Archive for Book Review

Green Dolphin Country

“Though this book is fiction, and the characters, not portraits, it is based on fact. That a man who had emigrated to the New World should after a lapse of years write home for a bride, and then get the wrong one because he had confused her name with that of her sister, may seem to the reader highly improbable; yet it happened. And in real life also the man held his tongue about his mistake and made a good job of his marriage.”

Preface to Green Dolphin Country

The book is based on the life experiences of Elizbeth’s Great Uncle William, who left the island to join the British Navy, went on shore leave at an eastern port, missed his ship after “getting into a scrape” and found a ship bound for Australia. His story is William’s in most particulars.

Elizabeth herself said she “made it New Zealand because my ignorance of Australia was, even more, total than my ignorance of New Zealand.”
(Joy of the Snow)

It took her a long time to write, a project that she took up and laid aside during the early days of the Second World War. Elizabeth and her Mother were living at that time in Marldon, a small village on the flight path to Plymouth, and endured many nights of sleepless listening as the German planes roared overhead on their way to bomb Plymouth. As the planes returned there was always the worry that they would jettison their bombs over their village.

Her Mother and Elizabeth shared a bed while this was taking place, determined to be together should the worse occur. Her Mother’s jewelry box and Elizabeth’s manuscript of Green Dolphin Country was with them.
“Perhaps, like the Egyptians of old, we subconsciously thought that what was close to our bodies in death would accompany our spirits as they entered a new life”
(Joy of the Snow)

Green Dolphin Country is arguably one of the most famous adult novels that Elizabeth wrote. It’s a blockbuster of a book and was made into a film in the 1940’s. It caused Elizabeth all sorts of problems as people wanted to visit her and the tax man became interested in her earnings for the first time.

Elizabeth always researched her work meticulously and for this epic, she found a work by F.E. Maning entitled “ Old New Zealand.” It was a chronicle of the author’s experiences in the New Zealand of the late 1800s and his relationship with the Maoris. With the benefit of the internet, I was able to find out that the character of Tai Harura is based on that of Maning himself. They both made their money from timber, both took part in the wars between the indigenous people and the settlers and both had a love-hate relationship with the Maoris. Maning was over six foot tall, had great physical presence and strength as well as a good sense of humor.He was known as a “Pakeha Maori”, the term given to white settlers who became immersed in the Maori culture, a “white Maori.”

Into the book’s opening chapters, she pours all her love for the island that was the home of her Mother’s family. It is lyrical in its descriptions describing minute details and broad vistas as only Elizabeth can. It was the last time she used Gurnsey as the setting for a novel, and she paints a vivid picture of the isolation and beauty of the place and time into which her Mother was born.

 

Modern photo of St Peter’s Port Guernsey

Elizabeth’s books always contain quotes which I like to imagine are the starting point for the moral content of her story, and Green Dolphin Country begins with one by Evelyn Underhill.

“Three deep cravings of the self, three great expressions of man’s restlessness, which only mystic truth can fully satisfy. The first is the craving which makes him a pilgrim and a wanderer. It is the longing to go out from his normal world in search of a lost home, a “better country”; an Eldorado, a Sarras, a Heavenly Syon.”

New Zealand is all these things. Even today with our ease of world travel, it is still the other side of the world, Middle Earth where Lord Of The Rings holds sway. How much more exotic and unimaginably far away it would have been in the 1940s.

 

Marianne and Marguerite

Elizabeth, always a homebody, would shortly be making her own way in the world, and unknown to herself was at this time forging the tools to do so.

It was the springboard that gave her the recognition and financial space to become a professional writer. At first, it all seemed unlikely, as she was told that the book was too long, and with the war on there was just not enough paper to justify printing it. But thanks to an American Publisher, it was sent in as a candidate for a Metro Goldwyn Mayer film prize and won. The film sadly does not live up to the book but is a better rendition of the story than the film version of The little White Horse.

As Elizabeth, so often does she uses the local legends to give depth to her characters, such as the footprints of the Abbess in the “bay of fairies.” She uses her family home as the home of the Le Patourels, in Le Paradis, “built high up in the rock citadel of St-Pierre.”

The book deals with the themes of class, the upper-class Patourels and the “trade” Ozannes. The material wealth that one has and the noble calling of the doctor. Yet another doctor who has chosen his work over the love of his life, this time in the person of Dr. Ozanne. The same device which was used in “Bird in the Tree.” Are these echoes of a love that Elizabeth once knew? Was there an unsuitable boy who went away to study to become a Doctor, who promised to return but didn’t?

The book charts the growth of the inner as well as the outer life, the person who stays at home and the one who goes as far from the cradle of her birth as is possible. Yet who changes the most and where and when it takes place is unexpected.
“ They were alike only in their mutual realisation that whatever one expects to feel in this life one will probably feel the opposite.”
(Green Dolphin Country p481)

Moving from one set of small islands to another, both isolated from the changing modern world that was rapidly developing, it is a tale of adventure, both of the natural world and the inner world of the spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

The World Shot Through With Magic

L & V Interior

Linnets & Valerians interior of The Manor

At first glance, Linnets & Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge, doesn’t look like children’s fantasy at all: No one goes to a school for wizards, or meets an elf, or a fairy; no one travels to another dimension, or to another time; there are no talking animals, no invisibility cloaks, no magic mirrors or poisoned apples. And not one character flies through the air on a broomstick, or on anything else: everyone’s feet are firmly planted on the good rich English earth.

And yet, in some ways, none of that is true, and many of those things DO happen. Because Linnets and Valerians is a book of both the purest naturalism and the purest magic. There are guardian bees and a shapeshifting cat and a book of evil spells, and at least three people are bewitched. There is one character who may be an elf and another who is almost certainly a very nasty witch. There is a mirror that on one occasion seems to reflect something, or someone, from the past. There is a statue that may or may not occasionally come to life. There are corridors, and woodland paths, that lead different ways at different times. There is evil, and there is good, and both those things have demonstrable power.

The plot is like a delightful mash-up of E. Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett: the four Linnet children run away from their prim-and-proper grandmother and, almost by accident, end up with their curmudgeonly but secretly doting Uncle Ambrose, a curate and retired schoolmaster. The children ramble freely in the nearby countryside and village where they meet a bevy of characters: Lady Alicia Valerian, a recluse who, grieving for the long-ago loss of her family, never leaves her manor; Daft Davie, a mute hermit who lives and paints in a cave on the mountainside; and Emma Cobley, who owns the village shop and whose sweet candy-selling surface disguises sour intent. There is also, importantly, Uncle Ambrose’s servant, Ezra, who sings and dances in the moonlight and talks to the household bees, which he insists need to be told about any new residents or other important events. Through curiosity, friendliness, and sheerest bumbling, the children uncover long-held village secrets and enable generations-old wrongs to be put right, and in the end, everyone lives happily ever after.

