Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Art vs. life -- more or less?

Awhile ago someone talked here about Miss Happiness and Miss Flower -- a story about the two dolls of the title (homesick for Japan) and the girl (homesick for India) who makes a real Japanese dolls' house for them. All the author's books I've read are as cozy as that.

I imagined her life had been, too -- she definitely seemed like a nice English lady with an overgrown garden and tea every day. So I was amazed when I read her autobiography -- one of her books, Greengage Summer, tells about some charming children who spend a summer holiday in France and have cozy adventures. In real life, she and her sisters and their mother DID go to France, and DID stay in a hotel sort of like the one in the book -- but their mother got really sick. The children could do whatever they wanted, and one of the things one of them did was get seduced / have an affair with an older married man, also a hotel guest -- as was his wife. The children and their mother ended up getting kicked out of the hotel for this sister's "scandalous" behavior (in the novel, a charming criminal somehow -- I forget how -- arranges for them to go home to their parents, who are both in England).

That was just one incident in a life that couldn't have been less like her stories-- the book ended with her and her children living in an unheated house high in the Himalayas (which sounded like heaven to me: she described the clean new wood and no furniture and teacups and plates from the bazzar, the almond trees in back and the views of mountains in front -- I've been to Kashmir and could imagine it all clearly). They had no money -- typically, her husband had stolen all her book money (and at one point there was a lot of it) when he ran off with another woman -- but it was lovely until one of the kids noticed ground glass in their food. Rumer Godden was too out of it on the drugs the cook had been slipping into HER food to notice he was trying to poison them all....There were lots of equally wild incidents in-between the two I've recounted here.

I can't honestly say I recommend this autobiography -- there were lots of gaps, and it was written when she was very old, so old that instead of describing some of the events she quoted from the novels she'd written about them. The book read as though she really remembered the novels better than the life.

But I'm glad I read it. Her life-into-fiction went the opposite way of most writers....at least, it seems to me that most novelists make their novels MORE exciting and adventure-packed than their lives. And she made hers less.

Maybe for her writing was an escape into a safe world where husbands stayed and supported you, people didn't try to murder you, and children left to fend for themselves found protectors. Is YOUR writing a reflection of your life or an escape from it? Both? Neither? An attempt to remake it? In the past, mine has I think been more of a reflection -- but maybe it would be fun to do the opposite, as Rumer Godden did.

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