When all times become one: A Fugue in Time

Rumer Godden, A Fugue in Time (1945)

Rumer Godden’s storytelling style often involves shifts in time and point of view, sometimes within the same paragraph or even the same sentence. In A Fugue in Time, she made time-shifting the whole basis of the narrative, telling interwoven stories of three different generations within the same London house. (The complete title was originally Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time).

We start with the “present” of the book (told in the past tense), when the elderly Rolls is reluctantly facing the end of his family home’s 99 year lease, when he will be forced to leave. The past inhabitants and events of the house appear (told in the present tense) in shifting waves that gradually build up a tragic legacy of misunderstanding. When two young relatives from different branches of the family come to the house, there is the potential to change that trajectory and move into a better future — which we also briefly glimpse from time to time.

If it sounds confusing, it is rather — but after I got used to the device, it was fairly easy to negotiate the different story threads. Having read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse not so long ago, the book reminded me of how Woolf also mixed up time and memory and point of view into a sort of kaleidoscopic impression. However, Godden’s language is more conventional than Woolf’s, aside from the frequent shifts that break it up into shorter or longer chunks.

The character of Griselda, Rolls’s mother, who quietly and futilely rebels against the constraints of her traditional female role, also reminded me of Woolf. I wonder how conscious these references may have been.

Not exactly a ghost story, more complex than a straight historical novel, this was an interesting experiment that didn’t completely take off for me. I understand that later Godden tried to do the same thing with China Court, perhaps more successfully, and I’d like to give that one a try. Have you read either of these? What did you think?

Classics Club List #21
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author


12 thoughts on “When all times become one: A Fugue in Time

  1. I read China Court a few years ago and enjoyed it. I do remember that it covers a variety of time periods but it must have relatively seamless transitions because that is not what stands out to me about the book. I saw it on my shelves the other day and thought then that I might enjoy rereading it. I’ve never read A Fugue in Time.


    1. I think I will probably read my way through all of Godden’s novels eventually. I always find her books interesting, even though some of them resonate more with me than others. China Court does sound like one I might like particularly.


  2. I enjoyed In This House of Brede. If there was a great deal of time shifting, I don’t recall it, but I do recall a brilliant study of characters in a compact environment and one character’s journey of discernment, following her own surprising path. You may have read this one, but if not, I do recommend it. I would like to read more of her novels too, starting with A Fugue in Time.


    1. In This House of Brede is one of those books where embarrassingly I can’t remember whether I’ve read it or not. But I’m definitely meaning to read it (again?) at some point. I’m always going to be intrigued by a story that is described as “a journey of discernment.”


  3. I’m a huge Rumer Godden fan, but whereas I love her children’s books pretty much without exception, I mostly don’t love her adult literature — with exceptions. So I’m always a little nervous to try her adult fiction and have never read this one OR China Court.


  4. Rumer Godden was one of my favorite authors as a teen. I had the notion to read the books in my public library in one particular area where the authors names began with the letter G. I read Rumer Godden, her sister Jon Godden, Elizabeth Goudge, and Graham Greene who all became great favorites. Rumer Godden and Elizabeth Goudge continue to enchant me with rereadings. I enjoy the contemplative nature of their novels and find great peace in them. I buy copies in used bookstores to share with friends as gifts.


    1. I love the idea of reading through all the authors in a given letter, though I’ve never done it. And though I love Godden and Goudge, I’ve not yet read Graham Greene — seems I should.


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