The real-life magic of the English countryside is part of why the book resists easy categorization, why it’s a toss-up to describe it as a book that feels naturalistic although it’s all about magic or one that feels magical while being firmly grounded in the natural world. The beauty of the landscape — the flowers, the woods, the hillside, the tor — literally enchants the children, who’ve grown up in India and don’t know anything first-hand about England. So the magic seems natural, and nature seems magical, and it all gets mixed up together in their experience of the place and their new life.

The natural and supernatural are intertwined for the author, too. In her afterwards, she describes talking with people in a Dartmoor village much like the one described in the book, and the stories she heard of woods appearing out of nowhere one evening and never again, and of people seeing elves on the stairs, and of witchcraft black and white.

I read Linnets and Valerians as a child and remembered it as one of those books like The Secret Garden that plays with the tropes of fantasy, and with the reader’s desire to believe in magic, without actually being fantasy. I started rereading a few weeks ago, armed with sticky notes, and a plan to mark each point where something magical, or something that could be interpreted as magical, was mentioned. I figured I could review the marked places when I was done, and see if the balance tipped towards fantasy or realism. But when I finished, my copy was bristling with sticky notes, too many to count: the whole book is shot through with magic.

It’s all, to use Jo Walton’s lovely phrase in, “Among Others” deniable magic: nothing happens that couldn’t be explained naturalistically. The shape-shifting cat could just be frightened children imagining things. The bees leading them into discovery or out of danger could be…bees, flying around. The book of magic spells could be mere ill-wishing. What Nan, the oldest child, sees in the sewing room might simply be an odd reflection in an old and wavy mirror. The most frightening scene where the two boys are trapped in a beech tree, and Emma Cobley and her confederates plot to counter the protection of the beech with their own wicked power could just be grownup bullies trying to scare kids.

But there are other explanations, that Ezra believes wholeheartedly, and the children come to believe, and even Uncle Ambrose, who explains at one point that as a curate he is not permitted to believe in ancient gods or supernatural powers, shows signs of accepting as real. Emma Cobley certainly does believe she’s casting spells, with intent to do harm, and harm is done. And Ezra and the children set out to undo — and, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say, succeed in undoing — that harm, on the same terms.

So the question hangs in the air: if everyone believes it, and it has the desired effects, is it real?

The answer, for the characters and the author, for the bees and the woods and the statue in the garden, is a resounding “yes.”

Elizabeth Kushner

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The Historical Document of the Interrogation of Anne Hill

The Historical Document of the Interrogation of Anne Hill

The further information of Anne Hill, late servant to the lady Lucy Walter, otherwise Barlow, taken upon oath the 2d day of July, 1656.

Vol. xl. p. 37.

Middlesex.

Who saith, that in August last she came first into the service of the said lady Lucy Walter, and went over with one of her children into Holland to the Hague, where the lady then lived; and saith, that Mr. Thomas Howard, gentleman of the horse to the princess royal, did much frequent her company there; and saith she continued there seven months, and then came over into England. And saith, that this informant never heard, that the said lady had any husband in Holland, or any other place, but that those children she had were begotten by Charles Stewart; and saith that Justus Walter, her said lady’s brother, told her this informant, that the said lady, together with the said Thomas Howard, went from the Hague to Flanders, and then immediately they came from thence to Flushing, and so for England, as she hath heard them say. And this informant further saith, that the said lady told her this informant, that the very same night, in which she came to Antwerp or Brussells, Charles Stewart came thither; whereupon this informant asked her in these words, Did your honour see him? to which she answered, Yes, and he saw your master too (meaning one of her children, which is usually called master.) And this informant saith, she knows not who came with the said lady into England, besides Thomas Howard and Justus Walter aforesaid, neither any thing further of their actings beyond seas; and saith, she heard the said lady and her said brother confer together about a necklace of pearl, which the said lady intimated to him she had bought; and that they discoursed it must cost about 1500 l. And the informant saith, she heard the said lady say, she had bespoke a coach, and that she would have it lined with red velvet, and have gold fringe on it within three weeks; and said, although they lived but closely in their lodgings, yet very plentifully in clothes and dyet, and had a coach to attend them continually from week to week. And this informant saith, while she lived with the said lady, she this informant was kept up so privately, that she had not scarce liberty to come down for a cup of beer, which she really believes was, that this informant might not have opportunity to discover them. And saith, the said lady gave her a charge, not to tell who she was, but to say she was a Dutch captain’s wise, whose husband is dead; which she this informant observeth.

The mark of Ann [] Hill.

 

From: ‘State Papers, 1656: July (1 of 6)’, A collection of the State Papers of John Thurloe, volume 5: May 1656 – January 1657 (1742), pp. 173-86. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=55532. Date accessed: 02 October 2007.

Diary of Prayer

From Tangled Thoughts to Tranquillity

Twisted Boughs

One of my constant companions, a book that I dip into almost daily, is Elizabeth Goudge’s Diary of Prayer. Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1966 it is set out in diary form with a prayer or two for each day of the year. The prayers are taken from different faiths and pertain roughly to the Church’s calendar, although as Christmas is the only static festival of the Christian year they do not always correspond to the relevant date, this does not detract from the anthology in any way.

People sent Elizabeth prayers and poems knowing that they would always delight her. One person, a lady called Adelaide Makower, sent her all the Jewish prayers that she uses and Elizabeth also credits her with sending or finding others for her too. The whole anthology took many years to put together, and there is no doubt that Elizabeth used them on a daily basis herself. They were not collected with the intention of being put together as a book at first, but to help Elizabeth learn to pray in an organised and methodical manner. One of the Jewish prayers that speaks to me in particular is the entry for September 3rd which starts “Though our mouths were full of song as the sea, our tongues of exultation as the fullness of its waves,”

Each “chapter” or month starts with a verse that sets the tone. For example, April’s begins with a poem by the Welsh writer David of Gwylym. In it the poet is describing the dawn chorus in a cwm in Wales and attributing clerical roles for all the birds he can hear. “The Chief Priest was the nightingale: the lark and thrush assisted him: and some small bird (I do not weet his name) acted as Clerk.” Both Elizabeth and her Father were enthusiastic Ornithologists so the poem appeals directly to her as it is full of detail about birds, their calls and habits.

