This is a great article, accessible from the link below by Stephen Foote, which he wrote for the Guernsey Literary Festival to celebrate the fact that Sebastian Faulks is the headline guest in May.
This is a great article, accessible from the link below by Stephen Foote, which he wrote for the Guernsey Literary Festival to celebrate the fact that Sebastian Faulks is the headline guest in May.
An interview with Erlys Onion, God daughter of Jessie Munroe
While on holiday in Pembrokeshire back in 2007, my husband drove me to Newport to meet Erlys Onions the goddaughter of Jessie Munroe. Elizabeth had been to stay here a number of times, as Jessie had as yet un-revealed connections with the area so knew it well. We descended a winding lane that led us ever closer to the coast, terminating in a sweep of gravel and fields behind some houses hidden by conifers. Mr Onions with companion dog was there to open the field gate and show us in. We descended steps entering the calm of a small but pretty back garden, a good private sun trap on a bright day. Drwy gymorth (black dog) lead us towards the gravelled patio in front of the double doors at the back of the house. I was aware of containers filled with plants and a well-stocked garden, which on a different day I would have stopped to admire. Maybe Mrs Onions had inherited green fingers. The doors opened into a flagged dining area, with a study to one side and the lovely proportioned sitting room, both with extensive views over the bay, ahead. The kitchen dining room I was to discover, led off of this room and had three windows making it light and airy even on a grey day.
Mr Onions opened the doors calling out to Erlys that we had arrived. She came through from the depths of the house, a slight, dark woman, trim of figure and smiling in greeting. She was younger than I had expected, and although probably in her early sixties, she appeared younger. She ushered me through the living room into the kitchen and we exchanged those safe, small, weather words of the newly met, which are common currency throughout the British Isles.
We went through and sat in the sitting room, whose window overlooked the bay. I could appreciate now that the cottage sat on the quayside. I sat rather nervously on the edge of an extremely large and comfortable settee, the sort that if you knew the people it belonged to well, you would kick your shoes off and curl up on, and sipped good tea out of a thin china cup, and tried to listen with all my senses to what Erlys was saying. The room was painted a silvery grey and cream and its colour, the spiral layout of the rooms and influenced no doubt by the view from the window, it reminded me of the inside of a whorled shell. It was very quiet.
I thanked her for seeing me and explained why Sylvia Gower, author of “The World Of Elizabeth Goudge”, had given me her address and why, as one of the few people left who truly knew Elizabeth I wanted to meet her.
She started off by talking about Jessie, as it was only natural for a god daughter to do. Jessie it transpired had been a highly principled individual, who hadn’t had much sympathy for the emotional frailties of people, which had led to a prickly relationship between the two of them, as Erlys tried to look after her in her old age.
It seems that Jessie Munroe was a wealthy woman, and chose to live with Elizabeth because she wanted to rather than needed to. She had attended Horticultural College and had been working for the Bishop of Worcester’s family when she was asked if she would consider being interviewed for the position of companion/housekeeper/Gardner to Elizabeth. Her family were extremely well off, Erlys said, everything they touched turned to gold; shipping lines, chutney and perverse making, anything they participated in succeeded. But she was fiercely independent and wanted to work in her own chosen field of horticulture.
During the war, she had been sent to work on the land near Newport, on the other side of the bay. She worked on a farm and fell under the magic spell of the place and in love with a local man called David. Why they never married Erlys doesn’t know, but when she was helping to sort out Jessie’s effects after her death, she came across a letter from a mutual friend saying how sad he was that she and David hadn’t married. but that he was pleased that David had been ordained. Perhaps that was the reason. Jessie really had been brought up on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and was passionate in her beliefs. Perhaps they clashed over religious doctrine, or maybe she simply didn’t want to become a vicar’s wife, having to take second place to his parish.
Erlys went to great pains to explain to me that Jessie and Elizabeth’s relationship was purely platonic and that they were never lovers. I had not imagined that they were and was frankly mildly irritated but not surprised to hear that rumours to that effect had circulated. Two women living together in a strong relationship is going to attract gossip in any day and age I suppose. Elizabeth would never have treated her as a subordinate, but as a valued friend, and people are always going to go for the salacious.
What I found more surprising was that Elizabeth had no idea of Jessie’s wealth and independent means. At one stage, after Green Dolphin Country the movie had made a lot of money in America, Elizabeth found herself in the embarrassing position of not being able to pay a large and unexpected tax bill. She had to ask Jessie to move out as she could no longer afford to pay her wages and Jessie went. She doesn’t seem to have offered to lend her friend the money and stay but chooses on the face of it to leave behind her friend and employer to sort out the mess herself, returning when she had done so. Maybe Elizabeth turned her offer down; I didn’t like to ask such a personal question.
Jessie was a very controlling person and tried to dominate her relationship with Elizabeth. But, although on the surface it appeared that she did, Erlys assured me that this was not the case and that Elizabeth had a quiet, firm way with her that prevailed. She quoted a lovely story to illustrate this. It seems that Jessie had been approached by the magazine Homes & Gardens to have Rose Cottage appear in an issue. Jessie had worked hard on the garden and was naturally delighted. She told Elizabeth and then said that she now going to buy a gun to shoot” them pesky birds” that were ruining her lovely plot. Elizabeth gently reminded her that they had both been lifelong members of the RSPB and that Jessie would purchase a gun over her dead body. No gun was bought.
From this point on, it was easy to steer the conversation onto Elizabeth. Erlys it seems was adopted, and her family sent her to boarding school which was nearer to Rose Cottage than her family home, and she spent many of her school holidays with the two women, not where a young teenager necessarily wanted to be. She would rather have gone home at first and bitterly resented it. But, despite herself, she began to enjoy it and as she got older to value Elizabeth’s friendship, insights and warmth.
Erlys thought that Jessie played on Elizabeth’s frailty to make herself indispensable to her and that although Elizabeth had a mild heart condition and her propensity towards depression were both debilitating, neither was as bad as Jessie pretended. In part, it was a desire to protect Elizabeth from the world so that she could get on with her writing, something Elizabeth probably needed. But it was good to find out that she possessed a little of her Mother’s iron will and ruled her own fate and home life.
