Matrilines: Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal :- Feb 2016

Most readers have favourite writers. But sometimes you find that, over time, these change. A writer who spoke to you directly at one age can fade as your circumstances change, while another writer who was formerly less appealing may reveal new value. Certainly this is true of me. There are writers I read and reread as a teenager, in my twenties, in my thirties, whom I still love, but no longer need to read. But there are a handful who have stayed with me lifelong, in whose books I continue to find new things. One of these is Elizabeth Goudge.

I was five or six when I first encountered her, via her Carnegie Medal–winning children’s book, The Little White Horse. It was one of my favourite books as a child, and it remains a book I consider essential to my personal library. I reread it last week, as I prepared to write this piece, and found it as engaging and magical as I always did. Goudge—like Dodie Smith and Rumer Godden, two more of my lifelong writers—wrote for both adults and children, although I suspect these days it is mainly her children’s books for which she is known. For most of her career, moreover, the idea of genre was minor, and all her books were published as mainstream novels. Some were set against historical backgrounds, including all her children’s books; others have contemporary settings. The central concern in all of them, however, is the life of the spirit, and the blending of the mundane and the transcendent, and all of them are in certain ways profoundly magical.

Goudge was a devout Christian and her faith informs all of her works. I can at this point hear some readers of this turning away. But I ask them to bear with me—and with her—for unlike many of the best known religious writers (including C. S. Lewis) she never preaches, nor lays out moral parameters, and, to paraphrase Louisa Alcott, she does not reward the “good” with gilded treats and the “bad” with dire punishments. Indeed, I’m not sure she deals in good and bad at all: she writes rather about compassion and understanding and resolution through empathy. Her work is not showy and it is not melodramatic. It is, however, often surprising and sometimes startling. And she rarely if ever does what the reader expects.

With the exception of her children’s books, most of her work is not what most people would think of as fantasy. The children’s books are all set in a version of our real world, too, though her towns and landscapes in them are imaginary. Yet in all her work the boundaries between worlds are thin. Folklore and poetry, transcendent experience, and glimpses of the immanent pervade them, and her characters—especially the youngest and the oldest—slip between these worlds easily. Her characters channel folktales and legend through their lives and their connections with others. This is most clear in her children’s books, in particular, her three best known—The Little White Horse, Henrietta’s House, and Linnets and Valerians (recently retitled The Runaways). In The Little  White Horse, which is the most directly fantastical of Goudge’s books, the protagonist Maria must explore the history of her family and their ancestral home via a blend of fact and magic—the injustices done by her forefather Sir Wrolf were real enough, but their context and consequences belong as much to the realm of magic and the liminal as to reality. A white horse and a giant dog come and go throughout the history of her family—and her own experience—guiding, observing, and sometimes leading Maria to the discoveries she needs to make. The dog—another Wrolf—is real enough but seemingly immortal, but the horse is a unicorn and a creature of the sea and not to be grasped or owned. The story sounds soppy, and the recent film (titled The Secret of Moonacre) tried hard to make it soppy by replacing the very real magic of Goudge’s writing with sentiment and gloss, but in the book, it is not. Rather, everything is tied together by extra-mundane bonds, so that Maria’s friend and ally, Robin, is at first a boy in dreams who becomes real, and the white horse brings not only Maria but the book’s main antagonist to a solution to the ancient problem they face that is partly realistic, yes, but rooted in liminal experience.

Henrietta’s House leads a cast of characters through a series of experiences from fairy tales, including “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Giant Who Kept His Heart in a Bag,” all set in a realistic landscape and blended with new legends invented by Goudge herself about saints and bandits and the continuity of myths within certain locations. In Linnets and Valerians there is a witch to defeat, and an old evil that has damaged the present. All three books are populated by a rich cast of characters, of all ages, not all of them human (Goudge wrote animals well and with sympathetic realism), all of them nuanced. Unusually for a writer of her period, she includes characters of colour in positive roles, and people with disabilities who have full and valuable lives (this is also the case in her adult books).

Her children’s books are easy reads and highly entertaining. Her adult ones are more challenging. They can be deeply philosophical—Goudge spends more time on the life of the mind than the “what-happens-next” in many of them. Characters make sacrifices that are not necessarily rewarded or even recognised. But as with the children’s books, the adult novels weave mundanity with the liminal. If she were alive and writing today, she might well be classed as a magic realist writer. Thus A City of Bells is both a bildungsroman for the protagonist Jocelyn and a recreation of the tale of the Pied Piper, and the story of the latter—represented by the figure of the lost, perhaps dead poet Gabriel Ferranti—weaves in and out alongside details of Edwardian omnibuses and the problems of bookselling and raising children in old age in a way that makes each add to the depth of the other. And there are ghosts, benign and painful.

The Rosemary Tree is perhaps the most overtly religious of Goudge’s novels, but this element is present far more through glimpses of Otherness and of human attraction to the transcendent than through any direct reference to Christianity (or any other faith—and Goudge presents the latter as valid and true when she does speak of them). And the spine of the novel is the story of the Ugly Duckling, with the characters each finding ways of dealing with their particular problems and self-defined weaknesses. Goudge does not restrict this access to the liminal to approved characters, either—in The Scent of Water, the walls between past and present break down not only for the main protagonist Mary but for a minor character, a venal businessman, who finds his own comfort through his glimpse of something outside himself.

And in all Goudge’s novels there is a profound sense of the magic, which is contained in the everyday (a skill she shares with Ray Bradbury, who in many ways she resembles as a writer). Thus in Island Magic—a historical novel set on Jersey and deeply imbued with the folklore of that place—Peronelle has a deep experience of otherworldliness while washing the dishes. The most overtly magical of Goudge’s adult books is probably The White Witch, which is set against the early years of the English Civil War. The protagonist Froniga is, as the title suggests, a working witch, the daughter of a settled father and a Romani mother, and she possesses both the power to heal and the power to see the future. Yet while both are important to the plot, the book is not about her powers, but about her selfhood and character and her effect on those around her. A lesser writer would probably have taken this theme in the direction of witch trials and melodrama. Goudge uses it to examine the effects of divided politics on families and communities and the ways in which our beliefs affect others outside ourselves. Her characters do bad things, sometimes, and those have consequences, but she rarely writes bad people—I can think of only one, the greedy and self-obsessed school-owner Mrs. Belling in The Rosemary Tree. Goudge was concerned not with judging others but with understanding them with compassion. In her case, that compassion is linked to her sense of otherness—the most profound experiences of liminality her characters experience are often when they are most concerned with others than themselves.

Like a lot of writers of her generation, she is fading from memory, save as a children’s writer, and awareness of her other work tends to focus on her faith, which some readers find off-putting. That’s a shame: her ability to express the magical, the liminal, the fantastical is peerless, and I recommend her works highly.


Kari Sperring is the pen name of the Anglo-Welsh historian Kari L. Maund. She has published six books and many articles on Welsh, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Viking history and has taught the history of these peoples at university level. As Kari Sperring, she is the author of two novels, Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009), which won the 2010 Sydney J. Bounds Award, was shortlisted for the William L. Crawford Award, and made the Tiptree Award Honor List, and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012).

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