April is also the month most likely to contain the celebration of Easter, so the poem is echoing the most important Mass of the Christian Year. In fact the year the Diary was put together, Easter fell on April 1st.

The depth of Elizabeth’s reading is obvious throughout the work; she doesn’t use the trite or overworked. David of Gwylym was a 14th century medieval poet little known outside of Wales. Maybe she discovered him through Jessie who had extensive Welsh connections. She transposed this love for obscure writers to Hilary in the Eliots; he you will remember was always being accused of quoting from them at the slightest provocation.

There are sections for various afflictions and all conditions of humanity, as in June’s section for the poor, and homeless, the refugees, the lonely and the unemployed. Refugees from the Second World War were a common sight in the London of the 40’s and 50’s and later on in that decade the migration of thousands of Commonwealth immigrants occurred. June’s entries portray the range of faiths that Elizabeth used to touch the heart of the matter; from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali No X

“Here is Thy footstool and there rest Thy feet where live the poorest, the lowliest, and the lost.”

to Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury’s

“O God, the Father of the forsaken, the Help of the weak, the Supplier of the needy, who teachest us that love towards the race of man is the bond of perfection….”

Elizabeth had a vast compassion for the dispossessed, born perhaps out of her deep love and connection to place. Maybe it was akin to her secret fear of the shapeless darkness that waited for her in her depression, that fear of becoming nothing. She kept the extent of her charity private, but it was large, personal and at times took intensely practical forms, such as continuing to pay past employees when they retired.

Elizabeth quotes extensively in all her works, which adds another dimension to her writing. I’m always being sent off on literary adventures, discovering writers and poets that have helped to enrich my life. One of my favourite finds from this book was”The Prayers from the Ark “by Carmen Bernos De Gasztold, a poet and Benedictine nun who lived at the Abbaye Saint Louis de Temple at Limon-par-Igny, France. Most of the prayers/poems had been written during the war when she was forced to do uncongenial work in the laboratory of a silk factory near Paris. This took place under the Nazi occupation, when life was hard, cruel and she was often cold and hungry. She takes the animals and our attitude towards them and turns it around so that we can learn from them the virtues of their strengths of patience, hard work, and the putting to use of talents and abilities to the greater good.

The Bee

Lord,
I am not one to despise your gifts,
May you be blessed
who spread the riches of your sweetness
for my zeal………..
let my small span of ardent life
melt into our great communal task;
to lift up to your glory
this temple of sweetness,
a citadel of incense,
a holy candle myriad-celled,
moulded to your graces
and of the hidden work.

The book is dedicated to Sonia Harwood, and her son Andrew Harwood explained the reasons behind this.

“My mother so liked Elizabeth’s book “The White Witch” that, in January 1960, she wrote congratulating her and enquiring about the location of the cottage featured therein. Elizabeth replied on January 28th stating that she actually lived in the cottage! From this small beginning a regular swapping of correspondence was started, and eventually the shy Elizabeth said she would like them to talk on the phone and so they did in 1965. Finally Elizabeth decided she wanted to meet my mother in person and so in 1967 she travelled up to Rose Cottage. Their friendship flourished and they would meet in the spring and autumn of each year.

 

In one of her letters Elizabeth said she wanted to dedicate a book to my mother and offered her a choice of two – “Linnets and Valerians” or “An Anthology of Prayer”- she chose what turned out to be called “A Diary of Prayer”. But when the “Linnets and Valerians” was published Elizabeth sent my mother a copy inscribed as follows -“Dear Sonia, This is the book that would have been dedicated to you had you not preferred to wait for the prayer anthology, and so its half yours. Love and best wishes from Elizabeth Goudge”

Elizabeth strikes me as being the sort of person who needed to make the best of each moment of her day, especially in the important task of prayer. Setting out the prayers in a structured manner, gave her a focus and helped to resolve her tangled thoughts into tranquillity. Whatever the reason for the book’s conception, this collection was undoubtedly put together by someone who loved poetry and the way that words can be made to sing on the page.

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Deborah Gaudin

With thanks to Andrew Harwood.

Goudge Elizabeth 1966 Dairy of Prayer Hodder & Stoughton
Carmen Bernos De Gasztold 1963 The Prayers from the Ark MacMillan & Co

 

City of Bells

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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The White Witch

She awoke to darkness and unfamiliar sounds. It took a few moments to remember that she was not in her bedroom at Providence Cottage, but in her new home tucked into a Chiltern lane. Her roots had been torn out of the red, fertile soil of Devon and roughly transplanted to this chalky, Oxfordshire pasture land. She would never be happy again and as for writing,,,,,,,, that had been left behind in Devon too.

Bedrooms were important to Elizabeth, a place of retreat when the pressures of life made her long for the solitude of a nun’s cell. She could always refresh herself in the shell of her room. It was an intensely personal space where all pretence could be laid aside, a place of prayer and meditation. How long would it take for this slope ceilinged room to become as dear as the one left behind?

All her life Elizabeth had been prone to bouts of depression, and the fatigue bought on by the move and the total rearrangement of her life must have been overwhelming. She was still grieving over her Mother’s death; the loss of her gentle tyranny must have seemed like a hand being taken off the tiller of her life. She had to make her own decisions now and live with the consequences. The first of them had been good, her companion and help mate Jessie had been suggested by her family who had worried about her ability to live alone and cope with the stresses and strains of life. Jessie was the answer to her prayers; she gave her independence and the time to write. The second change, that of leaving Devon had also been her family’s idea, and about this she was much less certain. Elizabeth needed the familiar to feel safe and she was not good at making friends or meeting new people. Society, even the literary one she was forced to occasionally inhabit for the sake of her work was anathema to her.

Rose Cottage from Dog Lane

Devon had been the place where she had found “roots” even though she had been born over the border in Somerset. She loved the places and the people that surrounded her, the small rural community of Marldon that had sheltered her and her Mother for so many years. First in the sad stricken days after her Fathers’ sudden death, then throughout the uncertainty and fear of the war and finally supporting her through her Mothers difficult last illness and demise. She had achieved a measure of success here, her work becoming known worldwide. Green Dolphin Country was made into a film during her Devon years and many of her bestselling novels such as Gentian Hill, Smokey House and of cause the award winning Little White Horse were written here. What would she do, how would she feel in the park like tamed Chilterns so far from the sea?

The darkness outside her window was beginning to lighten and from some tree top a blackbird began to tune up for the dawn chorus. She had always loved the moments of transition, a pause for contemplation and renewal. Getting out of bed she went to the window and drew back the curtains.