One of the questions I wanted to ask was about Elizabeth’s lifestyle, and if it was true about the simplistic nature of her life. She had indeed lived a regulated, quiet life, with good simple food, a writing regime and a routine of pray and contemplation. I was delighted to find that she too had her own personal alter, it sounded like a prie-dieu, or kneeling stool, for praying. Erlys had found a battered statue of the Madonna in an attic at Rose Cottage after Elizabeth’s death.
Erlys was too young to have met Elizabeth’s Mother and didn’t know anything about a relationship in her distant past at Ely, but then I don’t suppose that it would have been the sort of thing that Elizabeth would have confided to a young girl. She also knew nothing about her connection to Evelyn Underhill, although she did remember that she had used a quote from her at the beginning of Green Dolphin Country, this apparently being Elizabeth’s name for an earthly paradise or Shangri-la. She too thought that had Elizabeth been alive now, she might well have been considered “new age” with her empathy towards all sincere religious strivings.
She said she thought it would surprise many people to know that Elizabeth would have been firmly on the Muslims side and outraged at the war being waged in Iraq. She would have seen it as a failing on our part of faith and negotiations. We have become a secular society, and although she was liberal in her thoughts, views and actions, she was also able to see our weakness and their strengths.
I found out that when Elizabeth had stayed with them, she had sat in the window overlooking the bay when writing. She had always bought the dogs, and Jessie drove them around the area, to all the places of interest that they visited, such as Roch and St David’s. She was apparently not a quick writer, as she liked to undertake through research before she wrote on a subject. She had a good relationship with her publishers Hodder & Stoughton, who over the years had reason to trust her methods. Nothing like today when publishers expect a book every other year or so from their authors. She knew other writers well and was one of the inner circle which included Mary Steward and Rosemary Sutcliffe. Confirmation of the letter I have got at last! Erlys when I told her agreed with me that it certainly sounded like it was to them, and said that Jessie had indeed disposed of books and papers at Elizabeth’s request.
I asked her if she would share her favourite memory of Elizabeth with me, and after a slight hesitation, she did.
She had gone through a sticky and thoroughly unpleasant divorce, I don’t suppose they are often simple or pleasant, but Jessie had been very unsympathetic and not understood the situation at all. Marriage was for life as far as she was concerned and that was that. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had been understanding and empathic towards the frightened, distressed Erlys, earning her deep gratitude. Elizabeth told Jessie that she shouldn’t be so quick to judge a situation that she knew little about and that they should support Erlys in her time of need.
Later with the divorce in the past, she met her present husband and when they realised that the relationship they had was going to be special and long lasting, she wanted to take him to meet the person whom she had come to love and respect and who had stood by her in her dark days.
It was nine o’clock at night and Elizabeth, now in her seventies, was already in bed when they arrived. Jessie was all for making them wait till the morning, but Elizabeth insisted that they are shown up immediately, and held court in her bed without the least show of shyness or reserve. She was so pleased that Erlys had found happiness and love and wanted to meet the person she loved.
This sounded like something Lucilla would have done.
Both Erlys and her husband’s abiding memory of her is of her compassion and grace, a great lady, an epithet that would have delighted and abashed the shy Elizabeth.
Another story she told me was of a dinner party held at Rose Cottage shortly after Elizabeth’s death. Jessie was still living there, although it was becoming increasingly obvious that she would have to move nearer to Erlys to be looked after.
There were two other guests beside Jessie and herself, her daughter Helen, home from University and a blind lady whose name Erlys couldn’t recall. They were sitting at the dining table in the rather small cottage and Jessie had got up to fetch something from the kitchen.
Erlys was sitting with her back toward the double doors that led into another room when she saw a hooded or cloaked man walk towards her across the room, and disappear through the doors. She felt the classic cold shiver and realised that she had seen a ghost. The blind lady, who had been talking, stopped and followed the apparition as if she could see it too.
As her daughter was present and Jessie was still living in the house, Erlys did not tell them what had occurred in case they were frightened or thought she had imagined it.
Some time later, when Jessie was living in the nursing home in Wales, Erlys told Jessie what had happened and to her surprise, Jessie was very matter of fact about it. She told her that Elizabeth had seen the Monk/Priest a few times and neither of them had been concerned about sharing their home with a ghost.
She also mentioned something about the ghost in Devon at Pomeroy Castle, which I know nothing about. I think in fact that it was Jessie who introduced Elizabeth to spiritualism, although I can’t quite make this fit with her Presbyterian faith. Pomeroy Castle is the Castle on the Hill that Elizabeth wrote about in the book of the same name and is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in Britain.
By this time I felt that I must wind down the interview, as the weather was closing in and I felt rather sorry for my husband wandering around in the cold and wet with his camera. In fact, he ended up coming in for coffee while Erlys kindly printed off a copy of an article that she had about Elizabeth from the “This England” magazine autumn 1989. The interview had gone well and they had both been so kind to two complete strangers. She also gave me a photograph of Elizabeth I had never seen before, a head and shoulders shot, taken in a studio, possibly for publicity purposes. It is one of my treasured mementoes of this wonderful author.
Wells Somerset, a perfect late summer morning. A dark dogs leg of an arch and we enter the circle of The Green, lined with its gracious houses and the back of The Swann Inn, the very one from which the pumpkin shaped coach left to pick up travellers from the train station when Elizabeth lived here. The grass, velvet in the shadows, gardens hung with their late season’s colours and a few people wandering or going purposefully about their business.
We had come to find Tower House, where Elizabeth had been born and where is lived out the first few years of her life. We knew, thanks to Sylvia Gower approximately whereabouts it was, but I thought I would ask at the local museum anyway. After a little investigation with the help of Google, the curator told me she thought it was in St Andrews Rd and gave me directions, it wasn’t far.
