The Death of Noble Godavary by Vita Sackville-West

As is fairly obvious by my reactions here on the Ramblings and also on social media, I had a bit of a book hangover after finishing Victor Serge’s Notebooks. A big, immersive read like that always tends to have that effect, and it’s often so hard to decide what to read next. So I did my usual trick of flinging myself into the nearest book with wild abandon, and as it was one that I had actually *planned* (gasp!) to read this month that was a kind of bonus…

I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings that I’m a member of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; they’re a lovely bunch of people and we discuss Virago (and similar reads) as well as having themed reads, occasional meet ups and even a wonderful Virago Secret Santa. Every August is designated All Virago/All August to try and get us all reading the Viragos (and Persephones and other similar books like the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint) which we have lurking on our shelves. I never restrict myself to only Viragos, as I’d just rebel – and there is of course competition from #WITMonth – but I do try to squeeze in at least one book, and the plan was this slim volume which Simon at Stuck in a Book highlighted during his 25 Books in 25 Days marathon. It sounded marvellous, and as he mentioned it in conjunction with Vita’s “The Heir” (which I absolutely loved), I had of course to procure a copy… Hey, I’ve got round to reading it fairly quickly, haven’t I? 😀

But to get to the book. At just over 100 pages, “Death…” is really a novella and it tells a dramatic and often dark tale of family inheritance. Our narrator is Gervase Godavary, and as the book opens he’s just learned of the death of his uncle Noble. He is therefore, by necessity, called back to the family home up north (The Grange), and it’s a place which inspires mixed emotions. Whereas “The Heir” told a tale of a man seduced by a house, Gervase (and the rest of the family) seem to be repelled by their home. It’s painted in dark tones, with damp, fog and dramatic moorland weather as the backdrop, and there is a kind of creeping feeling of – well, not exactly dread, but the place certainly seems to have a hold on the family that stays with them even when, like Gervase, they move away.

The Godavary family are a complex brood themselves, and the addition of Noble’s second wife (a volatile Italian women) and their daughter Paola, adds to the drama. In fact, the latter’s characterisation dominates much of the narrative, as does she the family; one member is utterly besotted with her, and even Gervase (who is not) acknowledges her power. There are all kinds of family tensions, the reading of the will and some final dramatic action which, as Simon says, is extremely memorable! I shan’t say more about the plot for fear of spoilers, but it certainly is a compelling read with some stunning imagery.

Nobody spoke; the dalesman trod with their deliberate gait, better accustomed to a slope than to the level; the dogs with lowered noses followed mournfully to heel, each to each; man, dog; man, dog; man, dog. The dogs were like little hyphens, separating the men.

“The Death of Noble Godavary” seems to have languished in obscurity, which is a great shame because it contains some marvellous and atmospheric writing. It’s not without its flaws (as Simon says, the family relationships are a bit unclear at time) and in fact could probably have done with being expanded into something a bit longer and more fleshed out. But despite this it really is a great read – full of almost Gothic drama and oozing tension, I found myself glued to it and finshing it in one setting!

Later in the day the coffin was brought, and we could hear the men upstairs, nailing. Paola alone remained detached and serene; such things seemed to have no power to touch her. The others were taken up with their own preoccupations; Austen and Rachel with the devouring secret of their liaison, Michael with his hungry and tormented pursuit of Paola, Stephen with a general nervousness and a desire not to get in the way. And throughout it all beat the hammers nailing down the coffin.

I’m not enough of an expert on Vita’s writing to know how many shorter works she wrote and what are available or out of print; however, as this one has been unavailable for absolutely decades, a good case could be made for collecting her novellas (and any short stories?) into one volume. “The Death of Noble Godavary” ends on a slightly ambiguous note and I would have loved to see her taking the aftermath of the action a little further. But it’s an affecting story which ramps up the tension throughout and is thoroughly enjoyable. It also reminded me how good Sackville-West’s writing was and how I need to read more of her books (goodness knows, I own enough…)

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My edition of “Death…” was published in 1932 as an Ernest Benn Ninepenny Novel (what fun!), but as Vita is a Virago author I’m allowed to count her for this month! And I’m very glad I chose to read this one, as it was such a vivid and wonderful experience – thanks for bringing it to my notice, Simon! 😀