She was met by a vision of light. An old apple tree, part of the hedge of trees around her new home was strung with raindrops and the rising sun had set a diamond in the heart of every one of them, the whole tree was cloaked in light. Framed in the branches, resting in the field behind the house was a gaily painted gipsy caravan, an old white horse cropping the turf nearby. Elizabeth was transfixed, here it was happening again, and something she had feared and dreaded had been transformed into something of wonder and joy. Life here was going to be alright. She would get to know and love the countryside and history of this place, just as she had in Devon.

Later on after they had been at Rose Cottage a while and begun to settle into the local community, she had her second vision of Froniga walking through the hedge and up to the well where she sat on the rim with her basket of herbs.

Jessie took her on long countryside drives round the hamlets, villages and towns in their locality. They walked the beech woods, joined the local church which they could walk to across the fields from the cottage and they began to make friends with the other inhabitants of Dog lane.

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She discovered the story of the capture and hanging of the Catholic priest in the market square of Henley, caught and convicted of being a Royalist spy, as Yoben is in the book. King Charles really did spend the night at a local Inn nearby, so that Will and Jenny could go and get Will cured of “The King’s Evil” as scrofula was called. Her own cottage as well as others in the area was built partly from old ships timbers. She vowed that on hot summer days the scent of old spices permeated the house.

Jessie herself was a knowledgeable gardener those love of herbs helped form Froniga’s character. I’d love Elizabeth’s description of Froniga’s garden to be her own, but with two small dogs to accommodate this seems unlikely! The well however is well documented, as we have a picture of Elizabeth sitting on its rim as Froniga had done. The hedges around the cottage contained old roses and the small wild dog rose, and Jessie grew herbs in the garden borders.

All these revelations fed her imagination and formed the bones of her new book The White Witch, published in 1958.

This book is about how civil war rips families apart, opening rifts and fostering miss-understandings that last for generations. But the war was fought on religious grounds not just over earth and dust, but over human minds, hearts and ultimately souls, becoming more bloody and obdurate as a consequence. The belief of divine right invested on both sides, gave an added dimension to the fight.

Set in an Oxfordshire village the story centres on the Haslewood family and those who are connected to it. Robert the local squire lives in his small manor house with his wife Margaret and their twin children Will and Jenny. Their cousin and Robert’s childhood sweetheart Froniga lives just across the common from them and is the white witch of the title. This family and the small community with the local parson, tribe of gipsies, and an itinerant painter are the characters we follow through the years of unrest and upheaval the civil war brings to their lives. To Elizabeth’s characters the spiritual battles are as hard to overcome as the physical and it is not just the politically awakening Robert who undergoes a radical transformation.

It turned out to be a pivotal novel for Elizabeth too, a “coming of age” of sorts, because after she wrote it, she seems to have put away “childish things” The spiritual struggles of the civil war mirrored her own quest for enlightenment and understanding. While never losing her love for the old tales of folklore and legend that had surrounded her from her cradle, from now on her novels take on a maturity and depth of spiritual conviction.

Elizabeth had grown up surrounded by the beauty of the church, its celebrations marking the turn of year. Now she whole heartedly embraced the Anglican faith which satisfied her love of ritual and answered for her the fundamental questions of life and death. She had found purpose and meaning in her life. Her father’s example of charity and good works was perpetuated by the increased income her success as an author gave her.

Her books, never preachy, became manuals on life, holding out the hope of understanding, compassion accompanied by the gift of the storyteller held between their pages. No longer did “a little knowledge go a long way” (Goudge Joy of the Snow)

Her life at Rose Cottage was strictly regulated, with a routine of prayer, work and study. While her health permitted she still walked the countryside with her dogs and played an active part in the church. Later she became reclusive and Jessie guarded her privacy fiercely, enabling her to write six of her best novels during the next fifteen years. Elizabeth also compiled and edited six Poetry anthologies, and wrote a biography of St Francis as well as her auto-biography before she died. But she still found the time to personally attend to a correspondence which grew over the years from family and friends to an ever widening circle of fans, extended family and petitions from all over the world. She maintained the literary contacts with her publishers and wrote promotional pieces for other writers, as well as short stories.

Elizabeth Goudge

The themes of the White Witch let Elizabeth explore the different paths of faith and the way people from different sects love, revere and follow the disciples of God. It solidified her faith while it opened her to a respect for the faith of others. Someone who knew Elizabeth well in her later years once told me, that she was the most tolerate and compassionate person she knew. She felt that the present Middle Eastern conflicts would have saddened her, not with their radical views and intolerance, but because of our own

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Towers In The Mist

 

“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 excepting 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?

Elizabeth I

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

 

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I Saw Three Ships

“In the mid winter gloom Christmas comes up over the horizon like a lighted ship homeward bound. The arrival has been prepared for and expected, yet as the archaic shape draws slowly nearer and nearer, the lights of the lanterns reflected in the black water like moons and stars, the sails luminous as huge moth’s wings in the dark, we feel profound relief. The great ship has not been wrecked. We in its absence, have escaped destruction. It is to happen again……..”
( Goudge page 7 1967)

This is one of Elizabeth’s loveliest visions of Christmas, drawing on an ancient Celtic symbol, The Ship. A wonderful, calming picture to hold onto in the chaos of a modern Christmas, with all its expectations and hard work.

I saw Three Ships is a Christmas carol of a tale set in an idealized Napoleonic Torbay, the setting used for her novel Gentian Hill. Indeed some of the characters from this book are reused too, an economy that doesn’t offend. The orphan girl is the most obvious transfer who though young is wiser than the elderly aunts she has been sent to live with. Then there is the French “migrant” fleeing the terror and his own terrible secret short comings, and finally the mysterious beautiful woman, standing serenely in the bow of a ship who features in more than one of Elizabeth’s works.

This is a tale of home coming, not only of a long absent brother, but of those rescued from danger, and the ultimate home coming of death.
“When he put his fingers on the table Balthazar left myrrh” said the Frenchman. His death, you understand, to enrich their life.” (Goudge p 38 1967 )

“And what was in those Ships all three?”

All our hopes, dreams and wishes for the future, bright, untarnished and full of possibilities.

The Ship

Christmas and the New Year was a very special time for Elizabeth and she celebrates it in many of her books. In fact the story of the Three Wise Men is a tale for Epiphany, 6th January, and tells of a revelation that changes the lives of all those in this story, as the end of their journey changed the lives of the Magi forever.

“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,”
(Journey of the Magi T .S. Eliot.)

