My Favorite Elizabeth Goudge Book
From: Deborah Gaudin
Category: Category 1
Date: 27 Nov 2006
Time: 13:50:59 -0000
Remote Name: 126.96.36.199
When asked to write a critic of my favorite Elizabeth Goudge book, my mind goes into free fall. Which sort of book am I going to choose? Her anthologies of verse, especially The Book of Peace and The Diary of Prayer are books I go to almost daily. I love to source the quotes that liberally sprinkle her works, and these are usually contained here. I find them inspiring, a real insight into the way she thought, felt and lived her life. The books on the Eliot family were a kind of soap opera of their day, written long before The Archers was even broadcast on the radio. Who could not help getting immersed in the lives of such interesting people, who made human errors, had human weaknesses and failings, but managed to overcome them for the greater good of the family. So different from the hedonistic self centered lives of current Soaps. But my favorite novel is one of the later works, The Dean’s Watch, which is set in Elizabeth’s Home of homes, the fens of Cambridgeshire and the small cathedral city of Ely.
The reason that this work speaks to me is that it gives us insight into the creative process; it is about the inner life of the artist. Although the thoughts are Isaac’s and he is a Clock Maker not a writer, the experience is the same. We are given the unique opportunity to peer into Elizabeth’s creative mind. The story starts as a painting, a painting of the interior of a Clock makers shop. Her sentences are short and concise, as she draws us into the story.
” It was a frosty night of moon and stars. The city was still.” We see the craftsman sitting at his workshop table, mending the watch of the Dean of the city. She speaks of the linage of creators who have gone before, “he liked to feel that through the centuries men of his trade, had worked just as he was working now”, a feeling of comfort and continuation, denied her and Isaac in family life. She too felt the anchor of the past, the roots of creativity and love. It describes how craftsmen like the shape of things, “Everything had shape, as though the sun was rising behind it” Finally, in one breath taking revelation, how an artist feels upon the completion of a piece of work. “He did not consciously tell himself that it was his eternity, but he had a confused idea that the dark would not entirely get him while the pulse beat on in this clock.”Isaac, like Elizabeth battles with depression every day of his life. Many geniuses do. She never complained about her illness, but it must have been extremely debilitating. “any more than he could help it that in his dark times all the beauty of the world did not gladden him.” How terrible for someone who loved to write about the glory of the world to feel like this. Maybe the swing back towards the light is what made her such a good writer. I will look today because tomorrow I might not see it.
She tackles all the difficult emotions, telling us about the despair and lack of faith experienced perhaps when her parents died. “She was forty five years old and she had not believed that such a thing could happen to her. Through the years her faith had grown so strong that she had not believed she could lose it. The living light that had made love possible had seemed to glorious to ever go out, yet now it had gone and left her in darkness It had been for nothing she thought” This beautifully describes the physical exhaustion that grief brings, and with it the thankful and wry knowledge that a bottle of tonic really does help. We are tied into our bodies and the well being of ones physical being is linked to the mental. She takes us right through the darkness and out the other side in a way that only someone who has been through the experience can do, that moment when you realize that not only does life plod on, but the people one thought were lost, are found again in ourselves. “The shutter crashed down and the bird flew in on a beam of light Even if there was no God, even if dateless night was the end of it all, how could she lose them while she lived and remembered.” (Dean’s Watch p119) Now she can reaffirm her faith, understanding that God is everywhere, in the darkness as well as the light, the darkness of womb, stable and The Cross.
The story centres on pairs of lovers, who live and work in this isolated fen land city. Firstly there is Isaac Peabody, clock maker and eccentric and his warped, spinster sister. An unlikely pairing, that start the story hating each other, doomed to rub along together in life, each convinced that the other would be nothing with out them. They have been divided by a stern ruthless Father, and an invalid Mother, and have to learn to look beneath the surface to discover their similarities and virtues. Then there is Polly and Job, both orphans, both brought up in the local Orphanage, where they see each other only every Sunday in church, across the aisle. They meet again as a House Maid and Fishmonger’s Apprentice, and through all Job’s climb from poverty to security and an honourable profession, she stands by him with tea, love and sympathy. Lastly, there is the central pair of doomed lovers. These were inspired by a chance encounter from Elizabeth’s past. She had been taken by relations to a ball at Greys Inn London, and was enchanted with the Edwardian splendour of the occasion. The beauty around her had coalesced in the form of “a white lily of a woman”, whose quietness set her apart from the throng of party goers. She was obviously waiting for some one, and when he came, he was much older than her, sad and ugly, but with a lovable face. It was apparent at once that they were deeply in love, but didn’t wish to flaunt it before the world. They danced together a few times then disappeared into the night never to be seen by her again. Elizabeth herself, said that she did not know why the woman transformed into the at first loveless Elaine, but when the time came to write the book, ” I took it out with the man and woman inside” (Joy of the Snow p 257)
Adam Ayscough took on many of the virtues and characteristics of her father, the Rev Goudge. The book is full of descriptions of the life that Elizabeth led in Ely between the wars, in places they mirror pieces written in her auto biography Joy of the Snow. For example, the way she describes the winter sport of Fenland skating. “winter days when everyone went skating on the flooded fields close to the river, or sometimes in a very great frost on the river itself, while overhead the great sky flamed slowly to sunset.” (Dean’s Watch p26) While in Joy of the Snow p111 she writes “The children and the grown ups too, emptied themselves joyously out of the little city and down onto the ice if the frost was hard enough and lasted long enough it was possible for the river Ouse itself to freeze over ” She tells us of summer days when “riding parties cantered down the centuries old grass roads between tall hedges of flowering crab apple trees,” taken from (Dean’s Watch p 26) and in Joy of the Snow p 113, “narrow droves were not places where one wished to hurry, they were too beautiful. They were bordered with stunted trees, sloes, and hawthorns and wild crab apple.”
From the time at the beginning of the book when Isaac stands under the Rollo tower and looks out over the night time city, it must be packed with the remembrances of Elizabeth’s favourite home. She describes her feelings beautifully in Joy of the Snow p 100. “We all have one home in particular which, as the years go on and we move from one to the other, seems to contain the other homes within itself. I have a Russian toy, a wooden painted egg shaped box representing the figure of a peasant woman, a smiling protective mother figure. Inside the box one within the other, are four smaller peasant women, all delightful, but the one who holds them is the best of all. Five boxes and I have had five homes, all of them lovely, but Ely is the mother-figure.” I know that some people regard this work as one of her darker novels, not always easy to emphasis with, but it conjurors up this part of the world so well, that I can feel the wind blow across my cheek, and see the “Ship of the Fens” riding the sky line. It is a place of great spiritual power that drags one back again and again. When she describes Isaac Peabody”like a fly crawling up a wall, scuttling across Worship Street, cowering beneath the Porta,” I can understand the feelings he had. The cathedral does seem to bear down upon you, crushing the breath out of a puny human body. It hardly seems possible that it was built by the labour of other humans, but rather a convulsion of the earth has thrust it up from the core of the surrounding fens. I have also visited it on a winter’s day of sparkling sunlight and racing clouds, when all light and colour is drawn to itself. The Goudge family lived here for twelve years, and the Spiritual strength of the place and the protection and support it gave to Elizabeth, is evident in every line of the book. Love and its triumph over adversity is a theme of all of Elizabeth’s books, but this book in particular speaks of the depth of sacrifice it takes to love unconditionally .