Bird In The Tree
I have grown tired of sorrow and human tears;
Life is a dream in the night, a fear among fears,
A naked runner lost in a storm of spears.
So begins the poem used to prefix Elizabeth’s novel, Bird in the Tree. It must have spoken directly to her heart at a time in her life when she truly felt that life was “a fear among fears” A book which she began in the security of a loving family and the fame of her successful writing career, was taken up again in the darkness of her fathers tragic last illness and subsequent death. Her mother’s grief and frailty a palpable sorrow, and all around was the chaos and fear caused by the outbreak of the 2nd World War. Now it was she who was head of the family and must provide both a home and income.
Elizabeth always frail had a nervous break down under the strain and went to recuperate at Harewood House in the Hampshire marshes. She retreated here just as the battered Eliots would come to do. The house was run by a local lady called Mrs Adams who had visitors recommended to her that would appreciate the peace, quiet and homeliness of the house. The break did help her to get her life and grief into perspective and once back at The Ark in Devon she did, slowly, painfully begin to write again.
But the writing for once went badly, and no doubt with her Father’s words ringing in her ears, “your not a professional writer if you only write when you feel like it” she got completely bogged down and the characters refused to act. “At one point I reached deadlock. Usually my characters manipulate me, not I them, but now they suddenly went dead as dormice. I could see no way through, and nothing that could possible happen next.” (Goudge 1974)
There have been various theories as to where the break in the narrative occurred, but there seem to be so many possible places, from the time of Lucilla’s dream in the newly found house to the telling of Lucilla’s story to Nadine and David, that I don’t have a definitive choice. Sylvia Gower in her book discusses this in some depth. To me, not knowing the circumstances until recently, the stream of writing seems continuous.
But her method for over coming this difficulty was a typically Goudge one to make. She prayed about it, a bit sheepishly because it was one of the things she was asking for for herself, but it worked. “In desperation I prayed that I might dream the rest of the book, and I did. In a dream full of lovely light the story unrolled smoothly and afterwards I only had to write down what I had dreamed.” (Goudge 1974)
The story revolves around the Eliot family, their loves, passions, life and spiritual growth. It is set in one of Elizabeth’s special places, that piece of the Hampshire coastline opposite the Isle of Wight. They became her surrogate family, maybe the sort of family she felt comfortable in. She wrote, “Of my various book people the dearest are the Eliots. I am almost ashamed to confess how devoted I am to them.” (Goudge 1957)
All of the characters are lovingly drawn, their inward and outward appearances, down to their faults and foibles The matriarch Lucilla, whose regal habit of attracting all to her, is a portrait of her Mother with perhaps a pinch of her maternal Grandmother, while the quiet strengths of Margaret and Hilary her children are characteristics Elizabeth possessed herself.
But to David, Lucilla’s beloved grand son. Elizabeth poured out the entire frustrated Mother love for a son she would never physically have.
He is handsome and charming, an actor in the mode of the young John Gielgud who she had seen play Hamlet on stage at the Old Vic during the 1929/30 season. He is a lover of words and poetry as she was, and felt life intensely, suffering depression and nervous breakdowns as she had done. He has been attributed to a young Henry Goudge, and although I’m sure that his good looks may have been, his morals certainly weren’t. I can not imagine Henry having an affair, definitely not one with his uncle’s wife. David also struggles with his faith and is envious of Lucilla in her strength of belief and her ability to put it to use in her every day life, a trait Henry either never had or overcame early in his life, his faith was unshakable.
After I had visited Buckler’s Hard, a place that is special to the Eliots as it was to Elizabeth, another role model occurred to me. The chapel at the Hard is dedicated to the son of Lady Poole, who was called David, and was a keen sailor and sports man. Could the love and romance of this have imbued her fictional son?
“Visitors to Damerosehay, had they but known it, could have told just how much the children liked them by the particular spot at which they were met upon arrival. If the visitor was definitely disliked the children paid no attention to him until Ellen had forcibly thrust them into their best clothes and pushed them through the drawing-room door at about the hour of five; when they extended limp paws in salutation, replied in polite monosyllables to inquiries as to their well-being, and then stood in a depressed row staring at the carpet, beautiful to behold but no more alive than three Della Robbia cherubs modelled out of plaster. If, on the other hand, they tolerated the visitor, they would go so far as to meet him at the front door and ask if he had bought them anything. If they liked him they would go to the gate at the end of the wood and wave encouragingly as he came towards them. But if they loved him, if he were one of the inner circle, they would go right through the village, taking the dogs with them, and along the coast road to the corner by the cornfield, and when they saw the beloved approaching they would yell like all the fiends of hell let loose for the afternoon.” (Goudge 1938)
So starts the first book in the Eliot trilogy, and at once the spell is cast, Elizabeth wishes us to know that we, the readers, will become part of the inner circle of this remarkable family. In essence nothing much happens, like much of life all the dramas and traumas are under the surface. The children are living an idyllic life with their Grandmother by the sea, in a large house, looked after by Margaret, Ellen and the long suffering nanny Jill. The boys are taught by their Uncle Hilary in the vicarage and the youngest, Caroline at home by Lucilla. Despite the fact that they miss their parents, and as all children, are more aware of the dangerous undercurrents than their parents think they are, they live life as most of us would like our children to do. They have the freedom of garden, house and surroundings, dogs, books and the stimulus of love to round them out and make them grow.