This is a small tale like an advent window into her imagination. In it a young girl wants to honour the legend of the three wise men that she had observed with her parents, she wants to leave the front door of their home unlocked on Christmas Eve to let them in. A prospect that the two maiden aunts take great exception to, as it leaves them vulnerable, who know whom or what might get in?

What gets in through the open parlour window with the help of Polly, will change the lives of all who live there.

The book is filled with the simple effective line drawings of Richard Kennedy, an illustrator who started work at the Hogarth Press for the Bloomsbury set, most notably Leonard and Virginia Woolf. They make a strong frame for the simple style the story is told in, giving us glimpses of the action. He also illustrated books for Rosemary Sutcliffe a contemporary and friend of Elizabeth’s, they worked for the same agent and publisher. Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote a poem called The Feast Of Lights which starts like this

This is The Feast Of Lights.
We have put the holly and the ivy up, a sprig or two
Behind each picture, three behind the largest,
As it was in my father’s time, and his father’s before him, world without
end.
The scented candle, gift of a friend far off, is lit before the crib.
Spicy, aromatic, warm and faintly bitter, censing the whole house
As though three kings had just walked through it.

(Rosemary Sutcliffe p 147 1986.)

Maybe the gift was given by her friend Elizabeth, to celebrate the birth of Light.

” And so Christmas is still the Feast of Lights. So many of them. Once it was the Yule-log, the burning brandy of the snap dragon game, and the flames round the Christmas pudding. Then it was the twinkling wax candles on the Christmas tree. Now the candles are mostly electric, and if safer are not so beautiful, and the blazing lights of Regent Street are rather garnish. But it does not matter, for whatever they are they continue to be reflections from the light that at the beginning of all things moved upon the face of the waters. ”     ( Goudge p 8 1967)

For me Elizabeth seems to lean a little closer at this time of year, a pleasant ritual to read one or more of her books, deepening my understanding of her writing, getting to know her a little more, and enhancing my love for the true meaning of the season.

May the New Year be a Peaceful and Prosperous time for you all.

Deborah Gaudin

Elizabeth Goudge 1967 A Christmas Book  Hodder & Stoughton
Elizabeth Goudge 1969 I Saw Three Ships Brockhampton Press
Richard Adams 1986 Occasional Poets An Anthology. Viking

 

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Poetry In The Works Of Elizabeth Goudge

Poetry In The Works Of Elizabeth Goudge~
( A National Poetry Society Centenary Article)

In 2009 the National Poetry Society celebrated its centenary. So it seemed appropriate that the discussion I should lead at the Henley Convention should have been on the subject of the Poetry in Elizabeth’s work and the importance it had in her life. Firstly the importance of the poetry of place that she used, and then the way she used poetry to give depth to her characters. Finally I went on to talk about the anthologies she had compiled, Elizabeth’s own poetry and the poets she had known.

Steps Wells Cathedral

Steps Wells Cathedral

What is meant by the Poetry Of Place? This is an important concept for me as a Poet. In fact I can say that Elizabeth was one of the major influences on my wishing to write descriptive verse. The Poetry in her prose is evident, she is an extremely lyrical writer. Elizabeth herself attributed this to her time at Reading University, which she attended just after the 1st World War, and where she was taught the arts of painting and embroidery among others. In her auto-biography “The Joy Of The Snow” she says,

“I used my handicraft training for such a short while that from the point of view of earning a living it appeared sheer waste. Yet looking back I see what an excellent thing it was for a writer. It taught me to observe things in minute detail; the shape of a petal, the sheen on a bird’s wing. It taught me the balance of pattern. Above all it stimulated imagination. I think now that every writer should have a period of work at an Art School as part of his training.”

But her father Henry, was also responsible for her ability to really look at the world. Elizabeth while writing the forward to Henry’s book “Glorying In The Cross” remembers him becoming exasperated with her on a train journey they were taking, “If you don’t look out of the window at the scenery it is an insult to God who put it there for your pleasure.” he said. He loved birds and the sight of butterflies hovering above flowers, and the combination of the two became a metaphor for wonder and contentment in several of her books.

So to her, her places are more than stage settings, they are inspirational manifestations of God. She is almost Pantheistic in her love for the beauty of the natural world. There are trees, rocks, birds and of cause houses that have distinct personalities of their own. The tree above Weekaborough Farm in Gentian Hill where Zachary has his moment of revelation, rocks, such as where the Abbess and Marianne meet to place their footprints in the same place as the legendary sisters had done hundreds of years before them. Birds are always a symbol of the freedom from the mundane in her work, the spiritual rising of joy, and the Homes that she writes about so compellingly all have strong personalities which are to be trusted, nurtured and protected.

The opening of Elizabeth’s books are like Old Master paintings, a favourite metaphor of Elizabeth’s, filled with hidden messages and symbolism if we care to look. Instantly we are transported to the world the writer is making for us. It is a device which seems to be going out of fashion, as most modern novels want to plunge you straight into the thick of the action. The former seems a more gentle way, a gradual removal from the mundane world. We are lifted up out of ourselves rather than being bewildered as to where we are and what’s happening.

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Elizabeth opens doors for us, doors onto another world, somewhere we would like to be. But unlike other contemporary writers such as C. Day Lewis’s Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, they exist. We don’t have to slip on a magic ring, or find an enchanted wardrobe, we can go there, today, now, it only takes a shift in our perception to get us there. Our own lives and surroundings are filled with magic and spiritual significance.

Poetry provided backbone for her characters, and here we come to the Eliot family, the most famous of the families that Elizabeth wrote about. She says of them in the introduction to The Eliots of Damerosehay the following:-

” Of my various book people the dearest are the Eliots. I am almost ashamed to confess how devoted I am to them all. The families in the other books I sometimes forget about for weeks together but the Eliots, especially Lucilla and Meg, are always there, and of cause much has happened to them that is not recorded in these pages. One must stop somewhere. Readers are very patient, but one can not expect them to be as deeply attached to one’s book people as one is oneself, and the compass of this book is more than enough about one family. But I may say that all has gone well with the Eliots since the birth of Christiana, and it is only occasionally that I find myself worrying about them. ”

How intriguing! Doesn’t it make you wish there had been a fourth? I’m not fond of other writers writing sequels to an authors work, as in Mrs De Winter/Rebecca’s Tide genre. They can never know what the original author intended and can never stand for me convincingly in their shoes. The Eliots live because Elizabeth gave them life, they were her surrogate family. She never married, had children. This she felt was denied her due to the 1st world war and the dearth of men after the carnage. But I really wonder if she would have married anyway. There was always the example of her heroine Jane Austen before her. She had chosen the single life so that she could devote herself to her writing career, and I think that Elizabeth too shared this slightly selfish writers streak.

