The Kitchen Madonna, written in 1967 by renowned author Rumer Godden tells the story of a young boy's love for his family's Ukrainian housekeeper and his determination to make her feel at home.
But Marta is desperately unhappy. Gregory's mother believes it is too lonely for her.Marta was a refugee, driven from her village by soldiers. Marta had been shot at by the soldiers and she never saw her parents again. Marta liked the kitchen in her home where everything was done, cooking, eating, sitting and sleeping. This astonishes Janet especially when she learns that Marta's family slept on top of the oven. Marta tells Gregory and Janet that their kitchen is empty, that it feels empty.
Gregory who never forgets, waits for a week before he finally asks Marta what exactly is missing. " ' In my home, Ukrainian home,' said Marta, 'We make a good place. In the corner, there' and she showed an angle of the room. 'A place on top of cupboard, perhaps, or perhaps on shelf. Little place but it holy because we keep there Our Lady and Holy Child.' " Marta tells them that they keep a "picture" crusted with gold, "with gold and stones, pearls, rubies..." and that there were pieces of cloth on the picture as well. Gregory understand that Marta is talking about a type of icon. Gregory becomes determined to find Marta an icon.
Trips to the British Museum, and to Rostov's - a jeweller in Panton Place don't quite provide Gregory what he's looking for. Rostov's is far too expensive and the store clerks are dismissive. However, when Gregory and Janet unexpectedly seek shelter in a church during a rainstorm, it is in the church that Gregory receives his inspiration. Hanging on a pillar is a sort of picture. "It was a Madonna and Child, a Jesus-Mary, in a heavy painted frame, but both Mother and Child stood out of the picture - 'Because they are dressed whispered Gregory - dressed as Marta had described them in stuffs and gold. The crowns were gold lace carefully cut; the veil and cloak were blue edged with silver and stuck with sequins and beads that glittered. The Mother's robe was red, patterned with silver and the Child's small robe was red too, covered with silver and beads." The two children read that this is a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland. Janet believes this is Marta's "icon" but Gregory tells her its not really and icon. Looking at how the picture has been decorated, gives Gregory an idea of just how he might make a picture for Marta so that their kitchen is no longer "empty".
As is often the case, helping others has the most unexpected consequences.
The Kitchen Madonna is the first of several classic Rumer Godden books that will be reviewed on this blog in the coming months. Godden was born in 1907 in India, where she lived in the town of Narayanganj which is now part of Bangladesh. Rumer had an older sister Jon who was quite beautiful and popular and two younger sisters,Nancy who was her father's favourite and Rose who was the youngest. Rumer and her sister Jon lived in India until the end of World War I and then were sent to England to attend a High Anglican boarding school in East Grinstead. This was a terrible experience for the two sisters. Eventually, after being sent to various schools, Rumer settled in at a school while Jon was sent to art school. Rumer returned to India when she was seventeen and opened a dance school.
Rumer had a social awakening after reading A Passage To India, coming to realize the racial and class prejudices that existed at that time. It wasn't until after she married in 1934, that Rumer began writing. Her first book was Chinese Puzzle in 1936. Rumer Godden wrote several children's books including The Doll's House, The Fairy Doll, Candy Floss and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Among her more popular adult novels were Black Narcissus, In This House of Brede and Five For Sorrow, Ten for Joy. A dominant theme in her adult fiction is the loss of innocence and how that affects life. Rumer Godden converted to Catholicism in 1968 but much of her fiction has a touch of Catholicism and spirituality throughout.
She once stated that she felt writers are " simply an instrument through which the wind blows and I believe it is the Holy Spirit that makes the artist creative. My writing is something outside me that I've been chosen to do and I think that is what has enabled me to go on."
The Kitchen Madonna is a beautifully crafted story portraying the sacrificial efforts of a young boy to help alleviate the sadness of his family's live-in housekeeper, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman named Marta. Marta fled her home, was shot at by soldiers and suffered the loss of her parents. The exact details of what happened are not presented, but the reader comes to understand that Marta is deeply unhappy. Gregory is a sensitive, quiet boy who intuitively understands that "Marta's sadness had nothing to do with her country, it was of now." He is determined to learn the root of her sadness. Marta tells the Thomas family that their kitchen has no "good place" - a place for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child. Marta explains that this is a special kind of picture with "gold and stones, pearls, rubies...Sometimes real, sometimes no." Gregory immediately grasps that this is a kind of icon.
Marta's sadness touches something deep within Gregory and he becomes determined to get her an icon. Although Marta hopes God will send her a picture, Gregory knows that he's the one to get the picture Marta desires. " 'God won't give her that picture, nor Mother, nor Father. I shall,' said Gregory." However, this proves far more difficult than Gregory or Janet imagined. They encounter a series of obstacles mostly due to the fact that they are young children without much money nor a means to travel around the city of London. But each obstacle is overcome with ingenuity and sacrifice that demonstrates the children's love for Marta and results in .
Their journey begins with a trip to the British Museum that will take most of their money. Janet is reluctant to give up her shillings because she is saving up for a pony. However Gregory admonishes her. "You mustn't be selfish." he tells his younger sister. They soon discover that an icon costs much more money than either of them have. And their money woes are compounded when they lose Janet's purse on the way home from the church near Rostov's store.
