Henrietta’s House

Just holding this book in your hand is guaranteed to bring on feelings of nostalgia. The picture, by R. L. Steel who also provides the illustrations in the book, shows a young girl opening a pair of wrought iron gates onto a smooth green lawn. On top of the brick built gate-posts sit two opposing figures. One is of a typical West Country pixie, the other is a small naked child, covering its eyes with a fore arm. Mature trees obscure your view into a garden. The girl who is the Henrietta of the title is dressed in all her Edwardian Sunday finery. Her pink dress has a full skirt over a petticoat, a ruffled hem and a tight belt with a large bow. The matching bodice has short puffed sleeves and a ruffled collar to match the hemline. On her plaited black hair dressed with pink bows is a large brimmed sun hat, tilted back so that her heart shaped face and smile of welcome are clearly visible.

Underneath the dust jacket the boards are the colour of the Chinese lantern seed heads which currently fill my brass jug, with a small black line drawing of the house seen through the open gates. The pages are printed on a thick, cheap paper, it was printed in 1949 and paper for books was still in short supply. It was probably printed on “re-cycled” paper, without the bleach used to whiten such today. It smells slightly musty and has obviously been a well loved present as a childish hand has written in the front, ” Wishing Jennifer a Happy Birthday, Brenda and Christine.”


The dedication reads;- ” For Dorothy Pope. There were once two little girls, one had fair hair and lived in the Cathedral Close of Torminster and the other had dark hair and lived in the blue hills above the city, and they were friends. Now that they are grown up they are still friends, and the one who lived in Torminster dedicates this little book to the one who lived in the blue hills, because it was she who saw the White Fishes in the cave. ” ( Goudge 1942. )

The fair haired child who lived in the city is obviously Elizabeth herself, and her friend Dorothy the template for Henrietta. I find it comforting to think that they remained in contact throughout their lives. It is an indication of Elizabeth’s loyalty and commitment. Elizabeth herself says that she never revisited any of the places she lived in because she wanted to remember them how they had been and not how they had become. So perhaps they corresponded with each other as she did with so many friends and admirers, a habit inherited from her Father.

It is a gentle story, a sequel to Sister of Angels and City of Bells, a tapestry woven with words around the charm of an Edwardian summer, when as Elizabeth says ” this story is set at the beginning of the present century, and in those days the world was often silent and sleepy, and not the bustling, noisy place that it is today.” ( Goudge 1949.). She is of cause referring to the 20th century and not the 21st.

In 1941 as the story was being written, British troops were fighting in the desert against Rommel, the Germans were taking on the might of Russia and The Americans were about to enter the war after the massacre at Pearl Harbour. A gloomy time, with no end of the war in sight and on the home front the introduction of clothes rationing. What better place and time to escape to than the opulence of Wells in a time before either World Wars had blighted her generations life.

The story starts with Henrietta waiting on the platform for Hugh Anthony to return for the holidays from boarding school ending their first separation from each other, and chronicles the delights of a summer in the countryside surrounding the tiny city where Elizabeth lived out the first few years of her life.

It contains many of her childhood memories from the way that hat elastic hurts the chin, to stately picnics in the hills
The story is as pedestrian as the procession of carts that convey the party to the picnic, and therein lies its charm. We are not hurried on to the next piece of drama, but have time to observed that ” The canterbury bells, and sweet williams, the roses and the sweet peas, the delphiniums and the syringa were a blaze of colour and scent in the gardens and all the birds were singing”(Goudge 1942 p 42 ).

Hills for Elizabeth were, as for so many of us, a place of heightened spirituality. They house the gods, myths and legends. They are the place of the solitary, the Hermit, the Wise Man. We ascend above the valleys and plains of every day life and looking back and down are able to see the bigger picture, to view where we have come from and how far we have travelled to get here.” Looking back he could see the great grey rock of the Cathedral and the old twisted roofs of Torminster, dwarfed by distance into a toy town that a child might have played with, and looking ahead, far up against the sky, he could see the blue hills growing in power and might as they drew nearer to them. He felt for a moment gripped between the grey rock of the Cathedral and the grandeur of the hills, two mighty things that time did not touch.” ( Goudge 1942 p 65)

All of the people invited on Hugh Anthony’s birthday picnic end up getting “lost”. None of them with the exception of Grandmother’s party arrive at their preordained destination. But all of them are enriched by their experiences, they all attain something vital to their well being, even if like the Dean they didn’t at first know that this was necessary.

The Dean recaptures his innocence and love of his fellow man, Hugh Anthony loses some of his pride and arrogance. Grandfather rescues another soul in distress, Jocelyn and Felicity lose their car and find fairy land, and Henrietta, well Henrietta finds her hearts desire.

The strange figures sitting on top of the gateposts are explained as they come from the Cathedral at Wells and must have captured the young Elizabeth’s imagination. The explanation of their meaning given in the story by Henrietta’s Grandfather sounds as if it had originally been told to Elizabeth by her father. ” Replicas of those two figures in the chantry in the south choir aisle of which I told you Bates. The cringing human soul and the mockery of Providence.” (Goudge 1942 p 94) Elizabeth herself was to call her future Devonshire home Providence Cottage, so the Symbology obviously stuck with her.

I thought at first that the caves Elizabeth writes about so vividly were the ones at Wookey Hole, especially as the Old Man in the ruined house could have been a metaphor for the Witch of Wookey. with his wax figurines and pins. But there are no recorded sightings of cave fish in Wookey, and the caves themselves weren’t open to the public in the time that Elizabeth lived here.

Cheddar gorge however is close and one of the caves there is actually called the Cathedral cave for its stunning similarity to a cathedral interior. I love the idea of being able to look up inside rabbit burrows and see the rabbits looking back at you in astonishment, a picture an imaginative child would conjure up. Cheddar too has its underground river complete with little rowing boat, its vast system of unseen caves riddling the Mendip hills like a honeycomb.

I have been unable to find the fish, all sources telling me that the lead content in the water, (the hills have been mined for lead since before the Romans arrived,) is too high for fish to survive. So maybe, the fish were flashes of light reflected back by a carried lamp, a code between friends for a shared magical experience. But I like to think the girls saw them on that long ago Edwardian afternoon. ” Look! cried Hugh Anthony excitedly, kneeling beside the still, inky pool, “There are white fishes here. Quite white. Like Ghosts.”
The Dean put his oil lamp on the ground and knelt beside him and together they watched fascinated as the strange white shapes swam round and round in the black water, their ghostly bodies rippling back and forth as though they were weaving some never-ending pattern upon the black loom of the water.” ( Goudge 1942 p 102)

The story was written at a time when the bells of all the churches and cathedrals of England were silenced, only to be rung in a time of national emergency. They were to signal the devastating news that we had been invaded by Germany. How people must have dreaded the thought of hearing them ring. It would have been an especial sadness for Elizabeth, whose life so far had been lived and to a large extent regulated by the bells of the cathedrals her father worked in. No wonder she wanted to transport herself and her readership back to a time of innocence, when the bells would have rung out for worship and celebration as they were intended to be.

LIttle White Fish



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