But the point of this is that the Eliots were important characters to Elizabeth and she wanted us to know them warts and all. So when she wants to point out a weakness or give her character advise poetry is used to do so. When David struggles to come to terms with the fact that for the greater good of the family he must give up his chance of a relationship with Nadine, he turns to the poets to do so. Alone in his room and desperately trying to deny the truth of his situation he picks up the work of Humbert Wolfe.

Shall I not see that to live is to have relinquished
beauty to the sequestration of the dark,
and yet that the spirit of man, benighted, vanquished,
has folded wings, and shall use them as the lark

into the sun beyond the cold clouds flinging
her desperate hope, not reaching where she has striven
but soaring forever beyond herself, and singing
high above earth as she is low in heaven?

Shall I not confess that mine own evil humour
and not man’s failure forged this black despair,
and, while I wept, high up the golden rumour
of the lark ascending fringed the quiet air?

From the Uncelestial City.

This is powerful stuff. David seeking solace, probably sympathy has come up against abrasive advice. He is a proud man, regarding himself as honourable and upright. Yet he has been spoilt by an indulgent Grandmother, and shielded so far from life’s hard knocks by his good looks and charm. He is a successful actor, used to having his way, and the thought of having to relinquished beauty to the sequestration of the dark ,is unthinkable and frightening. But he comes to realise that throughout life we are continuously relinquishing; our, looks, youth, health, work, children, friends and loved ones. And that if we can see this as relinquishing, a graceful surrender to the inevitable, how much better than seeing it as a tearing away of and continual loss.

Humbert helps him to see that aspiration and the love for life go on, even at a time when we would almost rather they didn’t, so painful is it to think about living without that person. David wants to be part of the tradition of Damerosehay, and like all those members of the spiritual family of the house has to sacrifice something precious for the greater good of the family. In the case of Captain Christopher Martin is it reason itself. Over coming this will he believes be not only right for the Eliot family, but good and right for himself, David. the man.

Although Nadine agrees with David and goes back to George it isn’t really until half way through the next book,” Herb of Grace” that she has her epiphany.

On a night of storm when she can’t sleep, goes to the art studio set up in the house for John Adair the famous artist staying there, and tries to work out why she can’t quite let David go. Although she has returned to George and had twins, the thought that if it doesn’t work out and it all gets unbearable she can always go back to David has been at the back of her mind. She now realizes that this is an impossible situation, and the thought that David might be a reluctant escape route and is unable to move on himself, only out of pity for her, galls and annoys her. She wants to be in charge of the situation and realizes that she is not. She is more reliant on the thought of David than he is on her. She picks a book up off the floor , and sees a jay’s feather marking a page. She reads the lyric.

 

 

Should thy love die;
O bury it not under ice-blue eyes!
And lips that deny,
With a scornful surprise,
The life it once lived in thy breast when it wore no disguise.

Should thy love die;
O bury it where the sweet wild flowers blow!
And breezes go by,
With no whisper of woe;
And strange feet cannot guess of the anguish that slumbers below.

Should thy love die;
O wander once more to the haunt of the bee!
Where the foliaged sky
Is most sacred to see,
And thy being first felt its wild birth like a wind-wakened tree.

Should thy love die,
O dissemble it ! Smile ! let the rose hide the thorn!
While the lark sings on high,
And no thing looks forlorn,
Bury it, bury it, bury it where it was born.

George Meredith

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Again, not the advice she had wished to hear, as it so seldom is. But she comes to realize that David does want to move on, be free to find his wife. She realizes to her shame how selfish she is being, and that love for a middle aged woman is just plain silly out of wedlock. She has only been chasing her lost youth. What she has in children and husband is all she ever wants to have. They in the sum of their parts are worth more than the whole of David to her. But it takes a Poet to show her.

My last example is taken from Scent Of Water. It concerns cousin Mary and her meeting with the queer old man, a Vicar that her mother feels obliged to invite to tea. He is an embarrassment to her Mother and Mary is asked to show him the garden to get him out of the way. During the course of their viewing, Mary ends up pouring her heart out to him, telling him things about her mental illness that she has never revealed to another before. She tells him how afraid she is and wonders why God lets her suffer like this, she has not done anything so very wrong. He asks her why she is afraid of losing her reason if she loses it into the hands of God, and he gives her three short simple lines of Prayer to recite daily.

Lord Have Mercy

Into Thy Hands

I thee Adore.

These lines written by the poet and mystic Thomas Traherne, Elizabeth used as a prayer all her life. They were printed on her memorial card, issued for the service, which was held in the church of All Saints Peppard Common which Elizabeth attended. They became her mantra, the kernel of the belief she lived by all her life. As well as helping Mary, they helped Elizabeth through her dark days too.

Mary is one of my favourite Characters in Elizabeth’s work, her struggle to live a normal and fruitful life in the face of such adversity and disappointment are a source of inspiration to me. Whenever I feel hard done by, or as if I want “my path strewn with red rose petals rather than pink,” I think of cousin Mary and the millions of other people heroically struggling against far greater obstacles than I and I pull myself together.

I could talk about any of the five Anthologies that Elizabeth worked on, my favourite is her Book Of Peace. But today I thought I’d speak about one of my constant companions, a book that I dip into almost daily, Elizabeth Goudge’s Diary of Prayer. Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1966 it is set out in diary form with a prayer or two for each day of the year. The prayers are taken from different faiths and pertain roughly to the Church’s calendar, although as Christmas is the only static festival of the Christian year they do not always correspond to the relevant date, this does not detract from the anthology in any way.

People sent Elizabeth prayers and poems knowing that they would always delight her. One person, a lady called Adelaide Makower, sent her all the Jewish prayers that she uses and Elizabeth also credits her with sending or finding others for her too. The whole anthology took many years to put together, and there is no doubt that Elizabeth used the prayers on a daily basis herself. They were not collected with the intention of being put together as a book at first, but to help Elizabeth learn to pray in an organised and methodical manner. One of the Jewish prayers that speaks to me in particular is the entry for September 3rd which starts “Though our mouths were full of song as the sea, our tongues of exultation as the fullness of its waves,”

Each “chapter” or month starts with a verse that sets the tone. For example, April’s begins with a poem by the Welsh writer David of Gwylym. In it the poet is describing the dawn chorus in a cwm in Wales and attributing clerical roles for all the birds he can hear. “The Chief Priest was the nightingale: the lark and thrush assisted him: and some small bird (I do not weet his name) acted as Clerk.”  Both Elizabeth and her Father were enthusiastic Ornithologists so the poem appeals directly to her as it is full of detail about birds, their calls and habits.