We passed mullioned windows where the notes of practising musicians fell over the pavements, an older melodious sound in contrast to the modern noise of traffic. Tall stone walls and mature trees seemed to hide the most likely candidate. But although there were doors in the wall, there was no indication of a name or anything to confirm our belief. Along one side of the garden wall the ground was raised and we tried from here to glimpse a view, to gain some clue as to what lay behind its defences, but no luck. We crossed the road and mounted the step to a Music college, balancing precariously, but still trees blocked a view. We walked back around the perimeter, and I picked up a chestnut from amongst the debris fallen from what we really thought was Elizabeth’s garden. She was fond of redheads, and the poll of the cob in my hand was a small consolation.
My partner, however, was a little more pro-active and tried the green door in the wall as we passed. I think we were both a little surprised when the handle turned and the door opened to his touch. There could be no doubt, we had found Tower House, easily recognisable from George’s black and white photo. Nick quickly snapped a few shots and we were just about to close the door and quietly leave when the most Goudgian moment occurred.
A woman was walking towards us burdened with bags of shopping and I knew from her expression and the route she was taking that she was the owner and resident of the house. I stepped forward and asked her if she was indeed the person who lived here, and if this was Tower house, the Tower House that Elizabeth Goudge had been born in? At the mention of Elizabeth’s name she smiled and assured us we did indeed have the right house and then invited us in for a better look!
After putting her shopping away she introduced herself as Pam. She told us she had lived here for many years and had got a little wary of tourists. I told her about the website and she confessed that “she didn’t do them” but seemed pleased and interested that we had met so fortuitously.
She asked us if we would like to see something rather special, indeed something unique to the place we were in. We were as intrigued as she intended us to be and followed her, without turning round as she also requested. We walked through the walled garden, past herbaceous beds and through an orchard which would have delighted the young Elizabeth, tawny grass with the dew still on and caught leaves dealing out splashes of colour. It was quiet, the sound of traffic muted by the high old walls, covered with climbers.
As we drew closer to the wall we had tried so hard to see over, she asked us to turn around and look.
It was a view that only those who lived there would be able to see. The towers of the cathedral rising over the walls and greeting the tower of her home across the city streets. A ripple of roofs, a mountain side of carved stone and pinnacles, trees from other gardens. The view that Hugh Anthony and Henrietta would have seen from their bedroom window, the view that had shaped Elizabeth’s early world.
Pam had also met Kate Lindeman from the states and had shown her a rosemary tree such as Elizabeth had written about, growing to “the height of Our Lord while he was alive on earth.” My partner snapped away while we spoke and then we took our leave, speechless at our luck. If we hadn’t persisted and hung about, if we hadn’t had the courage to try the door, to “walk into the painting” we would not have been in the right place at the right time to have gained access to a place so connected with Elizabeth, which had helped to shape the person she became.
In 1974, the B.B.C. sent one of their immaculately spoken interviewers, to visit the successful and talented writer Elizabeth Goudge at her home Rose Cottage deep in the Chiltern countryside. When asked what she expected Elizabeth to be like, Jane an acquaintance said she thought that Elizabeth would be a well dressed, handsome, older woman surrounded by friends and family, living in a large and gracious home, rather like the matriarchal characters that inhabit Elizabeth’s work, a Lucilla in fact. Jane was a great fan of Elizabeth’s work, exulting in the lavish description of landscape she used and the detail of the feasts and parties that so many of her novels include. She appreciated the depth given to the characters and the comfort that Elizabeth’s stories provide in an uncertain world. The knowledge that good will continue its fight against evil, even if the struggle seems at times hopeless, the outcome uncertain.
In fact at that time Rose Cottage was very small with only one room downstairs, the kitchen being built out in an extension, and with only two bedrooms upstairs, it must have come as something of a shock. Elizabeth herself could not be less like Lucilla, being more a cross between Margaret Eliot and Jean Anderson. The previous inhabitants of the cottage had been The Rectory coachman who was succeeded by his daughter, a benign ghost whose presence both Elizabeth and Jessie were aware of.
The cottage was wonderfully chaotic, with Frodo the current Dandy allowed to keep his bones in the fire place, and the space cluttered with objects inherited, sent by avid readers of her work, and items Elizabeth was just interested in such as a collection of watches, one of which belonged to a grandfather of Jessie’s, the inspiration for the “The Dean’s Watch.”
“For it was not only a beautiful watch but an uncommon one. It had a jewelled watch cock of unusual design, showing a man carrying a burden on his shoulders. Isaac had seen hundreds of watch cocks during his professional life, and many of them had had impish faces peeping through flowers and leaves, but never so far as he could remember one showing a human figure. The pillars were of plain cylindrical form, as in most of Graham’s watches. He had never favoured elaborate pillars for like all great craftsmen he had always made ornament subsidiary to usefulness. Isaac closed the thin gold shell that protected the delicate mechanism and turned the watch over. It had a fine enamelled dial with a wreath of flowers within the hour ring. The outer case was of plain gold with the monogram A. A. engraved upon one side, and upon the other a Latin motto encircling the crest of a mailed hand holding a sword.”
(Dean’s Watch 1960 p 13)
I learnt that she had a collection of horse brasses, bought for her by Jessie, one for each book she had published. They reflected the theme of each story Elizabeth had written. A Welsh Woman in a tall hat for “Child From The Sea”, a dolphin for “Green Dolphin Country”, a bell for “City of Bells”, and so on. Elizabeth wrote eloquently about the teams of horses used on the land, from the Hampshire fields of the Eliot’s to the Somerset of The Rosemary Tree, the round of the arable year was to her moving poetry.
No mention was made of the Icon on the Wall, a painting which is visible in one of the photographs I have of Elizabeth, and the title of one of her collection of short stories. But we were introduced to the Little Things, though sadly, not in any detail. They had been a gift from a Channel Isle Aunt. Elizabeth said that like her Aunt and her Mother before her, she had given away some of the collection to children who had seemed to connect to them, and that this was only a remnant of the collection. Which little boy got the Gnome Mary gives to Isaac in Scent of Water, who Queen Mab in her hazelnut coach?
