The Rosemary Tree

The Rosemary Tree

The Rosemary Tree is Elizabeth’s contemporary novel set in 1950’s Devon. When the book was published in 1956, motor ways hadn’t opened up the countryside; it was still inaccessible to most people. Railways were the transport of the mass of the population, Beeching not having had the chance to wield his axe, and the wireless was the centre of home entertainment, even though the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II had been watched on Bakelite televisions by 20 million people.
In America Martin Luther King was fighting for Black Rights using passive resistance, and here in Britain, Prime Minister Macmillan was telling us we’d never had it so good. Albert Finney and Richard Briars were promising young students at RADA, Just Walking in the Rain by Johnny Ray was on everyone’s lips and a stage production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood was headlining The Edinburgh Festival. In the literary world, Dodie Smith’s enduring book 101 Dalmatians was published, Rosemary Sutcliffe was immersed in Roman Britain and children were reading about the Adventures of Biggles and the magical land of Narnia.

We were all still caught up in the undertow of the war, its pale colours leak through into this sad, earnest book. The publishers were unhappy with it, as they thought it was too rigidly Christian to appeal to a mass market. Everyone was tired out, not fully recovered, rationing had only ended two years earlier, and they must have all watched the unfolding of the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising with trepidation. Surely they were not watching the beginnings of yet another conflict?

Elizabeth’s war years had been spent in Devon, first at the Ark and then after it had been built Providence Cottage, and compared to many both she and her mother had an easy war. Their bungalow “Innisfree” had been sold to a family anxious to escape the dangers of London. Devon must have seemed remote enough to be safe. There were no large towns near by to attract the bombers, although two bombs were jettisoned in a neighbouring field, on the way back from a raid on Portsmouth. But the shadow of her fathers death hung over the beginning of this period, he died in 1939, the “threefold chord” was broken. Her beloved Nanny was killed in an air raid on Bristol where she had been living with relations, and the end of the war coincided with her mothers last illness, a sad difficult time. She was nursed by Elizabeth, at home, even though at times she didn’t known who was with her or where she was. Elizabeth must have been grief stricken, worn out and dangerously fragile from living on her nerves, a prisoner to both family and war events.

Superficially the story is about of the Wentworth family and how their lives are transformed by “a wanderer from the outside world “who turns out not to be a stranger at all. (Jacket publicity from the book). John Wentworth is the local vicar and also the titular head of the Wentworth family, who’s Great Aunt still lives in the crumbling family manor house gallantly trying to keep it from being repossessed by selling off other assets and managing on very little, while John and his wife Daphne live in the Vicarage. Daphne is an unhappy woman who feels trapped by her family duties and obligations. Their three daughters attend a pretentious, badly run school where the teachers are battling the warped Headmistress, and the illness of one of only two teachers. John’s old nanny Harriet lives with them, now an invalid, but an indispensable member of the family helping them with love, compassion and her hard won knowledge of life and love.

But, the book is really about prisoners, and the differing forms that imprisonment can take.
Michael, the wanderer from outside the valley, is indeed a recently released prisoner who is running from the shame of his crime and the disgust and pity that he sees in everyone who recognises him. But deeper than this is his desperate need to escape the cowardice he believes he displayed in the war and the fatal consequences it had to his best friend.
Daphne and John are imprisoned in the ruts of a failing marriage, staring at each other from ramparts of their own making, John’s of his sense of worthlessness and failure and Daphne from narrowness and the sterility she feels her life has descended into.
Harriet is imprisoned not only in her bedroom but confined by physical pain, left wondering on her bad days why she has been allowed to live such a dependant, useless life.
Miss Wentworth is imprisoned in the past, reliving her days of youth and splendour, rather than coming to terms with the modern world. Even the house has been allowed to atrophy instead of being given a new lease of life.
Mrs Belling is trapped by her own sloth and greed, having obtained the lifestyle she desired where she did nothing and life came to her, so she is totally unprepared when death does.
Miss Giles by her illness and cruelty to the children and Mary by her temper and slap dash attitude to work. The children trapped by the abominable school that all these bad practises bring about. They are also victims of their parents failing marriage; Winkle’s tantrums, Pat’s bad language, Margery’s timidity being the outward symptoms.
Finally, one could argue that the whole book has been taken prisoner in a bizarre twist, as it is to date the only one of Elizabeth’s works to be fraudulently plagiarised, by an Indian writer, Aikath Indrani who renamed it “Crane’s Morning.”

A famous novelist said at a lecture recently, “writers only make things up as a last resort” which is why good writers resonate with us, we know that they have gone this way before us, a strength that Elizabeth uses well in all her work. Here she gives her father’s physical weaknesses and spiritual strength, plus his love of birds to John who also inherits his large correspondence. “Men and women who had been boys and girls at Belmaray and had left the village would persist in writing to him, men he had known in the war, at sea and in hospital, would persist in doing the same thing. All his old friends of school and college days liked to keep in touch.” (Goudge 1956 p146)

John’s home is an amalgam of all the dark dreary vicarages they had ever lived in.” It was a dreary flagged stoned place where an aroma of mice fought daily with a smell of cabbage and fish. However much Daphne opened the window she could never get rid of the smells, for the damp of the kitchen imprisoned them. “(Goudge 1956 p 18) yet another reference to the general theme of the book

