“It is impossible, Elizabeth wrote, to live in an old city and not ask yourself continually, what was it like years ago? What were the men, woman and children like who lived in my home centuries ago, and what were their thoughts and their actions as they lived out their lives day by day in the place where I live mine now?”
Her book Towers In The Mist is the result of all these musings. She had not wanted to leave her beloved Ely and the situation was made almost intolerable by her Mother’s swift decline and long illness. The young, shy Elizabeth was forced to take on the role of hosting the great and the good of Oxford, as part of her Father’s increasingly powerful and intellectual social circle. He had moved to Oxford in order to take up the Regius Professorship of the college, a vocation he thoroughly enjoyed. Elizabeth did not. It seems unfair that her mother who was imminently suitable for the task was not up to performing it. One of the prevalent deciding factors in Henry accepting the post had been the status it would infer on his beautiful, clever wife.
Elizabeth peoples her home with a young vibrant family called Leigh, who are coping without a mother, as she herself does, the matriarch of the household being a bedridden Aunt. Their father is Canon Leigh, a dignitary of the college, much like Henry, and it is tempting to say that Elizabeth brings in the young, vibrant family of the Leigh’s to fill the emptiness of the big old house. Maybe they helped keep the ghosts at bay. It’s a tale as frothy and sparkling as the foam on Raleigh’s beer tankard, tempting to label it a lesser novel. One written to fulfil literary obligations rather than one inspired. It is the novel about which Henry said “You make a little knowledge go such a long way”
Faithful is a poor aspiring scholar who in the company of gypsies has made his way to Oxford where he dreams of becoming a member of that great University. Gypsies seem to have held a fascination for Elizabeth as they play a part in more than one of her novels. During a May Day procession he meets the young Leigh twins who help to make his dream a reality. Joyeuce, the inappropriately named eldest daughter of the Leigh family is struggling to find some time for herself in the busy life of surrogate motherhood that she has been forced to take on. These are the two main characters of the story, through whose eyes Elizabethan Oxford unfolds, with all its riots, dirt, squalor and beauty. In its pages we meet with the good and great of the age, ending with the visit of the fairy queen Elizabeth I. The whole book is a mixture of history lesson and guided tours of the city.
This is a coming of age novel, charting the uncertain waters of love, aspiration and work. But like all teenagers throughout the ages the desire to “kick over the traces” of convention is ever present. As perhaps Elizabeth longed to do but never dared. There are shades here of that mysterious unknown and unsuitable suitor left behind in the Cambridgeshire fens. Which gate did she meet him at I wonder?
At the time this was written, Chamberlain was telling the world that it was “peace in our time.” How remote and shining the inviolate isle of Elizabethan Britain must have looked in those troubled times. We had beaten the Spanish Armada; surely we could do so all over again? Like all of Elizabeth’s work it is filled with the quiet optimism that all will be well, and the scent of nostalgia breathes from its pages as potent as violets after rain.
I first read this as a teenager in the omnibus edition of her work Three Cities of Bells, and was impatient with this sandwich filling between two books that I loved. Perhaps she had to write it, to convince both herself and her father that she was taking her writing seriously, viewing it as a contractual obligation of her profession not as a hobby.
Goudge Elizabeth Towers In The Mist 1938 Hodder & Stoughton