Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Lady and the Unicorn

Growing up, my almost all white primary school class had one child of mixed descent - English and Pakistani - and we did not always treat him kindly alas (though how much of this was implicit racism or simply now more memorable than the other, less obvious, traits with which we persecuted one another, I cannot now be sure). Had he been born in colonial India, he would have been labelled 'Eurasian' and caught betwixt two worlds, neither his own.

The dilemma of this community, too loose to be closely bound and economically and socially supportive, too present not to stand out, is the source of Rumer Godden's early novel, 'The Lady and the Unicorn' (1937), sensitively introduced by Anita Desai in the newly reprinted edition of all her main works (courtesy of Virago).

The Lemarchant family live in an annex of a tumble down mansion, owned by another Eurasian family, and home to a panoply of ever-changing tenants (given the landlord's disinterest in maintenance). The Lemarchants are too poor, however, to think of moving - Mr Lemarchants is feckless, his wife dead, his sister, 'Auntie' carries the burden of care of his three daughters, all adolescents - twins, Belle and Rosa are seventeen and Blanche is fourteen. All are marked in their community by having 'free' schooling from the local nuns for even a displaced community has its hierarchies.

Belle yearns after a trajectory of escape and is willing to deploy all her charms of physical beauty and a certain self-confidence to find a man capable of extracting her from this life and propelling her elsewhere. It is an uncertain path, full of the risk of serial abandonment, and even at novel's end, we do not know whether this strategy has met with success.

Rosa, her sister, is more 'romantically' inclined, whilst associating with Robert, the Eurasian son of the house's owner, she finds herself thrust by Belle into the unexpected orbit of the Englishman, Stephen Bright. He is out from 'home' to work,and in love with a 'constructed' India from his voluminous reading; and, not yet enculturated with the necessary rules for distancing ruler from ruled (a fact of which his cousin, William, and his employer are quick to remind him). The love affair is imbalanced and will end unhappily but sensitively shows in the process how desire can fail to conquer culture, however, apparently 'petty' and 'constrained' that 'culture' appears to be.

In truth, Stephen is as in love with Rosa's house and its mysterious past as he is with the girl herself; and, the house is haunted. The story slowly unfolds of a French family, exiled by revolution, failing to embed themselves in a new world and of a tragic match that ends in the death, possibly suicide, of a young bride. This failure to take root, to find a place, becomes an image that deepens both the particular failure of Stephen and Rosa and the more general failure of both the Eurasians to find a place in society and of the ruled to offer that place, bound, as they are, within distancing conventions.

Inevitably the book draws comparison with the two great English works of colonial failure, of mismatching culture - E.M. Forster's already published, 'A Passage to India' and Paul Scott's to be published, 'Jewel in the Crown' and certainly as works of critique they all spare no prisoners for their countrymen's failings but Godden knew India better than both, especially at the personal level, the flowing of people's everyday emotional lives. Neither Forster nor Scott, for example, ever ran a dancing school (in Calcutta) many of whose pupils were Eurasian nor found themselves effectively abandoned, through an estranged marriage, coping with a young family, in an isolated Kashmiri village. This adds a level of colour and individuality to the characters that, though risking sentiment and caricature, gives you a vivid sense of the personal nature of the dilemmas faced rather than seeing a drama illuminating ideas.

This too being Godden, there is the assured touch of portraying adolescence on the verge of adulthood permeating the characters. There is no one better at capturing the dance between child and adult, even in the same moment, as Godden, as a character swings with vehemence into one age only to be undone by the characteristics of the other.

Present also is the fact that the house is haunted - the old French family is caught, present, timelessly in its own emotional trauma; and, in passing Godden offers a fascinating 'theory' of ghosts - they may be repeating endlessly, as in No drama, their trapped, traumatic emotional state - but we can only see this at moments of our own high emotional intensity; and, if they have a gift to offer, it is to allows us to remember that it is emotional intensity unmanaged or refused, not lived and shaped and navigated, that binds us to a life unlived.

The novel ends on this note - every character has found or accommodated themselves to the necessity of change, it is never ideal but the ideal can be the enemy of the good, much there may be to be changed in the outward forms of our shaping society, but whilst we wait (and work), personal navigation is possible.

In one last image, the haunted mansion that binds is sold to be converted into a cinema and brings new opportunities to Rosa now reconciled to a life with Robert - a place of a haunted, repeating story will become a theatre of dreams, of manifold stories.




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