Children & Childhood

Article of the Month September 2009
Deborah Gaudin

Children & Childhood
(In the books of Elizabeth Goudge.)

Elizabeth was born and grew up an only child of loving parents in the safe and privileged environment of Edwardian Wells. She herself tells us that she led a life of bliss and comfort, secure in the knowledge of being loved and cared for. One of her first memories is of her mother and father and herself ” The three of us were on the same hearthrug together, our arms about each other and my mother was saying in her clear voice A three-fold cord shall not be broken.” ( Goudge p 5 1974). Her life revolved around the gentle and well ordered lives of her parents, a clerical father and her well educated mother.

She was fortunate, most children in the Edwardian age had left what little schooling they were going to have and were working by the age of nine. They would have been seen as valuable contributors to the family income. Children ‘s education was arranged in such a way that they could attend school and hold down a job at the same time, a state of affairs that did not change until 1918 when the school leaving age was raised to 12. Schools still arrange long summer holidays which used to coincide with harvest time.

Elizabeth like the majority of children living then could have grown up having no contact with other children not in her social class. Class conscious parents were worried about their off-spring not only catching physical infections, but catching bad manners and speech as well. This was not the case in Elizabeth’s upbringing, she says, ” My parents were more aware of the suffering of the world beyond the charmed circle than were many of their friends, my father because he had been born in London and as a young priest had worked in a factory town, and my mother because she was deeply compassionate and had made it her business to know.” ( Goudge p60 1974) Any one who has read The City Of Bells will remember the children giving away their toys at Christmas, something that Elizabeth herself was encouraged to do every year. At a very young age she was made aware of the unequal nature of social existence and its harsh realities stayed with her for life.

About herself at this age Elizabeth says” I have met many delightful untarnished only children but I was too spoilt to be one of them. I do not see how the spoiling could have been avoided. In my early years no one expected that my mother would live long. She herself was quite sure she would not and like so many sensitive extroverts her own suffering caused her not only to be acutely aware of illness in others but even to imagine it was there when it was not. She considered me a delicate child who might not live long either. Whichever way she looked at it fear of being parted from this adored child, whom she had nearly died to bring into the world, was always a shadow upon her. And so she, who if she had been a well woman would have been the wise mother of many children, was in illness the reverse.” (Goudge p 76 1974 )

Contact with children of her own age, would have occurred only when she was on holiday with her Oxfordshire or Guernsey cousins. On the Island away from the strict conventions of the cathedral close and her anxious parents she had a larger degree of liberty. Her childhood Island reminisces are of family beach parties where she hunted in rock pools and climbed cliffs, or helped her grandfather with his weather station, an idyllic time, her “rainbow days ” as she describes them.

At home in Wells she attended a small day school run by a gentle governess, Miss Lavingham, undoubtedly in the company of children of the local Clergy. One of her friends was Dorothy Pope to whom she was to dedicated her book Henrietta’s House I’d like to think that a “Hugh Anthony” also attended the school. He comes across as such a forceful and likeable boy, just the sort of companion needed by a lonely young girl, whose only masculine company would have been her busy father and their gardener. Somewhere along the way, instead of becoming self obsessed as many only children do, perhaps bred into her, perhaps learnt from Mrs Kennion, the house keeper of the Bishops Palace whom she loved to visit, was born a love of children.


When as an adolescent Elizabeth was returned to Ely at the end of her school education, her parents were perplexed as to what to do with her. It was her Mother who suggested Reading College of Art, as it would lead to teaching, and Elizabeth had “always loved children.”

There is a revealing piece in the forward to A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson written by Elizabeth in the early fifties. She speaks of her own room in Wells, and unwittingly paints a picture of a rather lonely child who like Robert Louis looked out of the window for inspiration and companionship. There is however no sense of self pity, instead she sees that time of her life as having a “very special magic.” Of her childhood Elizabeth says, ” Childhood then was a world to itself. The door which shut off the nursery wing from the rest of the house made a very real dividing line between the life of the child and the adult. Behind it Nanny and her charges lived in their own kingdom, from which they issued at stated times to shed the light of their countenances upon the outer world. Visitors from this outer world, even mothers and fathers, did not enter the kingdom without hesitating at the portal and saying politely “May I come in, please Nanny?” This state of things made for magic in both worlds, the same sort of magic that an island holds. There was a concentration of quietness and orderliness within the world, a feeling of adventure in leaving it, that fostered imagination and a sense of beauty.”
( Goudge p 23 1955.)

Here we find the template for the Eliots nursery and Ellen who looked after them so devotedly with the help of the long suffering Margaret., a throw back to the Edwardian era she had grown up in

All her life Elizabeth found the openness and lack of guile that most children posses to be very engaging, and any child that she came into contact with seems to have taken to this shy, retiring woman. She had the time to listen to them, probably taking their views and concerns seriously, as Mrs Kennion had hers.

Like the aunts that she speaks so eloquently of in her auto-biography, Elizabeth too had young relations to stay.

” I looked out of my window not long ago and saw almost an exact replica of “A Good Play.” The two small boys who were staying with me had climbed the roof of the wood shed, and with flag flying were going ” a sailing on the billows” there. They had dragged chairs to the top of the wood shed and provisions from the larder, and it was really a better place than the stairs because there was no way of getting them down”
(Goudge p 29 1955.)
A vivid picture of her nephews from a holiday taken with their Aunt, and obviously having a great time, knowing that Aunt Elizabeth would have secretly been thrilled with their imaginative play. It was probably Jessie who had the unenviable task of enticing them safely back down. I still see Elizabeth as more Lucilla than Margaret, certainly during this stage of her life.

Although Elizabeth doesn’t explore the psyche of seriously troubled children, the portraits that she draws of them are not black and white; Ben with his fears and phobias, Tommy with his selfishness and anger, Caroline’s chronic shyness and their relationships with there mostly absent parents are at times painfully described.
The little girls who are evacuated from London in The Castle On The Hill and who are then orphaned with their feelings of abandonment and confusion.
The terror and fear of the young John from the Rosemary Tree, and the schooling and upbringing of his three girls all speak of an inherent understanding of the anxieties suffered by the young.

Like all experienced writers, Elizabeth writes about the world she inhabits and the people she comes into contact with. Her young nephews, a god daughter of Jessie’s who stayed with them in her school holidays and her neighbours children would have kept her informed about the rapidly changing world of child care and education.

When the Goudge Convention visited All Saints church at Peppard Common last year, we were met by Sylvia Seymour who had visited Elizabeth many times when delivering the Parish Magazine. “She always enquired after my children” she said, ” and was pleased to hear any news about them and their lives.” Elizabeth retained her childhood sense of wonder and adventure, something which enabled her to extract maximum enjoyment from the small pleasures of life. She too goes for the heart of an issue as she perceives it without guile or subterfuge. her empathy is with the children and the young at heart, it is always the adults in her books that are the grabbers, the self obsessed and selfish. They have to be reminded by their off spring to take the right course and make the right decisions, decisions that effect all of their lives.



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