Gregory and Janet's sacrifices take on a much more personal note when Gregory actually begins creating the picture. When working out how to make her picture, Gregory decides he will use the frame from his beloved ship picture and paint it gold. But soon he discovers that he needs even more than that. Gregory is unable to find any scrap of material from Madame Ginette's donations that will work for the sky. Janet attempts to help, trading a pencil-sharpener and "a whole packet of peppermints" for a piece of pale blue velvet. When this doesn't work, "Janet almost cried with disappointment." Janet feels her sacrifice of peppermints was useless. When Janet suggests that he use the sky from his "ship picture" Gregory is breathless, questioning "Cut up my ship picture for Marta?"
But this supreme sacrifice for what Gregory calls a more important picture, results in the picture coming together much more quickly and easily. "It was the first right step and almost at once he found the next...he found a piece of coral coloured cotton that, he suddenly saw, would make the veil and the Baby's robe..." Gregory's final sacrifice comes when he offers Mrs. Bartholomew his watch in exchange for a pound of toffee.Barty as she is called refuses his watch, instead writing him an I.O.U. Although Gregory is completely prepared to sacrifice his watch it is not necessary.
In helping Marta, and with each sacrifice, Gregory undergoes a journey that changes him. At the beginning of the novel, Gregory is described by his sister Janet as someone who "hardly ever does anything". "Gregory is a quiet boy, always first in his class at school but oddly out of things at home. 'He puts himself out of things,' Janet would have said and Mother complained, 'Gregory keeps himself to himself.' " Gregory's quietness is not understood by his mother who states, " 'He never hugs you as Janet does,...He's so wrapped up in himself that sometimes I wonder if he has a heart -- and he's so possessive." Gregory also has the knack of never forgetting, he doesn't like to touch people and the Loft where he reads, is off limits to all.
As Gregory works on obtaining a picture for Marta, he begins to come out of himself. For example, when they are at the British Museum, it is Gregory who surprises Janet, asking where the icons are kept. He even carries on a conversation with a complete stranger in the icon room and gets their next lead in the search for an icon. At Rostov's, Gregory "quailed" at the shop door, fearful of entering, but he eventually works up the courage to do so. And while the shop's vastness and brightness makes Janet want to leave, Gregory is not afraid. While Janet "jibbed like a frightened little calf" , Gregory states that he wants to see the owner. "His voice, in its clearness and grandeur, reached all around the room, even to where an older man with white hair was writing at a desk at the back." When the men in the shop ridicule the children, Gregory stands his ground, "We didn't come here to be laughed at." he tells them. Although the visit to Rostov's ends badly Gregory has seen the kind of icon he believes Marta has in mind.
Gregory has his own space at home which he calls the Loft. It has a drawing table similar to his architect-father's drafting table, and he also has a favourite "painting of a little ship ploughing along in a rough sea under a pale blue sky with cotton wool clouds". Instead of asking Janet to leave his special space as he normally does, Gregory allows her presence as he considers the problem of Marta's picture. As he works away, Gregory notes, "Janet still breathed down his neck as he worked but something seemed to stop Gregory from snapping at her; perhaps it was those two pairs of pictured eyes that looked so steadily at him. He was patient with Janet and let her stay where she had never been allowed to stay before, in the Loft. He even let her go on with her questions."
When Gregory is unable to find the pieces of fabric for the Madonna, he acts on Janet's suggestion to visit their mother's milliner, Madame Ginette. Puzzled by Gregory's request, Madame Ginette asks him to explain why he needs the scraps. "For the first time Gregory smiled and then he, who never, as Mother complained, told anyone anything, told Madame Ginette about Marta, the good place and the Kitchen Madonna." When Janet learns of Gregory's visit, she is stunned that Gregory went to Madame Ginette's alone AND that he spoke to her.
Determined to finish the picture, Gregory continues to reach out to those who might have what he needs. When he needs more wrappers for the border of the picture, he decides to visit the sweet shop, whose proprietor he has never spoken to and whose name he doesn't know. "What made him decide to carry out this business too without Janet he did not know, but he went alone and stood studying the toffees in their big glass jar." His explanation of why he needs the wrappers, stuns Mrs. Bartholomew. "Who would ever have thought you were that kind of boy. Proper stuck-up I thought you were: never a word for anybody...."
And when Gregory and Janet present the picture to their parents, telling them the entire story of how it came to be made, Gregory gives his sister her credit, " 'Because of Janet,' said Gregory -- and Janet glowed with pleasure -- 'Because of Janet I found a way to make the picture after all.' " When Gregory cannot understand his mother's tears, she explains,
" 'What have you don?' said Mother through her tears. 'Lots of things. You began by sharing Rootle with Marta. You gave up your ship picture. You were ready to give up your watch, and here we all are in your Loft where you would never let us in.'....
'Yes!' said Mother. 'You let us in, Greg, and you have come out,' said Mother, which they did not understand."
The Kitchen Madonna is such a sweet story, chronicling how small acts of love can have such significant consequences in our lives.
The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden
Toronto: Macmillian and Company Ltd. 1967