“Transfiguration of the commonplace” is not a phrase coined by the English Catholic Rumer Godden but by the Scottish Catholic Muriel Spark. It is engraved on a stone in Lady Stair’s Close in Edinburgh to memorialize Spark among Scotland’s other great writers. Nevertheless, the phrase is a good description of Rumer Godden’s work in An Episode of Sparrows.
I am writing again about An Episode of Sparrows because last week’s post focuses solely on the writing craft of her first page. This week I want to say something about her subject matter. The writer who wishes to write from his Catholicism may learn from that too.
Godden paints with fine strokes. The world of her novel encompasses a very small geographical region: merely the rich Mortimer Square and the poor Catford Street, with its bombed out Catholic church. Two inhabitants of Catford Street go for occasional window-shopping trips to London’s luxurious West End, but the West End serves only as fuel for their dreams and a contrast to their impoverished lives.
For Godden’s characters are poor. They are either materially poor, as so many Londoners were in the 1950s, or they are spiritually poor. Sometimes they are both. Five year old Sparkey, son of a woman who runs a newspaper stand, enjoys fantasies about others as lurid as the headlines of the tabloids he cannot read. The materially poor are not romantic: they work hard at ill-paid jobs or small, failing businesses or, if children, form or avoid gangs. They torment each other, too: girls who trespass upon the boy-gangs’ lairs in bombed-out buildings are at risk of being pummeled and sent home without their underpants. Big children steal from little children. Envious or contemptuous adults belittle their siblings.
Nevertheless, most of Godden’s characters are kindly, decent people who believe in kindness and decency. The best display a self-denying loyalty to spouses, parents and children. The worst are neglectful of, or cruel to, children. Children, to Godden, are the ultimate poor: almost penniless and powerless against the adults, bad or good, around them. In the novel they are the sparrows to which Our Lord alluded: though “two for a penny”, not one can fall to the ground without the God the Father caring (Matthew 10:29).
So Godden describes children as they are, or were in the 1950s, before the Sexual Revolution and technology robbed children of childhood. Godden also describes their mothers’ daily battle against the dirt–literal dirt, mostly coal dust–that was once such a part of English life that most novelists didn’t bother to mention it–not the dirt, not the efforts, not the miraculously white collars of the poor.
Scottish Muriel Spark mocked the British poor’s mid-century obsession with cleanliness; here Godden celebrates it as a heroic struggle against the odds. And I was very much struck by Godden’s minute descriptions of such everyday details. They take a keen eye and an interest in the everyday, the commonplace, the familiar. She might have neglected them, as so many of us neglect the details of our own everyday, commonplace, familiar settings.
I myself prefer to sail off in my imagination to past times or exotic climes. A crumbling street in Frankfurt, Germany holds more romance for me than the long concrete pavements of my childhood neighborhood in Toronto, Canada. I do not think this is wrong, but I think it a shame that so far I have not been able, like Godden, transfigure the commonplace. Something to work towards, I think.