Archive for Devon

Compassion; A Prayer for Our Times

“This thing that was happening now had happened so often before and would happen so often again in the history of the world. The evil, like a volcano, broke through the crust of things, and the foul lava flooded the earth, while over the roads of the world the refugees fled from the known to the unknown horror, from darkness into darkness again, with always the unconquerable hope in their souls that in the night ahead there would be some star.”
(Gentian Hill published 1949)

These words taken from Elizabeth’s novel Gentian Hill, have been resonating through my head for the last couple of weeks. Written about the French revolution for people who had just gone through the second world war, they now sound a trumpet call for our times. Elizabeth’s compassion for the dispossessed haunted her all her life. With her strong attachment to home and community, the trauma of losing both seemed to her one of the greatest tragedies of life, and many of her works deal with this theme.

Elizabeth never shirked the harsh realities, and here I believe lies one of her greatest talents. She can take myths and legends which are relevant to the location of place she is writing about and transform them into symbols and guidelines to help us through the mundane world of work and striving.

At present our sympathies are with the people of the Ukraine. But there are many others in their terrible position, from Syria to Palestine, from India to Africa. Whomever is fleeing from war and persecution, all are refugees of our modern world and need our compassion and to be welcomed to a new life without fear or favour.

Stained Glass in Elizabeth’s church Peppard Common

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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Pilgrimages

Hello!

I just discovered your web site!!  How wonderful to find a place where Elizabeth Goudge’s works are so appreciated and remembered.  There are several of us in Phoenix Arizona who love Elizabeth Goudge and we meet from time to time to discuss her books.  Is there another convention planned?  How would be go about finding out more about taking an Elizabeth Goudge pilgrimage?  It would be a dream come true for some of us to travel to her home and see many of the places that are the settings of her books.

Thanks for your help and time.

Fondly,

Marcia Kuyper

Dear Marcia,

How wonderful to think of you all reading and appreciating Elizabeth Goudge’s work in Arizona, such a different world from the one she writes about.

The Convention was a great success, and I’m sure there will be others in the future.

There would be several “pilgrimages” you could take if you came over to England. One would be the Oxfordshire one that we did this year taking in Rose Cottage, Henley-On-Thames, Turville where Scent of Water is based, and of cause Oxford itself where she lived for a time when her father was made Professor of Divinity there. Towers In the Mist is set where she lived in Tom Quad.

Or you could go to Hampshire where the Eliot novels are set and visit The Hard, the sea marshes and the church where Elizabeth is buried with her parents in New Milton.

Then again Devon is the county that Elizabeth wrote about most. She lived there with her Mother during the Second World War in Providence Cottage Marldon. Here you could visit not only the village but Compton manor where The Moonacre Manor of The Little White Horse stands, see Smokey’s House in the wooded Westerland valley, and the wonderful vista of Torbay setting for much of Gentian Hill. Pomeroy Castle ruins are also open to the public, the “Castle On The Hill”, reputedly one of the most haunted castles in this land of haunted castles.

Finally there is Ely set in the Cambridgeshire fens her “home of homes”

All these tours can be found in Sylvia Gower’s book “The World Of Elizabeth Goudge.”

 

Gentian Hill

 

Gentian Hill was Elizabeth’s penultimate Devon-shire book, written at the height of her literary power, when she is living in her beloved Devon-shire village, long enough after her Father death to not feel his lost acutely and a decade before the misery and pain of her Mother’s last illness, tinged even Devon with her grief. It was written just after the War and published in 1949.

In it she deals skilfully with the themes of Endurance, Courage and Human love weaving them into the fabric of the legends and landscape of Torbay and the valley of Westerland where she and her characters lived.

She manages to work in oblique references to many of her earlier Devon-shire books, mentioning Berry Pomery Castle, on p 81, her setting for Castle on the Hill, the village of Smokey complete with it’s pub on p 85, and a legend not unlike that of the Moon Princess and her lover, that Granny Brogan tells the enchanted Stella in the fields of Cockington manor on a bright May morning.” She never dies, said Granny, There’s always the young one waiting for her lover, learning patience through the slow days, and he away in the world tasting the bitterness of it, struggling with the wild beasts like David the shepherd boy. That’s as it should be. He must get his sinews strong upon him for his man’s love and labour. And always the Holy hermit prays like Moses upon the hill top or high in the watch tower.” (Goudge 1949 p 331)

The plot is the love story of Stella Sprigg, adopted daughter of the farming family of Spriggs and Midshipman Anthony O’Connell, and takes place during the Napoleonic Wars. The book is written in three parts, The Farm, The Sea and The Chapel, and the action moves from her remote Devon-shire valley, to the murderous seas of war in the Mediterranean, to the prisons and poverty of 18th century London.