But we receive an insight into Elizabeth herself a few pages on as John battles his fear in the garden. “and fought one of the familiar dreaded battles that came upon him almost daily. The sweat came out on his forehead and his fingers clenched upon the dead bird. He was too ashamed of these paltry battles to speak of them. Since his boyhood he had been plagued by ridiculous obsessions, inhibitions, childish fears and torments of all sorts, but in maturity he had been able to keep them firmly battened down; it was only since the war that they had thrust themselves out again in new forms but with all their old strength.” (Goudge 1956, p 23) I think she is sharing with us how she felt , worn out and dispirited, not wanting to take up living again, not knowing where her life was heading or with whom. It was too taxing to make a fresh start and the old ways didn’t quite fit. She couldn’t slip back into her old pre war routine. Maybe after her parent’s deaths, she too “stared at the ink stains” (Goudge 1959 p 119).

Although she could still paint pictures of the Devon she loved. “was at the highest point of the village, and the orchard sloped steeply above it. Below him the old unpruned¬† apple trees were still without blossom, but here and there a plum tree or a cherry tree was a froth of white. In the rough grass under the trees were drifts of wild daffodils, and primroses and white violets were growing under the hedge by the gate. Below the orchard were the tall chimneys and tiled roof of the Wheatsheaf, and to the right the village street with its whitewashed cob cottages wound down the hill to the river and the church. All the cottage gardens had their daffodils and early polyanthus and in the water meadows the kingcups were a sheet of gold. The smoke from the cottage chimneys rose gently, wreathed itself into strange shapes and then was lost in the grey of the sky.” (Goudge 1956 p 81) Very reminiscent of the view from The Ark and the vision of Devon she has the first morning she woke there.

Later on in the book she uses an experience of her own life in Devon which was one of her own spiritual highlights, a symbol of great hope and beauty. She had gone out into her garden after a fall of snow and had been marvelling at the purity and silence of it all when she heard ” a solo voice, ringing out joy and praise. One would have said it was a woman’s voice, only could any woman sing like that, with such simplicity and beauty? It lasted for some minutes and then ceased, and the deep silence came back once more.” (Goudge 1974 p 138)
In The Rosemary Tree, John has the experience as a small boy in his garden, although the season has changed the experience is identical. “And then he heard the voice singing. it was like no earthly music he had ever heard, or ever would hear, though the loveliness of earth was in it.” (Goudge 1956 p 154)

She also speaks movingly of the swing into depression and out the other side, something she coped with all her life. Pages 228/229 show how she perceived the lightening of her world of darkness and the symbols that helped her to climb from her own private hell out into the world again. Another insight is also gained into her way of prayer. The total absorption she strived for in communicating with God, the joys and failures that she suffered. “Today, just for once in a way, his prayer would not be quite so desperately unworthy of the God whose wealth of giving seemed washing through him now in wave after wave of warm life. (Goudge 1956 p229) right down to the whole business of intercessory prayer became no more than an arid discipline” (Goudge 1956 p 231) something most people would not own up to experiencing, it doesn’t get more personal and insightful than that.

We also learn about her creative process and her striving to write verse, even down to the possible kernel of a poem she didn’t get round to creating about Pomeroy castle, as Michael one evening in the study of the manor, tries to write about the vision he sees of the generations of men leaving the castle to fight in the world, finishing with the old beadsman at the end. “Patience with the apparent hopelessness of spiritual growth was the man’s task, patience with the breaking chalks and the smudgy drawing of the artist’s.” (Goudge 1956 p 258) Elizabeth admired poets and poetry believing it to be a “high” art. She was friends with and corresponded with many contemporary Poets of her day such as Ruth Pitter.

But for all the characters that she gives the importance of place to, that feeling of not being comfortable else where, is not a trait she shares, managing the many moves to her different homes well. So she must have had a degree of confidence, an inner strength that she didn’t acknowledge and John just doesn’t have. “he had proved himself to be one of those whose physical life decays if uprooted from familiar soil.” (Goudge 1956 p 99)

Elizabeth is often accused of being a “chocolate box writer” whose worlds are just too good and perfect to ring true. But here in this book at least, nothing is truly resolved, just as in life. What will happen when Mary marries Michael? Will Giles be able to cope on her own, or will she revert to feeling lonely and bereft? Will she be physically well enough to cope? What about Mary and Michael’s marriage? Will he be able to restart his career or make a new one? Will Mary be strong enough to deal with the censure and the possible failure of her husband? John and Daphne have for the present made a new beginning to their relationship, but will Daphne remember to laugh? and will John be just able to remember? How will Miss Wentworth, used to the run of a huge estate cope with living in a conventional house in a village? Nothing is brought to a rounded conclusion and we can only hope that lessons for life have been learnt. Elizabeth isn’t an unrealistic writer; she just chose to illuminate the positive swing and did not give glamour to the darkness.

I approached my re-reading of The Rosemary with certain reluctance. It has always been my least liked of Elizabeth’s contemporary novels, I didn’t fully understand why until reading it now in my middle age for the fourth or fifth time. The reason is it holds up a mirror to show us all our petty dissatisfactions with our lives, all the faults and flaws that we have become used to which become all consuming if allowed to dominate us.

Goudge Elizabeth 1956 The Rosemary Tree Hodder & Stoughton
Goudge Elizabeth 1974 The Joy of the Snow  Hodder & Stoughton

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