The Writer Who Inspired J.K.Rowling
For a book first written in 1946 to remain in print up to the present day, gives a good indication that it must be something special.
“The Little White Horse” written by the late novelist Elizabeth Goudge won the Carnegie Award for its author as the best children’s book of the year. Ever since it has continued to be a favourite with children and continually re-printed. Now it is also available on audio tape, read by Miriam Margoyles in the BBC Cover of the series. It is now in the process of being made into a film.
When she was interviewed on T.V. after the first Harry Potter book had brought her fame, J. K. Rowling mentioned “The Little White Horse”, saying it was her favourite book as a child and had possibly influenced her own writing.
So what does the book offer and what are the magical ingredients that continue to make it so popular?
The setting of the story is a West Country village in the 19th century. At the time she wrote it, Miss Goudge had been living in Devon for several years and had absorbed much of the local folklore about magical and mythical creatures. She seemed to know instinctively what would appeal to children.
The mix of fantasy and reality made both humans and animals stay alive from start to finish and the well planned plot kept readers guessing to the end.
Moonarce Manor Park where the heroine Maria Merryweather comes to live was based on Compton castle very close to where Elizabeth lived. It is possible to visit there today and still see the old well where the moon Princess was said to have hidden her pearls so long ago, at the start of the long standing feud which Maria succeeds in bringing to an end. In the best tradition of children’s books, all ends happily ever after, but not before many scary events have held its young readers enthralled.
The Carnegie Award for “The Little White Horse” had come soon after another success for Miss Goudge. In 1944 she had won an MGM prize in America worth $30.000, (most of it went in taxes) for her novel “Green Dolphin Country” making her a best seller. Until then, although she had been writing since the early 30’s and had gained many appreciative readers she had not been famous.
She already had two books for children published. In 1940, soon after coming to live in Devon, she had written “Smokey House”, using stories she had been told about the local pub in earlier times. Then in 1942, “Henrietta’s House” was published in which she wrote again about the people features in her second novel “City of Bells”, which she had based on her childhood home of Wells. Although “Henrietta’s House” was meant for children, I suspect many of her adult readers also found it enjoyable.
Elizabeth’s love and empathy for children was always apparent in all of her books and it was this and her equally discernible love for animals that drew many readers to her writing. Every book had children and dogs incorporated into the story. The influence of home and family was central to her characters.
She never married, being one of the generations of women who were “surplus” after the slaughter of so many men in the First World War. In her autobiography “Joy of the Snow”, Elizabeth made no secret of the fact that she would love to have been married and had children, though acknowledging this would not have given her the same opportunity for writing.
The next book she wrote for children “Make Believe” was published in 1949. It used stories from her mother’s childhood spent in Guernsey and where Elizabeth herself had spent many happy childhood holidays. Again she used some of the same characters that she had put in her first novel “Island Magic”.
Probably her least known book for children is “Valley of Song” published in 1951. It is set in the village of Buckler’s Hard in Hampshire during the 18th century when it was an important centre for the building of some of the most famous sailing ships of the period. Elizabeth loved Buckler’s Hard which she had known first from her school days. She had already written about it in her Eliot Trilogy novels. She said “The Valley of Song” was one of her own favourite books, but she wrote it during a sad time in her life and maybe this sadness seeped into the book.
In 1964, several years after moving away from Devon, but perhaps still feeling somewhat homesick for it, she wrote “Linnets and Valerians” which appears to use her old village in Devon as a background to the story and uses some of the local lore she remembered hearing. Again it is another great adventure with lots of action and wonderful characters, like Ezra, the one legged gardener who talks to the bees; Lady Alicia with her pet monkey Abendego and the awful Emma Cobley, the local witch.
One of the reasons for the long popularity of the “The Little White Horse” is that the first generation of its readers, remembering their own love of it couldn’t wait to share it with their own children, and perhaps, surprisingly it had worked its magic for them too. One young internet reader reported on Amazon as saying, “I was really sorry when I finished the Harry Potter book, but I think The “Little White Horse” is the best book ever!”
So, possibly the huge success of the Harry Potter books is that JK Rowling has “tuned in” again to the needs of children for stories with magical ingredients as in “The Little White Horse”. The first edition of the book, published by the University of London Press was wonderfully illustrated by an artist called Walter Hodges. Elizabeth was so pleased with the way his illustrations portrayed her characters, that she dedicated the book to him.
As many of her admirers will know, Elizabeth Goudge was a very modest person, and although when she wrote her autobiography in 1974, “The Little White Horse” was in its seventh issue, she made no mention of it.
The book she said she would most like to be remembered for was her novel “The Dean’s Watch” set in her favourite home town of Ely.
I feel however Elizabeth would be pleased to think she has “handed on the torch” for more magical stories in another generation to such an imaginative writer as J.K.Rowling.