The first thing that strikes the reader is that this is a collection of short stories, not a continuous narrative. Each chapter is complete in itself, an episode in an idyllic childhood
The book is full of autobiographical references and places. The windmill and the walled farm house were both close to her Grandparents home. Descriptions of the island are faithful to the Guernsey of the Edwardian era, the book set in the Channel island home of the du Frocq family, who live in the farm house of Bon Repos on the island of Guernsey.
The first chapter, Make-believe, shows us the passion that Elizabeth had developed for the theatre, something she was introduced to and shared with her Father. It concerns an actor of obvious worth and talent coming back to his roots, perhaps a prototype of the character David Eliot, whom we would all grow to love in the future.
Chapter Two, St Georges Well, deals with one of the folk tales of the Island that her mother used to tell her. We are also taken a little deeper into the character of Petronelle, whom I think is Elizabeth’s mother. Both of them wanted to be doctors, both were immensely practical, and both were out door tomboys with good looks.
The whole book is littered with fairy tales and folklore, from the St Georges Well and its curative power over children’s illnesses, through the fey water lanes that ran down to the sea, the burning of “varaic”, seaweed, on fires in the poorer homes, where the lace that was still being made by hand, to the Wild Forester’s Ride that took place every November.
Rescue on the Island, is a charming description of St Peter Port, the main town on the island. “The front of his dark little bow windowed bookshop looked out on La Rue Lihou, a narrow cobbled street so steep that climbing it was like climbing the side of a mountain, but the window of his sitting room at the back looked straight onto the harbour.” (Goudge 1949 p 65, 66) The Chemist next door made the famous Verbena scent that she writes about in her biography. “He might have been a fairy man in disguise and perhaps he was. It was he who manufactured the Guernsey verbena scent and it was a magic perfume” (Goudge 1974 p 56) It also deals with a perennial Goudge theme of people being too quick to throw the good of the past out with the bad, out dated things, which progression to often does.
New Moon is my personal favourite and is the best story by far in the book. The children are wonderfully horrid. I can remember the misery of buying new shoes for school myself, and Colette I think is Elizabeth in this tale, and the experience of losing the world of myth and wonder are hers. “Do you believe in Fairies?” Peter Pan asks each maturing child. Some of us still do, even if childhood is rapidly disappearing down the wrong end of a telescope. “Her faith in fairies had been until this moment the foundation stone of her existence.” (Goudge 1949 p 95)
The description of St Pierre by night is magical and would appeal to most children. “The black jumble of roofs and chimneys, falling so steeply down the rocky cliff to the sea, were only visible as queer crazy shapes like witches’ hands reaching up to pluck the stars out of the sky, and below them the narrow twisting streets were deep clefts in the rock where hobgoblins lurked” (Goudge 1949 p 98)
Luckily for Colette and I believe Elizabeth too, an experience occurred that reasserted her belief. How else to explain the otherworldly nature of her children’s books, where fairy tales are rein-acted and dreams come true.
Good Old Albert is a fill in story, a childhood romp taken with a donkey through the summer of a bygone age. But in Doing Good, we are back in the auto-biography of Elizabeth, giving away her toys as a child each year to those less fortunate than herself. Her parents, her father in particular wanted her to see for herself how the working class lived, the poverty and hardship, and how the act of offering was as beneficial for herself as for them.
We can surmise that the stories have been written as a series, as we are reintroduced to the cast in each one, their mannerisms and appearance reiterated. It is the small grit in the shoe of these tales, just taking the edge off their perfection.
The children of the du Frocq family were the brother and sisters of her Mother, their exploits and interest the same. Their home although a modern Victorian Villa, was close the cliffs and had an uninterrupted view of the sea. The farm house of Bon Repos was not far away. For an only child growing up in a world of adults in a small cathedral town, the island must have been a Paradise of freedom and companionship.
Her Mother came from a large family, and Rachael and Andre are pen portraits of her Grand Parents, although she felt that she had failed to capture her Grandfather and hadn’t been able to do justice to the memory of the man. She says about him:”I think of the music of Mozart when I think of my Grandfather. The great composers seem to represent different types of spiritual greatness in men. Mozart has his dancers moving in measure; but the dancers are sometimes ourselves, not always the heavenly spirits. He is so often gay and tender in those first movements of symphonies and concertos, as though delighting in us, and in the second movements, while we rest, he sings to us. It is often of himself he sings, and then delight is only on the surface; below is heartbreaking sadness. But he does not wish to break our hearts and the dancing comes again, but faster, as though urgent to cover up what was not intended should be revealed. I am reminded of my grandfather.” (Goudge 1974. p. 44, 45)
Her Grandmother, like Rachael was a tall, dark, beautiful, woman, whose strong personality dominated the family. Elizabeth felt that he grandmother didn’t altogether approve of this spoilt child, with her distressingly English looks, but she couldn’t help but admire her. She must have seen a lot of her own Mother in Rachael, both were strong women.
The last two stories are based on island traditions that Elizabeth loved. The wild old magic of the Foresters Ride and the story of Midnight in the Stable, which is layered with meaning, from the belief that the animals kneel in homage to the Christ Child, to the story of every day duplicity and sin, being transformed into a holy and reconciling action. It has all the beauty and message of her Christmas works, topped of with an icing of snow. As her visits to the island were in summer, this isn’t something she would have been able to write about first hand, but I imagine her grandfather, a keen Meteorologist, would have told her if this rare phenomenon had occurred. This story alone would make me want to buy the book.
I haven’t been able to find out if the November custom of the Forester’s Ride did or does in fact take place or if Elizabeth made this legend up. Maybe it was given up after the advent of the car on the island? Elizabeth usually adapts rather than creates this sort of detail.
Although its formula and content make this one of the most dated of Elizabeth’s works, I think that it gives important information about her background, enabling those of us who admire her to gain a better understanding of her, and what shaped the woman who wrote such wonderful books. Islands were to be an important symbol to her all her life, and it was imprinted here in the Island Magic of her childhood visits.
Goudge.E. 1949 Make-Believe Duckworths
Goudge E. 1974 Joy of the Snow Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0 340 185317