She gave a wonderful description of the figurine that Miguel crafted and gave to her, part bird, part man, a Franciscan monk ‘with a very naughty look on his face. I wonder what became of it? I felt privileged to know the background to the Prisoner story Elizabeth related, although no mention was made of her relationship with his family.
No allusion was made to her austere and simple life style, or to where she worked and wrote. I cannot imagine someone who uses their bedroom as a retreat from the world, using the same space to write in. Yet the old cottage had no small study space that could be used. She must have written in the large downstairs room with its view of Dog Lane and front garden.
It was interesting hearing her speak, so 1940’s in the rhythm and patterns, so of her class and time. Yet she belonged to Amnesty, before they became International.
They talked about seals and how they came to Jessie but not to her and the interviewer played some seal noises recorded in Pembrokeshire. They spoke of the cottage they stayed in above the bay, and I remembered the window she wrote in and the view of the sea, the little harbour wall and the pink fuchsias swinging in the wind.
“He ceased playing and listened, and from over the water was answered by a low fluting cry. It was so mysterious, so beautiful and yet so eerie that when Charles took Lucy’s hand he found it was cold and trembling He played a few noted like a call and was answered. He did it again and again and each time like an echo his music came back to him. Now here, now there, now near, now far.”
(Goudge 1970 Child from the Sea p 346).
When asked about her hobbies, if she had time for any, Elizabeth spoke eloquently about her love of music and of one piece in particular, the opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s third piano concerto. It had seemed to her as if the orchestra had come down to meet the soloist, and it was if eternity had come down and picked up the mortal thing that was Elizabeth and she was comforted, lifted out of her misery.
She spoke too about the embroidered chair seats she had made depicting wild flowers such as Bryony and Rose, a family skill inherited from her Great Grandmother, whose sampler had been made into a fire screen.
There was no mention of her love of poetry, in fact there was no discussion of her creative life at all, it was a sort of “Home and Garden” of a famous writer, rather than an in depth look at her life and work.
The garden which had been wrestled from the wilderness by Jessie, was walked round and the herbs and old roses discussed at length. Elizabeth recounted folk lore about Rosemary being a protection against evil, never growing higher than the height of Christ while He lived on Earth, and Rue granting second or clear sight. Which was the reason it was often grown in graveyards. There were fennel, hyssop, wild strawberries, red sage, herba Barona, caraway thyme, for rubbing on a baron of beef, if you ever had any, tansy, and a Glastonbury Thorn given by a friend who was a nun.
The old roses were told over as if they were beads on a rosary. Maiden’s Blush, Apothecary and Rosa Mundi, fair Rosamund, William Lobb, a moss rose, hips and leaf colour as important as the flowers, Gold finch that smelt of pineapple. It was a hide and seek garden that children loved.
It was obvious that Jessie was the plants woman and loved her garden as Elizabeth loved her words. But Elizabeth detested Magpies, they had wreaked havoc on the small bird population of the garden. She saw them sitting in an old oak at the bottom of the garden, preying on the other birds. Despite being a pacifist if she had known how to fire a gun and had one she would have shot them all!
The tour ended at the well which Elizabeth said was a rain water well. She began talking about making the garden well safe because of all the children who visited her and her concern for their safety. Did many children come and stay she was asked? Oh yes very many, Elizabeth replied with a smile in her voice.
Here the interview ended. It had been a privilege to walk with Elizabeth round her home, to listen to her voice and see through her eyes some of the things that inspired her and that made up her inner life and enriched her days. Being such a private person, it was a small miracle to me to have this almost complete interview to listen to.
I want to thank you for doing this website and having an Elizabeth Goudge Society [how does one join?]. At this time of year, coming up to Christmas, I often re-read either The Herb of Grace or The Dean’s Watch or one of her children’s books for the amazing descriptions of wonderful Christmases in England.
I started reading her books when I was about ten years old, living in New Jersey and getting them from the library and they became the enchanted kingdom I disappeared into when my own life was too difficult [my mother was ill and alcoholic and times could be rough]. I read the adult books because the library didn’t have any of her children’s books.
Many years later, an animal lover and intrepid about wild animals, I took a break from being a research librarian and went to work with seals and sea lions in a free-release setting in Key West Florida. Here I won the trust of an abused sea lion by singing to her because I remembered this being described in The Child From the Sea. And it worked — this 300 pound beast crawled into my lap. The only problem was that every time I stopped singing she growled at me. I must have sung every show tune I knew for hours.
Elizabeth Goudge’s books, along with the Mary Poppins books, Wind in the Willows and everything by Rumer Godden, were all instrumental in my decision to up sticks from the USA and move to England. I lived in Devon for 20 years [1986 to 2006] in a thatched cottage and made a lovely garden. Here too I found ultimately almost all of EG’s books in wonderful second-hand bookshops [mostly in Ashburton] and off Amazon. And I found Providence Cottage in Marldon, still called that, and whoever they were they had corgis, which I think Elizabeth might have enjoyed.
Of course I spent time in the New Forest and Buckler’s Hard and imagined that a small lane south of the Hard going down to the River Beaulieu would lead to the Herb of Grace. [That’s still my favourite book of all.] I also visited Ely [but I think that the cathedral she describes in The Dean’s Watch seems to be the cathedral in Lincoln] and Wells [where I had my first collision with nettles – ouch! — while I was standing on a fallen log to peer over the high stone wall at the back of the choir master’s house, which I thought must be the place were she was born].
And like Elizabeth I started having spiritual and ghostly experiences in England, which had never happened to me in the United States. All positive I’m glad to say, or at least not fearful. I always had an open mind in that regard, and rather hoped such things existed, but never expected to experience them. It is most amazing and lovely and helps me to live more fully and trustingly.
I’m happy to say that I was pretty much born an Anglophile, and living in England suited me entirely, even though for various reasons I retired to France in 2006, where I have again made a garden and continue read Elizabeth Goudge.
Thanks again for the lovely website, I am going to enjoy reading the various postings on Goudge Talk [and you are welcome to post this if you would like to].
