With its key ingredients of longing, isolation and repression, little wonder this dark tale has inspired a new three-part BBC adaptation by Amanda Coe, the screenwriter behind Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, who won a Bafta for her adaptation of John Braine’s Room at the Top.
In Black Narcissus, the BBC has produced beguiling lockdown drama with a twist. The nuns of St Faith’s are as trapped in their hilltop convent as any teenager or frazzled parent currently yearning to escape the family home. Not only the Order’s regulations and the nuns’ determination to succeed in their mission, but the impassibility of the mountain tracks, confine the fledgling sisterhood to their unsuitable headquarters. And unsuitable they certainly are. The palace’s inconvenient backstory is one of luscious erotic indulgence. Its memory is kept alive by the blasphemous alcoholic caretaker, Ayah, whose attachment to the long-dead Princess Srimati suggests Mrs Danvers’ obsession with her former mistress in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, to which Black Narcissus is often compared as an exercise in interwar gothic. Although on the surface the two novels are markedly different, both – by authors who were exact contemporaries, born in 1907 – explore aspects of unfulfilled female longing and overheated imaginings.
Godden herself was no stranger to escapist fantasies. The second and, as her father made clear, least attractive of the four daughters of Arthur Godden, manager of the Brahmaputra River Steam Navigation Company, she was brought up in some splendour in Narayanganj in East Bengal in British India. At five, she began writing hymns; she progressed to autobiography at eight and published her first newspaper article when she was 12. Like du Maurier, her desire to become a writer was powerful and all-consuming. Chinese Puzzle, the first of almost 30 adult novels (she also wrote for children), was published in 1935, when she was 28. She was 90 when, in 1998, her last novel appeared. She wrote throughout both her marriages and the quarter century of her widowhood; with her first husband, Laurence Foster, she had two daughters, Jane and Paula.
Over a long career, Godden never changed the working habits that she established in the Thirties. Every morning, at 9.30am, she settled down to write. She did so by hand, using a fountain pen, certain that the use of a computer or word processor encouraged writers to be profligate with adjectives. Her cleverness included her mastery, where necessary, of tremulously lush prose that nevertheless has a sparse quality. So it is in Black Narcissus: the novel’s throbbing menace owes nothing to overwriting.
Much of the book, says Coe, is concerned with “shifts of mood and internal processes. One of the challenges as a screenwriter adapting the novel and bringing it to screen is to find a way to render those external and make them dramatic.” Coe’s adaptation uses conversations between the nuns to indicate their changing states of mind, while her Sister Clodagh, played by Gemma Arterton, experiences flashbacks to a lost romance.
A gravestone glimpsed on a family picnic at Cherrapunji in hilly Assam when she was 18 inspired this, Godden’s best-known story. Like other wealthy British families, the Goddens escaped the heat of summer in the Indian plains by decamping to a hill station. Godden recalled the book’s genesis in her memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep: “I wandered away from the others and going down a steep little path came upon a grave; it was marked only by a small headstone in the shape of a cross with a name, ‘Sister…’ and two dates… No one could tell me anything about her.”
In Black Narcissus, Godden recast the location for her family picnic as an abandoned palace surrounded by clouds, “on the wild hill a mile above the River facing the greater peaks of the Range”. Setting is key to events in the novel. Black Narcissus is armchair travel to a region that is simultaneously real and unreal, much as the sisters of St Faith’s find it, part glossy holiday brochure, part celluloid fantasy.
In the second volume of her autobiography, published in 1989, Godden quoted a favourite Indian proverb: “Everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time, but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.”
It is the lesson forced upon Sister Clodagh over the course of Black Narcissus – and, perhaps, a lesson for many of us at the moment.
Black Narcissus is on BBC One on Dec 27, 28 and 29