BOOK REVIEW : Three Decades Later, Novel Still Engrosses : CHINA COURT, The Hours of a Country House by Rumer Godden ; William Morrow-Quill;$10; 336 pages
Reissued after three decades, Rumer Godden’s “China Court” is the sort of timeless English novel that wears as well as a Burberry and is just as impervious to vagaries of fashion.
Set in a Welsh country house, the novel covers a century and a half in the lives of the family who owned China Court, named for the prosperity that came to the Quins when the pure white clay in their district turned out to be the vital ingredient for the manufacture of fine porcelain.
Weaving back and forth from the early years of the 19th Century, when the Quin dynasty was founded by Eustace and Adza, to the 1960s, when the estate is inherited by the granddaughter of the wonderfully vital Ripsie, the novel is kaleidoscopic in structure.
Instead of a strictly chronological narrative, we’re given brief vignettes of the lives led by various members of the five generations of the large Quin clan and their assorted retainers. Past and present intermingle, the individual bits and pieces swirling briefly before dropping into a precise design.
Though at first the pattern seems random, the technique ultimately produces a powerful sense of continuity. Though Godden has considerately included a family tree, she is right in her belief that a patient reader will soon be able to sort out the characters without many backward glances.
The novel opens with the peaceful death of Ripsie Quin in 1960. Ripsie was a spirited village girl who married a second-generation son, John Henry, slipping into her new role as if to the manor born, though until her marriage Ripsie had lived only on the fringes of the Quins’ lives.
As the orphaned child of feckless parents, she had been the constant companion of the two Quin boys of her generation, allowed to play with them outside but kept “in her place” the rest of the time--a limbo between the servant’s hall and the family quarters. In that sense, “China Court” is an “Upstairs Downstairs” novel, with the attendant interaction between the spheres of employers and employees.
The Quin sons of Ripsie’s age were Borowis, who got his curious name from the Russian tightrope walker his father had seen perform on the day of his birth, and John Henry, whose solid English name perfectly suited his direct and honorable nature. The boys’ parents were the philandering Jared and his dazzling and strong-willed Irish bride, Lady Patrick, who endured life at China Court without ever feeling truly at home.
Though Ripsie had been in love with Borowis almost from childhood, it was John Henry she married and with whom she lived happily ever after. The circumstances surrounding Ripsie’s two romances are central to the book, providing a succinct and affecting look at the best and worst of Anglo-Saxon attitudes.
Each chapter of “China Court” begins with a quotation from an antique Book of Hours treasured by Ripsie, a device that seems extraneous until the focus shifts from Ripsie back to the 19th Century and Eliza Quin, the spinster daughter of Eustace and Adza. At that point, the leisurely pace abruptly quickens and the novel almost becomes a detective story.
Though a few of the earlier Quins tend to blur, Eliza, who had seemed the most passive of the lot, becomes a dominant and memorable character. Exploited and put upon by her parents and brothers, she exacts an extraordinary revenge that eventually makes the continuity of “China Court” possible.
When Ripsie’s will is read to the assembled heirs, their complacency is shattered by the bequest of the house to her granddaughter Tracy, a young woman who had lived sporadically at China Court as a child while her mother racketed around the world as a struggling actress. The legacy itself astonishes the older generation of conventional aunts and uncles, but the proviso that must be fulfilled before Tracy can take possession of the house seems outrageous.
No one imagines that Tracy will consider agreeing to her grandmother’s wishes, but she is not only amenable, but enthusiastic. To her, the pre-emptory codicil seems both logical and truly providential. Her acceptance allows the novel to end on a note of considerable drama, a transition accomplished so subtly that surprise is virtually guaranteed.