I am an ardent fan of the writings of Miss Goudge and owe her much in the way of the joy it has given me to read her books. I have collected many (though not all) of her books, and I have read them over and over since I was a young girl in the 60’s . I am English by ancestry, and I love the way Miss Goudge describes the England of long ago. Unfortunately a short trip to London in ’88 did not allow me to explore those places in her books to see if they were how I pictured them. One of these days I want to travel to Pembrokeshire to see Roch Castle, and St. David’s in Wales.
My favourite book is Child from the Sea, and I would like to believe that Lucy was not the amoral creature her attackers have portrayed in other publications. I find it very interesting that Diana, Princess of Wales, has a connection to Lucy through common ancestors. Maybe royal people named Charles just can’t be trusted! The very first time I was reading Child from the Sea, I was with a boyfriend who I just discovered was unfaithful, and I was reading the part where Lucy “realized that Charles had been unfaithful to her, and that Anne was cruel to tell her so” and I cried more for Lucy’s hurt than for mine. Every time I read that book I hope things will turn out differently (I know, of course it doesn’t)
Another favourite book I love is the Scent of Water, which was the first book Goudge book I read, and it has always remained so magical for me. I , too, have a collection of “little (precious) things” largely due to the idea in the book of having beautiful tiny precious objects. I will be leaving them to nieces someday.
It has disturbed me to read criticisms of Elizabeth Goudge’s work. I think she was a wonderful writer, and she had a way of making the surroundings and events in her stories so real that they became real in my mind, and also she was dead-on in her descriptions of human issues and feelings, which, of course, are not bound to the confines of a book. Her books had beautiful truth in them, which is why I read them over and over.
I also love The White Witch, for a different view of the Civil War. I am so glad Miss Goudge lived at Froniga’s house. I would love to visit it someday, and see if the village and surroundings have any of the same feel today as in the story. The Dean’s Watch, City of Bells, Green Dolphin Street, and Pilgrim’s Inn are also wonderful stories. Thank goodness there are people born to be writers like Elizabeth Goudge. I am sad she is gone and hope that her books continue to be read and appreciated.
I am Véronique. In my teen years, I read as many books I could from Elizabeth Goudge. I don’t know why for me, and I learnt after, so many French people, her books were so magic. Some twenty years ago, I went to the Buckler’s hard to find some memories of “The Herb of Grace”. I was not disappointed. Two years ago, I went back, now it is a little bit too touristic, but at least preserved.
Today I just came back from Ely and from Peppard common, and I was feeling very sad, that people in the cathedral or nearby her home, don’t seem to know her any more. So thank you for this web site, thank you for her and all her readers.
Yes Elizabeth stayed at Harewood House and mentions Mrs Adams by name in her auto-biography Joy of the Snow. The Eliots of Damerosehay inhabit Harewood and Mrs Adams love of cats morphed into their love of dogs. Elizabeth kept dogs too.
Good luck with the research and the book.
regards Deborah Gaudin
Date: 12 Nov 20th 2006
Ely Cathedral was nothing like I remembered. All I could feel last time we came, was a dark brooding presence, who was not at all welcoming. But this time, no threat, no looming gloom, just light, that’s what I remember first, light. From the car park The Cathedral looked so insubstantial as if about to take flight. Inside the highly painted ceiling demanded attention, followed by awe as one’s eye took off up and up into that wonderful lantern, high above the aisle and alter. The first tier had flowers and leaves climbing up towards Royalty, then the saints in their beatitude, then angels, then Christ in glory right in the middle at the apex, one of the great lights of the Western World.
Something I hadn’t known about Ely, and Elizabeth doesn’t mention either, was that it was founded in the 5th century by a woman St Ethelred. She established a nunnery and monastery combined which lasted until the 10th century. The city’s history begins in “The Dean’s Watch” with Duke Rollo and his castle, which must have ousted poor St Ethelred and her nuns. I lit a candle and said a quiet prayer at her shrine. A statute had been erected at the spot where Her shrine used to be. In her autobiography “Joy of the Snow” however she does tell us about her favourite saint’s day at Ely, which is the Feast of St Ethelred. Elizabeth writes that the city gave thanks that day, to” not only St Ethelred, herself, queen, Abbess, and Patron Saint, but for all benefactors of the Cathedral. Every one stripped their gardens of their loveliest blooms, and then decorated the Cathedral with, armfuls of Michaelmas daisies, dahlias, Japanese anemones, and the first chrysanthemums, and the treasures of the last roses” After all the tombs, chantrys and aisles had been decorated with flowers, there was a festival service and the choir then proceeded around the Cathedral singing “For All The Saints”. Afterwards in splendid Edwardian fashion, they all trooped off to High tea at The Deanery.
I can only think that Elizabeth must have taken part in these parties with reluctance. Not only was she shy in company, but her figure was always so slender! Elizabeth grew up in this sheltered city in the Fens. She and her family spent twelve very happy years here. Even being send away to school was muted by the glory of the homecoming. Her father was a canon at the cathedral and a principle of the theosophical college here, and for her mother it was a light airy place, with sea like views over the Fens. Here, in the hard heart of the fens her creative mind expanded and took flight. The austerity of the sweeping winds, the vast expanses of sky and cloud, the small, secure social rounds that build up a community were all vastly appealing to Elizabeth.
I went and sat outside Bishop West’s Chantry Chapel. Inside I could hear the hum of women talking and holding a prayer meeting. Eventually, two ladies came out. One, who was quite elderly but very smartly dressed, helped the other even older woman into a wheelchair. They both set off down the aisle twittering softly to each other like small brown birds! Very Goudgian! When the rest of the ladies had left, all of whom smiled or greeted me in passing, I went inside. The stone had been carved and fretted until it resembled a giant wedding cake, a wedding of the Soul and mind. From the windows obscure saints stared down at me. The dominant colour was dark blue, very striking. All the hassocks have been embroidered with a Tudor Rose. The ceiling has ornate angels, blowing trumpets, praying, all in a very elaborate Italianate manner. The sun came and went on the page and I felt an affinity with Elizabeth Goudge I had not looked for last time I came.
