There’s something both exciting and daunting about reading a childhood favourite after many many years.
It’s exciting to be brought back to one’s childhood again. To see this book with adult eyes.
And that’s exactly what makes it a bit daunting. What if it doesn’t live up to your glorified expectations? To that highest of high esteem that you have held it to all these years? And what, just what would happen, if you realize that this book that you’ve idolised, that you’ve been in love with all these years, is just not really the book that you thought it was.
So it was with great relief that I finished Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. And it was every bit as wonderful as I remembered it to be.
Nona, 8, a quiet shy girl, has just moved from India to stay with her cousins in England. She’s sad and lonely and doesn’t know how to adapt to her new life with her far more boisterous cousins Anne, 14, Tom, 11, and Belinda,”a rough tough little girl of seven”.
One day a parcel arrives from America, from their Great Aunt Lucy Dickinson, and inside are two Japanese dolls, named Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Nona feels for the dolls who also have travelled a great distance and are far from home. With the encouragement of her older cousins and her aunt and uncle, she decides to make them a house, a doll’s house, a proper Japanese doll’s house. And as her plans begin to take shape, Nona herself blossoms and emerges from her shell, and more importantly, begins to make a home for herself in England.
One thing that always stood out for me was the way books and reading were given great significance in this book. Like when Nona, who was “always reading”, discovered that books could also teach her about making things like a doll’s house.
“I didn’t know you could learn to carpenter out of books.’
‘You can learn anything out of books,’ said Tom.
‘A book like this?’
‘Oh!’, said Nona. She stood by him a moment longer and then said, ‘Thank you, Tom.’
And her first solo outing that she dares to brave is to the village bookshop, run by the gruff old Mr Twilfit, whom Anne calls “an absolute old dragon”, although Nona learns that he can be sweet and gentle, especially to girls who wash their hands before handling his books. She eventually tells him about the dolls and her plans to make a Japanese house. And he asks a wonderful question.
“Can you read?” he rapped out.
“Of course,” said Nona.
That was one thing Nona was quite sure she could do, and she nodded.
Ah, the power and the magic of books. Nona begins to read and read and learn all about Japanese culture, Japanese houses, furniture, flowers, and more. She does need Tom’s help to build the house itself though, and Mr Twilfit plays a part in that.
I always wondered if Godden was inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of the girl who returns to England from India. But I only recently realized that Godden herself lived in India for many years as a child, then returned to England for school, and was brought back again to India when the First World War broke out. Back again to England to finally finish school, then as an adult, back to India where she lived for some 20 years before moving back to England.
Rumer Godden’s daughter said her mother wrote children’s books between novels, “as she said it was a very good discipline as you must never write down to children or use too much description”.
And I think she hit the right notes with this book – and even provides some basic blueprints in case the reader wants to make her own doll house.