Thirteen year old Cecil Grey and her siblings, sixteen year old, Joss, ten year old Hester, and the littles, Willmouse and Vicky are taken to Compiègne, France one hot summer by their mother. Mrs. Grey whose husband is a botanist and is usually busy in expeditions abroad, feels that the children are becoming unruly and ill disciplined. In order to show them how people have died to save the freedom that they so misuse she plans a trip to France to visit battlefields and war memorials. Unfortunately, when the family reaches the hotel, Les Oeillets, Mrs, Grey who has been bitten by a horse-fly becomes seriously ill and has to be rushed to a hospital. The hotel people are not willing to take up the responsibility of the children but Mrs. Grey extracts a promise from Mr. Eliot, an Englishman, staying in the hotel that he’d look after them.
Left without adult supervision – the mother in hospital and even the eldest – Joss suffering from bouts of sickness, the young ones have a wonderful time gorging on greengages and making friends with the chef, Monsieur Armand who reads to them crime thrillers and his helper, Paul, a young orphan. Problems arise, however, when Joss, beautiful and just on the cusp of womanhood recovers from her sickness and joins the party. Even as her innocent beauty attracts Eliot, it draws the ire of Madomsille Zizi, the owner of the hotel and Eliot’s lover. As expected, a flare-up takes place, one that singes all of them: ‘We never came back,’ said Joss.
Narrated by Cecil and based on a personal experience of the author, this is a wonderful book. As the child Cecil tries to make sense of the adult world (which the readers understand more then the narrator), there is an element of mystery and danger which though dormant can become dangerous anytime. There is also the intriguing figure of Eliot who confuses the whole question of morality, legality, loyalty, love, and affection. I also learnt what greengages are:
My previous read of Godden was in college and I have quite forgotten the book except that I had liked it. Since then, I had been planning to read her and am so glad that finally I did. I enjoyed this book immensely and will not now wait decades to read more of her. Have you read this or any other book of hers?
First Line: On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages.
Publication Details: 1958. London: The Reprint Society Ltd., 1959
Trivia: Made into a movie in 1961.