Psalm 84:10 arrested my attention as I was leaving the chapel. “I would rather be a Doorkeeper in the house of My God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Although the tents of wickedness sound quite fun, the sentiment is one I concur with.
Our last port of call was The Lady Chapel. Again the first impression was one of light. It had been the brunt of Parliamentarian anger, as it was dedicated to Mary, an idol, as they saw it. All the statues and frescos portraying the life of Jesus and Mary had had all their heads smashed off. No carving was left intact. The windows were smashed, which lost all the medieval glass, but did let the light in. A new statue of the Virgin Mary has been commissioned for the millennium. She is large, very blue, and has Her arms held aloft and empty. Her son has already been taken from Her. But She still has more left to give. Although She looked a little Disneyeque, She was very striking. The whole place appeared to be scoured out. It reminded me of a woman after her menopause, not ready for death, with life still in her, children of her body gone, ready for children of the mind to take their place. Again, I don’t know why, Elizabeth seems to miss out all mention of the Lady Chapel. I know that she wasn’t anti catholic, and indeed writes movingly about their faith. Like all truly spiritual people, she does not differentiate between faiths. It is the love of God and the striving for right motive which she depicts. Work men were renovating the Processional Way to the chapel and had already completed the chapel ceiling. With the aid of a wonderful mirror on wheels, we were able to see all the bosses. There were two dragons curled up asleep, like cats. The Way had been repaired using lovely wood and gold headed angels, putti, as in Henrietta’s bedroom in Wells.
From: Paul Gray
Category: Category 1
Date: 12 Nov 2006
Time: 11:53:30 -0000
Remote Name: 126.96.36.199
Thank you for the lovely description of Ely. Have visited several times. Did you see the simple statue of Jesus meeting Mary in the garden at His resurrection? So touching and so simplistic. I would think that Elizabeth Goudge would have loved it.
Excerpts from an email conversation about Elizabeth Goudge
Between Carol McDonough and Lorender Freeman, Australia
LF Climb the stairs to the upper floor of the Bendigo library [regional Victoria, Australia] and there is The Stack. These are the books no longer in demand, but which the library, fortunately, considers too good to be discarded. They may be borrowed and include many fine novels published in the 1940s, 50s and 60s and now largely forgotten. They have a generous collection of Elizabeth Goudge.
I first encountered Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984), when my father read The Little White Horse to my brothers and me. When I left home I became the guardian of our family’s copy of this book and read this ever-delightful story to my own children, but it was only about fifteen years ago that I began to read her many adult novels, realizing that these apparently genteel stories were passionate and revelatory.
CMcD Ah! The Stack! That is where I first read The Valley of Song, one of her children’s books which profoundly speak to adults. An inspirational book, written during WW2 in a chaotic, despairing time for Elizabeth, it is not one of her favourites. For me it speaks to “See how they love one another” as foundational for a town or a Christian community to live in poured-out resourceful harmony close to the inter-penetrating “king/queendom” of heaven. A long meditation created as delightful evocative story, I always think the pre-text for that book is “unless you become as a little child you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Tonight I found myself saying to a friend that Elizabeth Goudge is as deep, broad and wide as her contemporary Evelyn Underhill, as theologian and spiritual guide in the English spiritual tradition. Her over half century opus of children and adult novels, stories, poems, prayers, and collections, concluding with her autobiography, was published from 1919-1974. Who is Elizabeth for you?
LF If I look into a novel I consider among her best, The Herb of Grace, I’m reminded that yes, Elizabeth Goudge is a spiritual guide, and in the English tradition, or rather, my view of the English spiritual tradition, deeply coloured by the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopedias and English poetry. Beneath the patterns of admirable and satisfying romance, and the deep sense of place, lie simple structures of necessary goodness. Goudge needs the pleasure of the stories as much as this reader and she needs to instruct. How much do you think this goes back to her childhood, part of it lived in the shadow of Ely Cathedral?
CMcD Her childhood was spent first in the Cathedral Close of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, then the family moved to the great fens where her family lived in the Cathedral Close of Ely. Her father, Henry, whose silk weaver family back ground was Evangelical, and who in his teen years immersed himself in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England, was priest, theologian and author. In his Theological College Principal positions, he took the family to Wells, Ely and subsequently to Oxford where he was Regis Professor of Divinity. By virtue of her being, her father’s scholarship and devotion profoundly formed the young Elizabeth. As did her mother, Ida Colette, daughter of St Peter’s Port, Guernsey, whose weaving of myth and legend into vibrant story was a passionate gift to Elizabeth. She says in her last book, an autobiography, The Joy of the Snow: I began to write…as a child at Wells and have hardly left off since… First published when still living at home, she speaks of her father and her sitting on the floor wrapping copies of that first novel, “They are our children”, he said.” And of Ely:
How can one describe the place? Wells was fairyland, in my memory a diaphanous Cathedral and a city so hidden from the world that is seemed to have dropped out of the world, but Ely had the hard strength of reality. The cathedral leaped on you like a lion, taking you captive beyond hope of escape, but the lion was Aslan the divine lion. Once the bondage had been accepted, the pursuer became protector… Without it one might have felt lost and desolate in the vast flatness that lay helplessly beneath the huge dome of the sky, but with it, one was safe, tied to it by an invisible cord.
Cords are a recurring thread in her novels. Good heavens! I just picked out the award winning, and filmed, Green Dolphin Country. I had forgotten that her beginning quote A threefold cord shall not be broken is by Evelyn Underhill! It is oft quoted in the text and is the theme of that longest novel where she, not claiming mysticism as her home, personifies the qualities Elizabeth describes in the “cord” between her three primary characters, Margeurite, Marianne and William.
Three deep cravings of the self…which only mystic truth can satisfy. The first is the craving, the longing to go out from the normal world, which makes him a pilgrim and a wanderer…The next is the craving of heart for heart, the soul for its perfect mate which makes him a lover. The third is the craving for inward purity and perfection which makes him an ascetic, and in the last resort a saint.
