When Elizabeth embarked on this book, Britain was a place on the edge of darkness. War was bubbling under the surface of an old establishment Britain. The government announced that it would triple the size of the R. A. F. The first steel rolled out of the Corby mills and Britain protested on an international level over Germany’s introduction of conscription.
It was a country of new ideas and a change in government, Stanley Baldwin was elected as the head of a national government, still led by the Conservatives but with a reduced majority, and Clement Atley became the leader of the Labour party. Robert Watson-Watt demonstrated the use of radar, an invention that would play a large part in the War to come,
We have no way of knowing how much of this Elizabeth assimilated, although her father Henry must have been a socialist at heart, with his liberal values and interest in the conditions of the working man.
But in the face of change Elizabeth did what she always did and retreated into an unthreatening past. She set her new novel in the small city of Wells in Somerset amid the blue Mendip hills during the opening of the Edwardian age. It was the same era that Elizabeth had grown up in, passing her formative years in the cathedral close, in a secure and privileged background.
The story opens with Jocelyn going to visit his Grandparents after fighting in the Boer War. He has returned damaged in body, mind and spirit, rudderless until he is washed up on the steps of the empty shop in the market square. His journey and the relationships he forms in this quiet little city shape the rest of his life.
The pivotal point of the book takes place at Christmas and gives us some wonderful insights into the way Elizabeth spent her own Christmas and the way she felt about this festival.
Jocelyn has been living in the market house, which he turns into a bookshop, for some months. During the clear out he has come across the manuscript of a poem/play that the previous occupant had written then discarded. As he begins to piece it together he becomes aware that it “was amazingly beautiful poetry, but though the plot was mapped out to the end, the actual writing was only a little more than half finished” (Goudge p 169)
The poet’s name is Ferranti, a friend of Jocelyn’s grandfather until he disappears one night. Jocelyn feels a strange connection with this unknown poet, who is going through a period of self-doubt and worth much as Jocelyn is. He is compelled to wrestle with the same problems and decides that the work is of such merit that it deserves to be completed. The problems of finishing someone else’s work are finally overcome and he finishes on Christmas Eve. He has promised to read the story to Henrietta and the family and Christmas morning sets off to do so, gloomy with the prospect of a boring day.
From here the story takes off, leaving for a while the idyll of Wells and journeying into the “real” world, the mean streets of London with their evil-smelling gas lighting up only poverty and hopelessness.
We also glean information about how Elizabeth herself viewed Christmas. Like Jocelyn, she was invariably gloomy about the whole charade.
“I have a very gloomy friend who continually remarks a quotation from Homer I think “My friends, even this will pass and I am afraid I feel that way about Christmas.” She once wrote to a very good friend
“For years Christmas day had been for him a day when one ate too much so as not to disappoint cook, stifled a great many yawns and made a lot of silly jokes to hide an inner sadness that was both a lament for romance and belief that had faded and a vague sense of unsatisfied expectations”
(Goudge City of Bells p171 )
Not the sort of remark you expected her to make. But of cause, she was referring the material layer of the season not the reason or ritual of it.
Elizabeth did see the “starlit sky full of wings and a manger with a baby in it….”
(Goudge City of Bells p171) She still also loved the small fairy tales and customs of the day, such as the stirring of the Christmas pudding and the wishes that were made, the leaping flames when it was set alight the manifestation that they would be granted, Father Christmas bringing the “noble” turkey on his sledge, and the gathering around the fire to listen to stories.
Jocelyn meditates much as Elizabeth must at some time have done on the fact that if people who were far superior to them in intelligence and intellect could believe in the gift of God then they would be stupid to dismiss it. This is the start of his journey, the “toys of religion” put aside for a more considered approach.
Did the deepening of Elizabeth’s faith start as a child with the beauty and pageantry of Christmas in the cathedral? It must have influenced her.
I was watching a fascinating programme called “How To Build a Cathedral” back in June and one of the cathedrals featured was Wells. During the Middle Ages, the statues on the west front of the cathedral came to life on special days and sang to the people, made possible by secret galleries which connected them and were accessible to the choir. I find it strange that Elizabeth didn’t know this. What a wonderful image. For a few brief moments, architecture, sculpture and a kind of sacred theatre fused, and this small cathedral in the English West Country became Jerusalem itself. The Reformation of the church would have discontinued all such practices, as smacking of idolatry and popish artefacts. But it seems to have been totally airbrushed out of the Edwardian times when Elizabeth and her family lived there.
It is an image that Elizabeth would surely have woven into her story if she had known about it. She writes in loving detail about the commemoration of Wells patron saint and benefactors and All Saints’ Day, “when the choir at evensong sang “Who are whose like stars appearing?” and the figures on the west front surely swelled a little to find themselves so appreciated.” (Goudge p 141/142). A perfect opportunity to allude to the statues singing.
Henrietta often wishes that the statues could laugh and talk, and it is the practicable Hugh Anthony that reminds her they are made of stone.
For Elizabeth, this very special birthday was always the start of her religious year, marking it out, reaffirming her faith as Christ was reborn. She wrote to the same friend, “As I am writing I send my Christmas card for you and Jay. Frank (the American boy) took it when he was in the Holy Land with Freddy last April, and I loved it so much that I borrowed the negative from him and had some copies enlarged and mounted. The Garden of Gethsemane is over the wall to the left (the trees are growing in the garden) and as Frank was just going to take the photo a shepherd came by leading his sheep. It doesn’t look as though the scene had changed much in 2000 years does it?”
This was the gift Elizabeth possessed, the art of bringing into people’s lives something incredible that happen 2000 years ago and making it relevant and meaningful today.