April is also the month most likely to contain the celebration of Easter, so the poem is echoing the most important Mass of the Christian Year. In fact the year the Diary was put together, Easter fell on April 1st.

The depth of Elizabeth’s reading is obvious throughout the work; she doesn’t use the trite or overworked. David of Gwylym was a 14th century medieval poet little known outside of Wales. Maybe she discovered him through Jessie who had extensive Welsh connections. She transposed this love for obscure writers to Hilary in the Eliots; he you will remember was always being accused of quoting from obscure poets at the slightest provocation.

The quotes she uses add another dimension to her writing. I’m always being sent off on literary adventures, discovering writers and poets that have helped to enrich my life. One of my favourite finds from this book was “The Prayers from the Ark “by Carmen Bernos De Gasztold, a poet and Benedictine nun who lived at the Abbaye Saint Louis de Temple at Limon-par-Igny, France. Most of the prayers/poems had been written during the war when she was forced to do uncongenial work in the laboratory of a silk factory near Paris. This took place under the Nazi occupation, when life was hard, cruel and she was often cold and hungry. She takes the animals and our attitude towards them and turns it around so that we can learn from them the virtues of their strengths of patience, hard work, and the putting to use of talents and abilities to the greater good.

The Bee

Lord,
I am not one to despise your gifts,
May you be blessed
who spread the riches of your sweetness
for my zeal………..
let my small span of ardent life
melt into our great communal task;
to lift up to your glory
this temple of sweetness,
a citadel of incense,
a holy candle myriad-celled,
moulded to your graces
and of the hidden work.

Carmen Bernos De Gasztold

 

 

 

Lastly there is Elizabeth Goudge, poet, a mantle she was always too modest to wear.

Hid deep in the heart of the woods, haunted and old,
The shell of a Castle still stands, a story told,
Built high on a rock in the woods, frozen and cold.

Deep are the night-dark shadows under the wall,
Breathlessly whispering downward the snowflakes fall,
Shrouding the desolate towers in a stainless pall.

Fearful within me my own heart, failing, has died,
I too in the woods am frozen, bereaved, sore tried.
Alone here…….There in the shadows, who was it sighed?

There, in the bastioned walls where the gateway stands,
Are there shadows within its shadows, weaving the strands,
Back through the loom of past sorrow with pain-worn hands?

Shadows weeping a world grown cold and stark with pain,
Mourning once more the lights put out, put out again,
The loveliness broken and lost, the young men slain.

Has sorrow alone lived for a hundred years?
Is only hatred immortal, men’s craven fears?
Only the weeping of women, their useless tears?

Not winter only reigns here in this haunted place,
As the cold clouds part, defeated, the sunbeams lace
The dark tress with their diamond light, touch the worn face

Of the frozen stone with colour, with azure fire
Of spring-times long past, yet alive, the hot desire
Of summers never forgotten, hopes that aspire

For ever, courage unbeaten, valour aflame,
The unshaken victory of the men who name
Holy things to their strength…….Nor fear, nor hate nor shame

Is theirs………I see the flashing of arms on the wall,
Here the deep roar of the conflict, the thrilling call
Of the silver trumpets sounding high on the tall

Towers of God’s immortal fortress, that he made
Against the evil out of the love of men laid
At his feet, their sweat. their blood to the last drop paid.

For this is the rock that for all time man defends,
The rock his soul against which all evil spends
Its fury in vain in the warfare that never ends.

And these the embattled walls that the heroes trod,
Swift-winged with flame, their feet with the gospel shod,
For this is the house of all life, the house of God.

Lift up, lift up your constant heart, the trumpet cries,
Lift them up to the shining walls, the sun-drenched skies,
For beyond the night for ever the sun will rise.

Berry Poneroy Castle

 

 

Its very reminiscent of Walter-de-la-Mare, whose poetry is dominated by abandoned buildings, haunted gardens and “presences”.

She was very ambivalent about her talents as a poet, and it certainly is the case that she was a better prose writer. Although this might only be because of her and mine old fashioned concept of Poetry. In Modern verse there is a school of thought that says it makes no difference if the words are in a block of text or chopped into shorter lines , its still a poem. So a piece of prose such as

“She was in a silver-stemmed beech wood roofed with green and gold. The floor of the wood was tawny with beech-mast beneath the polished darker green of low-growing hollies, the silver, green, and tawny faintly veiled by the gauzy blue air of spring. And the birds sang. That piercing clear deep ringing and ring seemed thrusting through her almost intolerably. She believed she had not heard such birdsong since she was a child; yet every year they had been singing like this in the tall woods of England. ”

If it was set out on the page like this:-

She was in a silver-stemmed
beech wood roofed with green and gold.
The floor of the wood was tawny
with beech-mast

beneath the polished darker
green of low-growing hollies, the silver,
green, and tawny faintly veiled by
gauzy blue air of spring.

And the birds sang.
That piercing clear deep ringing
and ringing  seemed thrusting through her
almost intolerably.

She believed she had not heard
such birdsong since she was a child;
yet every year they had been singing like this
in the tall woods of England.

People would except it as an example of modern free verse.

She did put a small book of her Poetry together called Songs & Verses, a copy of which is on display. Many of her Poems forward her books, as in The Little White Horse and The Castle On The Hill. But if you look closely you will also find some in her Diary Of Prayer, those that go unaccredited are her own.

She was certainly friends with modern poets such as Ruth Pitter who lived fairly close to her, and it was apparent that she enjoyed the stimulus and company of Poets. She greatly admired James Kirkup and Harold Munro, they appear frequently in her Anthologies. She never judged the person, but was capable of discerning the genius behind the personality. Ruth Pitter for instance had a crush on the very happily married C. D. Lewis, not something you would have thought that Elizabeth with her strong views on marriage would have had the patience with. But she never judged her.

James Kirkup came to particular public attention in 1977, when the newspaper “Gay News”published his poem “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name”, which dealt with a Roman centurion’s supposed love for Christ on the Cross, and was prosecuted, with the Editor, for blasphemy by Mary Whitehouse, the then Secretary of the National Viewers and Listeners Association.

It didn’t stop Elizabeth putting his poetry in her Anthology A Book of Faith, only published the previous year. Harold Munro too struggled with his sexuality and alcoholism all his life. Don’t think for one moment that Elizabeth was naive, she would have been aware of all of this. But she would have chosen to look at the work he did promoting Poetry and Poets rather than dwell on his personal short comings.