In her epic storytelling, Goudge gently, explicitly, unfolds the growing of these from one “natural” element in each as a child towards the wholeness of the three elements expressed in them all in stimulating old age; a life journey to which she inspires each of us, without preaching.
As her thought and expression unfold through, as you say, the “goodness” of her works, in the mystic and other elements of the English spiritual tradition, “shot through with brightness” of her life experience, do you find these or other qualities maturing to wholeness as she journeys into God?
LF A big question. The Herb of Grace is about movement toward wholeness. Each character must pass through the flame which burns away self-delusion and ignorance. They work at their own fates, but their fates are dependent on each other and on God, and the story provides all manner of revelation, sometimes confronting, sometimes beautiful, sometimes deliciously outrageous as Goudge imposes her necessary order. (Not to mention her inevitable loving portrayals of houses and dogs. Being a cat person I find the dogs wearying, but the detailed evocations of houses, and their importance to the story, is deep and satisfying).
If I look into The Herb of Grace as a child might, I’m almost immediately confronted by piercing dilemmas of love and self-knowledge, as disturbingly relevant as the other times I’ve read this book. How does she know all this stuff?! In The Joy of the Snow she lets little slip about these aspects of her own life. Or am I obtuse?
CMcD How does the entering into intimate piercing dialogue with her world enable us to penetrate ours in the increasingly different (or is it?) twenty-first century?
I wonder…..What words most encapsulate her opus for you? At present, the words, which seem similar to yours, are “yearning towards wholeness”. That, in all or most of her works, as she traces the relationships with place, time, animals and people, she is unfolding that desire in the human spirit for integration, for dynamic harmony within and with all…..for peace. Consciously or unconsciously or both, might she be charting her own journey? The long slow times; the sudden leaps forward in understanding and knowledge which, when reflected on and lived into, might lead towards wisdom. While delighting in the healing balm and inspiration of beauty in all its forms, in the natural world and in relationship, she endured the transformation which comes, when given to God, of the suffering of her dark times, both inner, from which she certainly suffered and gained great insight- and outer, on the stage of world history as she experienced it. She lived consciously, sensitively, painfully and reflectively in the domestic, local community and church spheres through two world wars, impacting in her immediate present, and beyond. Might she “know all this disturbing stuff” because she took time to observe and reflect; she took time to be still; she took time for exploring and growing into a deep and deepening relationship with her God. Though life circumstances moved her around southern England, she took time in each place to put down roots and source stability. She reveled in beloved poetry. All these were, for her, sources for the “dearest freshness deep down things”, as George Herbert tells it.
LF To enter into dialogue with her world… unavoidable in the reading of her, I don’t think that it makes any difference, 20th century or 21st, the problems of living honourably are the same, to fully stand in the realities of her world is to acknowledge our responsibilities to creation. Which is wonderful , as in exciting and pleasurable and wonderfully demanding, for in that heady atmosphere float the implicit questions,
“Can you change? can you be fully human? can you act from your higher self?”
In wondering about her knowledge of love and its follies, I’m also being curious, looking between the lines for gossip. I remember my surprised delight when the estranged husband in The Scent of Water goes into the bedroom and tells his wife to shove over, yet my low curiosity about Elizabeth Goudge’s experience of fleshly delights soon fizzles out in the face of her greater preoccupations.
A story. The last few weeks I’ve been reading a lot, and went to look for Goudge’s in Book Heaven, finding two “juveniles” – Linnets and Valerians and, never sighted before, Smoky-House – which I immediately read from beginning to end. The last chapter is titled Happy Ever After, and me being mildly sick, I no doubt read it as a child, wholly entranced and bemused. And was drawn back into childhood…
In the 50s my parents would often push their boys into the car on a Saturday morning and drive to the old lending library in La Trobe Street, Melbourne, then part of the grand State Library, Museum, and NGV building. We’d borrow a pile of books and park in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, Mum and Dad disappearing into Jimmy Watson’s wine shop (in its original humble shop front) while we settled to our fate of being stuck in the car with naught but brothers and books for an hour or two.
Around this time I read a book which bowled me over with its rich sense of possibility, I’d never read anything like it before, where the events in the book were so obviously right and wonderful and magically fateful. Sometime after the book was returned I wanted to read it again, and began a long and hopeless search. I never found it, I didn’t remember the title or author, it seemed that I’d had a glimpse into another world and would never again enter that portal. As time passed my memory of the book diminished to a vague memory of a ship, a cove, possibly pirates. I’ve thought about it over the years, and come to the conclusion that even if I came across the book now I wouldn’t, couldn’t, know whether it was the one.
Deep into Smoky-House, in the chapter The Ship in the Cove, I come to a striking illustration by C.Walter Hodges of a boy gazing upon a sailing ship that seemed made out of night and sunshine… This may be the lost book, well, I think it is. But can never be certain.
CMcD Children! I watch my growing exploring granddaughters with delight. Reading with the eyes of a child…fractalled through the eyes of the adult… I have just reread her trilogy of Henrietta, growing through nine to eleven, A City of Bells, The Sister of the Angels: A Christmas Story, and Henrietta’s House, which maybe, even more than The Scent of Water, tells us of her journey. Henrietta is modelled on her “child”, in her formative life in Wells, celebrated in A City of Bells. For purposes of this novel, Wells is renamed Torminster, bringing together Wells and mystical Glastonbury Tor, Avalon. The dedication of Henrietta’s House, time slipping, moving between what might be fantasy and reality, as does Avalon, commences
There were once two little girls, and one had fair hair and lived in the Cathedral Close of Torminster and the other had dark hair and lived up in the Blue Hills above the city, and they were friends….
At the end of this tale she excessively concludes
So this is the end of the story of Henrietta’s house, and even though it is not strictly speaking a fairy tale – because except for the possible exception of the disappearance of the motor car nothing out of the ordinary happened on Hugh Anthony’s birthday, it can be turned into one by saying that everybody lived happily ever after.
