This month I’m leaving my childhood and early adult books behind because I want to tell you about Elizabeth Goudge and two particular favourites from among the many books she wrote between 1934 and 1974.
Elizabeth Goudge was born in April 1900 in the cathedral city of Wells, Somerset. Her father taught in the cathedral school, and when she was 11 became Principal of the Theological College at Ely, set on its high and windy hill above the Fens. Her mother came from the Channel Islands, and she often visited Guernsey and stayed with her maternal grandparents.
Elizabeth was not educated or equipped for the modern world, but her life was rich in the places she knew and loved and the many books she read. Eventually she was sent to a girls’ boarding school in Hampshire – a school which taught her how to run a house and arrange flowers and be presented at court. “Jane Austen would have felt at home in the boarding school I went to” she said in her autobiography, ‘Joy Of The Snow.’
However the world of English Literature came alive for her there. After school her mother suggested she go to Art College and possibly teach crafts to children. The college was a success but she didn’t find a job for a while.
Then her father was moved to Oxford as Regius Professor of Divinity. Her mother wasn’t happy there and became ill, the house being too dark and damp, the city too noisy, and before too long she and her mother moved to a bungalow near the sea in Hampshire and lived there every summer returning in the winter to warm fires in Oxford which, thankfully, drove out most of the damp.
It was around this time that she began to write, and we should be eternally grateful to the publisher who, on receiving three of her early plays sent them back and urged her to write novels.
Her first, ‘Island Magic’, built around her beloved Guernsey and its tales, was published in 1934; ‘Middle Window’ and ‘City of Bells’ in 1935. She had a wonderful gift, made a little historical knowledge go a long way, and in the process transformed the everyday world into a place of magic and wonder.
Although she was not afraid of plumbing the depths of suffering, she knew depression herself, she could lift her readers up into a world where faith and hope could achieve more than they or her characters could imagine.
The two books I’ve chosen – a difficult choice since I love all her books so much – are examples of two genres which she made very much her own.
‘The White Witch’ is a historical novel set in the time of Charles I and the civil war. It explores the consequences of mindless bigotry and prejudice; the battle between love and duty; and the faith and treachery taking place in so many hearts and minds. One thread is set among the ordinary folk of an Oxfordshire village whose lives are turned inside out by the rhetoric of the main players, and the other follows those who are serving one side or the other in more secret ways.
Froniga is the white witch – a wise woman who works with herbs and healing spells – and who is loved by the Romany tinker, Yoben. He carries messages here and there, as does the artist Francis, who has just painted a portrait of two children at the manor house. But all is not as it seems even among them, and alongside love, redemption and hope, jealousy, trickery and tragedy grow from the soil of this war.
At the beginning of the book Yoben visits Froniga in her cottage:
“She dropped her cloak on the floor and came into his arms with the simplicity of a child. She could be a woman of wiles when she wished to be, she could queen it with any woman in England, be snow or fire as the occasion demanded, but with Yoben she was always without guile. He had an honesty and humility that seemed to free some spring of freshness in herself, and an undemandingness to which she would have gladly given all that she proudly withheld from the greed of other men. Ten years ago, when she had first known him, it had puzzled her that he would not take it. ‘I am a man to whom the love of women is forbidden,’ he had said to her then, and she had answered, her eyes full of pity for the torment she felt in him, ‘There are more ways than one of fulfilling love, and the hardest way can be the best.’ “
My second choice is ‘The Scent of Water’ set after the Second World War. [And whichever edition you buy please ignore the pictures on the cover which are totally inappropriate to the contents of the book]
The two main protagonists in this novel are both called Mary Lindsay; one a frail woman with mental health problems, and the other the daughter of the older Mary’s cousin. They only spend a few hours together when young Mary is a child, and from that brief meeting grows this story.
Forty years later the younger Mary is in an executive position in a government ministry when she discovers her older namesake has died and left her house to her. On an impulse she cannot understand she resigns her post and goes off to live in a village in the Chilterns.
The heart of the book is her exploration of country life, of the life of her namesake and especially of the courage she had shown in learning how to accept her disability. In the process of this, younger Mary inevitably learns more of herself, and of the other inhabitants of the village – from the intellectully fearsome vicar, through the nouveau-riche couple with East London roots up at the Manor House, to the children next door, and the blind writer across the green.
Many chapters are taken from older Mary’s diaries, so the point of view swings between the cousins in fascinating echoes and patterns.
This book is much quieter than ‘The White Witch’, there are no traumatic episodes or exciting adventures; nevertheless it is just as powerful, just as deep, just as moving, and I think I’ve read it more often than any other of Elizabeth Goudge’s works.
When older Mary has won a long, hard battle with her parents and succeeding in buying a house for herself in the country away from the ‘smart city people’ she writes in her diary:
“I was indoors for a month before Christmas. I got very tired, settling in, and though there are not many people here I had to get to know the few there are. But they are so different, these few, from Mother’s friends. I think they would all be called rather odd people. When Lady Royston [from the Manor House] came to see me after I was better and said, ‘Was it liver, dear?’ and I answered truthfully, for I’m always going to speak the truth here, ‘It’s my mind. I get very afraid,’ she only said, ‘Camomile tea last thing at night,’ and did not seem to think me pecuiliar. . . . . And two days ago Sir Charles came to see me and brought me a Christmas present of red and white chessmen, and taught me how to play. ‘Send for me when you want me,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing like chess when you feel low.’ And so now they all know about me and I don’t mind.”
You may only know Elizabeth Goudge as a writer for children – ‘The Little White Horse’ is her best known book, but please explore her other work. You will find it wonderfully enriching.