All of the children are sensitively given and one wonders where and how the spinster Elizabeth gained her knowledge of them. Granted, her Father always had a bevy of students surrounding him, but at Ely when she would have been old enough to take notice of the compassionate way he cared for them and their stories and responses, she would have spent most of her time at boarding school.
She did have 2nd cousins and young people from both her own and Jessie’s family, who were part of her life and they all came to stay with her, but how big a role she played as family “Aunt” she doesn’t reveal.
Perhaps she learnt her sure but light touch from Mrs Kennion, a friend of her Mother’s whom she visited in the Bishops Palace at Wells. At that time she was only a child and an inarticulate and shy one at that. Elizabeth says of her “But perhaps also she loved children in general with that painful love of a childless woman. She certainly knew how to talk to them in her soft Scottish voice, treating them as though there were no age barrier at all.” The voice down the years of one childless woman to another.
But the Eliot children live. Caroline, the prime shy child, youngest of the brood, a Daddy’s girl whose love for her father is all consuming. Her knowledge that Mother really prefers boys and she will never be able to please her. Her love of tidiness and dogs and her shinning cap of hair balanced by the thumb sucking of the insecure, (and Ellen’s method of curing it,) vivid insight.
Ben a sensitive youth, swinging from boyhood to a young man in the course of half an hour. His response to David when he thinks he may become a threat, his moods and awkwardness typical of his type.
And, Tommy, where did he arrive from? That bold modern youngster, always striving to leave the old behind, until he comes to realize later on the value of family and roots. A loyal brave mischievous soul, messy, loud and aggressive, a proto-type of many a modern home, I want and usually gets.
The older Eliots can only visit Damerosehay, so that for them it takes on a quality of retreat and renewal, enabling them to face the stresses and strains of the modern world. As Elizabeth drew strength from Harewood house and the atmosphere that Mrs Adams created, so they are strengthened by their time in the Hampshire marshes and the presence and good sense of Lucilla. During one such visit, David arrives with the news that will tear the family apart, and Lucilla finds herself allied with her home in an attempt to prevent this happening. This clever device enables Elizabeth to weave in all the local history that she loved to collect and tie them into the house and family giving to both depth and colour.
One of the weapons that Lucilla employs is the telling of her own history and how it might relate to the current crisis. In the tale she speaks of a young Doctor with whom she falls in love. He is a facsimile of her Uncle James; a relative of Henry’s whom the family often visited in London. He too had started off life as an ordinary G. P. but quickly gained a reputation and the wealth that goes with it, as an imminent children’s doctor. He once saved Henry’s life when he became gravely ill with pneumonia.
This first introduction to the Eliots published in 1940 became one of Elizabeth’s best selling novels and gained notoriety when it was cited by a Judge in a divorce court. He suggested that the couple went away and read it, which they did and then came to the conclusion that they would stay together for the greater good of the family.
But in the first instance the books values would have appealed to a wide range of people. It was published during the war, when all resources including paper were in short supply. But it was chosen above others not only for the quality of its writing and because she was an established author, but because it espoused the core values of hearth and home that the men were fighting for.
It seems strange that Elizabeth should chose a poem by Arthur Symons to begin a story of spiritual growth. He was a dissolute young man, vilified by the press for his bohemian lifestyle. But this shows Elizabeth’s compassion and insight, she despised the sin not the sinner , he is the mirror which she holds up to David. His words are life affirming and yet he struggles to match the high ideals he sets himself, just as David does. All people are flawed and the one of the great gifts of the artist is that they rise above this and show others it is possible to do so.
The symbol of renewal that had stayed with Elizabeth all her life from the Cocky Olly bird of her youth to the black birds in the ilex tree at Harewood house became a symbol of peace and tranquillity for millions of people world wide. “”Who of us goes through life companied only by the flesh and blood people whom we live with day by day?” (Goudge 1957), only children and those like Elizabeth of great imagination.
Elizabeth Goudge 1957 The Eliots of Damerosehay Hodder & Stoughton
Elizabeth Goudge 1974 Joy Of The Snow Hodder & Stoughton