joss on her makeup, he is an expert witness for police on clothes and how they are worn, he goes to inspect the new issue of Vogue rather than look at trains. He goes for a daily constitutional like an old gentleman of the world to look at the barges on the Marne, which makes Cecil nervous for his safety. He is a queered character, precocious and eccentric and devoted to design and draping. He is infinitely sympathetic, and – which is not so astonishing when one considers how matter-of-factly Godden has introduced menstruation into the story – Willmouse’s preturnatural homosexuality is unquestioned and completely understood by his sisters and the French. Eliot, the man of the world, shows Willmouse art books because a designer will need to know about line, rather than insisting that he plays like a boy.
Godden’s narrative is expertly handled. There are multiple foreshadowings throughout Cecil’s account to reassure the reader that the children all survive the summer and its dangers. These foreshadowings also contain and limit the unknown tensions that are being signalled so strongly. I haven’t read a novel unfolded with such technical skill in ages: it is magnificent. It’s a post-war thriller that keeps violence and criminality in the background, making the children the most important aspect of the story. If we don’t care about them, the story is lost. Their story kept me reading past midnight, which has propelled Rumer Godden right to the top of my list of authors I must read more of.