Outrageous! The disappearance of the car is the easiest thing to justify a simple theft! The rest of that afternoon birthday party, nothing out of the ordinary? Well! Through entrancing story we do learn of the power of prayer and the triumph of good over human inadequacy and intentional evil.
I wonder…. in many of her books, both so called “children” and so called “adult”, which all ages can read for delight and personal profit, she intimates the interpenetration of the world of the senses and the worlds of “intuition”, “spirit”, “faery”, “the kingdom of God”, all “working together for good for those who love…”
As in Herb of Grace (and the whole Damerosehay trilogy), in the outworking of Lucilla’s family over three generations, here she is searching piercing dilemmas of love and self knowledge, through the heart-wrenching inspiring stories of Henrietta, a supposed orphan, becoming reconciled and accommodating to her painter father’s odd lifestyle, whilst living with Hugh Anthony, his grandparents [a priest, canon and his wife] and their surrounding adults.
When one’s child’s heart becomes Love-pierced by Mystery through life’s hard knocks and redemptions, what might there be of possibilities in the child soul for movement towards wholeness for the adult person one is becoming? Elizabeth Goudge asks and explores this mystery, for her, “shot through” with the English “Anglican mind”, culture and tradition.
“To fully stand in the realities of her world is to acknowledge our responsibilities to creation,” you say. I broke into sparkling-eyed smiles. That’s IT! She was immersed in the natural world and the place of human beings within, not over, as ways of the unremarkable responsible relationship with all creation we humans used more to live. We don’t see the more recent kinds of self-critical, self-obsessed or its opposite, denial, about Earth, scourging us who have reaped the benefits, and the escalating bane of earth’s resources exploitation to the cost of future generations and even our own.
[DELETE IN BRACKETS MAYBE coz too many allusions to the Anglican style genre? Here are excerpts of her prayers from A Diary of Prayer, rhythmically swinging through the Anglican liturgical year. It took me forever to realize the unacknowledged ones in her prayer diary are her own….
A prayer before starting any work.
Lord in union with the Love which made Thee deign to occupy Thyself in work, I Elizabeth Goudge Thee to unite my work with Thy most perfect acts and make it perfect; as a drop of water, poured into a great river, does all that river does.
What intrigues me here, for her prayer for union within and with the work of Christ is similar to many of the greats, in century order among them Benedict, Teresa, Ignatius, Wesley, Charles de Foucauld – is her phrase “does all that river does” not the river; implicit is “River”. She communicates the sense, not only are we one with the great River of Life of the visions of Ezekiel and John the Divine, in time before and after Christ and fulfilled Christ Consciousness, but also that River is entity-in-itself, with life, honored place, essential purpose in creation. ]
LF 11th February, 2009, windy, cool, sunny, far from tragedy but not far.
Nearby donkeys call into the bright and wild air. Last night, visiting Samantha and Sid, reading a poem Sam had just written about the last week , the heat, Eli’s first days at school, the fallout from the fires, I felt the poem was about our collective immaturity, the fires (like global warming) a manifestation of our over-abundant emotional outpourings and needs, untempered by reflection and empathy. Yes, we can be sentimental and expressive, but how we deny the laments of nature, the demands on sanity and clarity, how easily feeling becomes violence.
Yesterday morning, Father Ken led a little requiem mass for the 173 bushfire dead on Black Saturday 2009. It was moving and deeply shared I think by those present. One of the readings was from Job, as used by Elizabeth Goudge to introduce and title The Scent of Water. A few weeks ago I re-read this book, the story of a late middle-aged woman’s, impulsive but conscious journey into her past, the wonders attending her decision to experience the real England before it vanished. It’s an odd, messy book, too many people, too many ship shapely resolutions, but beautiful in its discoveries and range, thrilling in its vitality. And again, the question of Home, such a big thing in Elizabeth Goudge’s writing, and of course her life, as in the way Mary, in The Scent of Water, approaches the cottage that has been left to her; indeed the whole book is, on one level, a very slow journey through that cottage, like something out of Tarkovsky, just as The Herb of Grace is most wonderfully about the bit by bit revelation of a house (and Home), and the depth of hospitality that a building can hold. I’ve always been perplexed by these things, I grew up with notions of the English village and cottage as ideal, but my first visit there, at 32, found me overwhelmed by the sense of past lives, the feeling of history palpably underfoot, almost claustrophobic. Yet reading The Little White Horse to my children provoked an epic sense of enfranchisement, the coming to Moonacre Manor and all that that involves.
CMcD 16th May 2010
Elizabeth Goudge’s opus fills nearly two bookshelf meters. Nearly all out of print, from op shops and second hand bookshops, it has taken decades to collect all but the first rare two. My joy, when I found her hardbound Damerosehay Trilogy in Castlemaine itself, for the vast sum of $6! Over the last few years Elizabeth Goudge has been “found”. Partly because of internet bookselling? Partly because of the website www.elizabethgoudge.org Or, truly, as I would believe, because her time has come? As I wrote those words, I had a small flash to our twentieth century re-finding of twelfth century “my friend, Julian of Norwich”, also much beloved by Elizabeth Goudge. Might it be, in such a short time from mid-twentieth to twenty-first century, as we contemplate the vast problems of our time, too big for mind to compass, she is a necessary antidote: a teller of how life in its mutual loving and mutual service in right relationship in community and all creation ought be, held in Trinity, in the resurrected life of Christ. Her descriptions of the people who pray in her novels teach us greatly about the life of prayer faithfully lived day in, night out. Others of her novels teaching about the ways of prayer and of growing in love and forgiveness include The Rosemary Tree, The Dean’s Watch, Gentian Hill. [To be continued in our conversation?] A visionary, a prophet, a storyteller of goodness and wholesome community and family relationships, through the medium of story she gives us invitation, pathways and wells of quiet. Very often I turn to the works of my “friend and companion” Elizabeth Goudge in the night hours and am comforted, inspired and given depth to live the next turning of life’s wheel. Thank you, Elizabeth.