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From the very first book she wrote, Island Magic to her last The Joy Of The Snow, Elizabeth’s love for poetry shines through. She was a prolific and wide ranging reader. Like Mary In The Scent Of Water, she felt that “The poets did at least put it into words for you and ease the pain of it.”

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Scent Of Water


April 2007 and I’m standing in the lime avenue on the approach road to Turville. The day is grey and overcast and all sound is muffled. The trees soar away towards the clouds and at their feet a few bluebells are beginning to unfurl their crumpled petals. There are no people in sight and only a kite traversing the field beyond the limes shows any sign of life. I have come to Oxfordshire to attend the Blue Plaque ceremony which will take place  tomorrow, today is for exploration and how could I not come to the place where Elizabeth set my favourite of her books?

Avenue of Limes

The Scent Of Water was written in the early sixties, published in 1963, at a time when Elizabeth had just moved to Peppard Common from Devon. and it chronicles the move of the central character Mary from a high powered executive job in London to the rural quiet of Appleshaw. She tells her disbelieving friends that she wishes to experience village life before it disappears for ever. Her reasons however are deeper and more personal than that. She has been bequeathed a house by a cousin whom she met just once as a small girl and thinks at first that she will just put the property on the market and sell it. But as the memories of her visit resurface she changes her mind and moves in.

For me this novel is a distillation of all the books that have gone before as it contains all that is best in Elizabeth’s work. Her ability to layer a book so that the threads and narrative lead one ever deeper into the heart of the story, in this case renewal, is inspirational.

Elizabeth herself was coming to terms with the lose of her mother and the lose of her Devonshire home. She was obeying the dictates of her concerned family and moving closer to the few cousins she had left at their request. At first she was unhappy and missed the countryside of her beloved Westerland valley and the companionship of the village people she had come to know. She was always nervous and shy about meeting new people, and the thought of a whole new community to come to grips with must have been daunting to her, even with the help of Jessie.

The world must have seemed a frightening place in the early sixties with the Cuban missile crisis dominating the news and President Kennedy advising all prudent families to build a nuclear bomb shelter. The Berlin wall was dividing communities and the whole world seemed on the brink of a nervous break down. All the tried and tested theories of the past where being severely tested. What hope for the future was there except to retreat to a safe haven and pray?

At that time Elizabeth and Jessie were both young enough and curious enough to start exploring the neighbourhood and it wasn’t long before the charm of their more manicured surroundings captivated her imagination. It was in fact to become one of her most productive writing periods, producing a book every two years until in her eighties she became to frail to write.

Turville is a charming village a few miles from Elizabeth’s new home, nestling under an arm of down land and surrounded by wooded fields. It has been used as a location for screen and television, the latest productions to use it being The Vicar Of Dibley and Midsomer Murders. So it is hardy surprising that Elizabeth should have been inspired to use it as the template for Appleshaw. The novel she placed there has stood the tests of time dealing with subjects such as; financial fraud, infidelity, teenage crime and the complex relationships within families and the wider community. It could have been written yesterday.

It is a book of discovery, a journey into the heart and mind of mental illness, a subject on which Elizabeth had personal experience and as such is one of the most auto-biographical of her works. She speaks movingly of the isolation that depression brings, as only someone who had experienced it could.

“I thought, I can’t bear it,. I was lying on stones and the walls were moving in. And then, and that was the third time, I said, “yes I will”. But it didn’t help. The walls moved in nearer and as they closed right round me, trapping me, I screamed. I don’t suppose I really screamed. What had happened was that I had fallen asleep at last and drifted into nightmare. I was imprisoned in stone. I knew then what men suffer who are walled up alive.” (Goudge 1963 p 136 )

Elizabeth had always been haunted by the Ely ghost and the horrific tale of entombment, but I have also been told by those who suffer depression that this is a very graphic and honest portrayal of how it feels. So many people see mental illness as an affliction sent by God as some form of punishment and only get as far as questioning why it has happened to them. Elizabeth seems to have got beyond this and in her suffering come a little closer in her understanding of God’s love and compassion.

“They’ve not come yet, I thought. All the prettiness the artists painted isn’t here. No angels, no shepherds, no children with their lambs. Its stripped down to the bare bones of the rock and the child. There’s no one here. And then I thought, I am here, and I asked, who am I Lord? And then I knew that I was everyone.” (Goudge 1963 p 136 )

There is no sense of pride here, Elizabeth had discovered and is trying to share with us her way of Prayer. The offering of her, as she would see it, small pain as recompense for others greater trials. Elizabeth’s compassion for out casts and outsiders is well known, a whole section of her Diary Of Prayer is directed towards prisoners and refugees. I wonder what she would have made of Sangatte just across the channel from us today?

Her empathy with Paul the writer and the processes he uses to manifest his craft make me wonder if Elizabeth wrote at night to minimize distractions. Perhaps she too, liked to map out whole sections of her story in her mind and then write them down in large sections or chapters. I suspect that Jessie didn’t involve herself in proof reading or criticism of Elizabeth’s work. One of the reasons Elizabeth cites for getting along with Jessie so well is that she has never read any of her books which she finds refreshing. But was there someone in the village who did have this enviable role?

There is a sense of renewal throughout this book, from Edith confessing her small sin, to Mr Hepplewaite’s major fraud, from Mary’s conversion to Cousin Mary’s revelation, each of the characters becomes reborn. It is a book full of hope, hope founded on the past and a belief that we can bring what is of value back to bloom in the future. Mary who had moved to Appleshaw to discover the past, ends up with ” the future shining on her face,” (Goudge P 282 )

I didn’t find the Talbots new build hidden behind firs in Turville although the cottages nestled around the old church is pretty much as Elizabeth describes it. The house which could be the model for The Laurels was close by, if not opposite. It had a walled garden with a door in the thickness of its stone, but it was called Orchard Cottage, and I couldn’t see the tunnel of wisteria which led to the front door, just a gate and a gravelled drive. Probably another instance of Elizabeth transposing a childhood memory to some where else.

Appleshaw

The Randall’s row of cottages were undergoing extensive renovations and were partly shrouded in tarpaulin. A windmill is perched on the downs shoulder dominating the skyline and is never mentioned. But the lime avenue is there in all its glory.

Job chapter 14

  1. for there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.
  2. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground;
  3. Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.

This sense of renewal is something Elizabeth experienced again and again through out her life, and it is one of the precious gifts she won, struggling with her own personal demons.

 

The scent of water was in the air that day too, misting through the trees and slicking the horizon with the promise of proper rain. It gave to this pretty little village glamour, a soft beauty the harsher light of summer with its compliment of tourists would have destroyed.

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