The story opens with a lyrical description of Torbay from the different perspectives of the land and sea. She is so detailed in her description of the topography that it is as if we were an ant on a map, seeing each contour of the hills and each scoop of the coast. The historical setting distances the reader from the horrors of World War II and yet the fears, anxiety and pain would have been relevant to those reading it, who had just lived through it.

It could be argued that the story unfolds in the formulaic manner of most of her work. The characters are ones that we have met before. Stella, the Elfin Child, growing and maturing into a talented, beautiful young woman, The Struggling Hero, who must over come his inner demons in order to be successful in his career, The Rugged, solitary Inspirational Teacher/Priest who guides them through their difficulties, and the honest “salt of the earth” servants who assist them. There is a woman who has lost a child and therefore has the gift to be Mother to all, “that aura of almost heavenly motherliness which so often shines about a woman who has borne only one child, and in losing it becomes mother to the world” (Goudge 1949 p 37) Shades of Annie Laurie, Jill, and Margaret, all childless women who had thrust upon them the care and love of children. Finally that most precious of relationships to Elizabeth, that of Grand parents and their Grandchildren, of the mind if not of the body, “I think its a case of recognition, Stella, said the old lady slowly, I think God creates what one might call spiritual families, people who may or may not be physically related to each other, but who will travel together the whole of the way.”(Goudge 1949 p 31)

Yet, Elizabeth manages to lift them from the norm, imbibing them with a strong sense of realism; we want to know how their tale will unfold. The depth of the history of each, the way they will dovetail to the mutual benefit of each other, has a completeness and wholesome honesty that captivates us from the start.
We suffer with Anthony as he hangs in the rigging, and goes through the hell of initiation below decks, Goudge managing to convey at the same time both the beauty of “Ships of the line” and the truly horrendous conditions that the sailors had to live with.
Many women in times of War remain childless, or lose their offspring, and many children lose their parents, to be brought up by the older generation who fought their wars from home.
The life of the Farm is portrayed as unremitting hard work set among great beauty. “To her husband and herself their work upon the farm was not just something they were obliged to do to make a living, it was life itself, a prideful thing in which they gloried, and without realising that they did so they endowed it with an almost religious pageantry and ceremonial.” (Goudge 1949 p 43)
We live with The Abbe through the terrors and tortures of the French Revolution, we do not have to go far in these days of mass media and instant news to witness Man’s inhumanity to Man. “This thing that was happening now had happened so often before and would happen so often again in the history of the world. The evil, like a volcano, broke through the crust of things, and the foul lava flooded the earth, while over the roads of the world the refugees fled from the known to the unknown horror, from darkness into darkness again, with always the unconquerable hope in their souls that in the night ahead there would be some star.” (Goudge 1949 p 261)

She does not shirk the harsh realities of life, and here I believe lies one of her greatest talents. She can take the myths and legends which are relevant to the location of place she is writing about and transform them into symbols and guidelines to help us through the mundane world of work and striving.

I think that she also tells us, veiled as events which happen to her characters, things that she has experienced in her own life and faith. “That too was a part of the music and the light, and all of them together were like a personal presence coming to him, and wrapping itself about him like a cloak, so that for a few moments he ceased to be aware of the shivering of his body and felt a glow all through him, the warmth of a fresh beginning and a new day.” (Goudge 1949 p 20) So vividly does she write about it that it must have been something she experienced herself, on one of her dawn walks with the dogs that she loved to take when younger perhaps.
And again in this “the light was so dazzling that Charles shut his eyes that were weak and aching from sleeplessness. But he felt the warmth on his face and heard through the rustling of the reeds the beating of great wings. ” she goes on to describe the flight of one swan in particular, flying low over the water, her wings gold gilded and seemingly flying straight into the sun. ” It seemed to work some sort of liberation in him. He thought of Therese again, and this time the thought of her, and the thought of God, “eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God” were inseparable in his mind” (Goudge 1949 p 269) Maybe an experience which helped her through the grief of losing her Father?

More prosaically Elizabeth records all those customs and rituals which went to make up a large part of country life and were still in common usage until the end of the 1950’s.
Sol, chanting the corrupted Latin of the Ploughing chant, The Wassailing of the Apple Trees, the magical instrument the Bull Roarer, with its timeless connections. The folk myths of drowned lands complete with chapel bells swung by the tide, corn dollies and harvest homes, bands playing in the Minstrel galleries of churches, and the custom of lighted candles in the cottage windows to celebrate a great victory.

The book really ends for me with the Abbe and Anthony high up above the dust and noise of London in their green nest of a room, discovering that the Abbe is Stella’s father and that the legend of the three of them had been played out in the past and was being re enacted between them, and would probably do so again in the future. I love it that the Hunting Horn above the fire place in the farm house parlour belonged to the first farmer John.

No detail is omitted and the book is rounded out with both Anthony, now a Captain of his own ship and Stella, pregnant with their first child sailing into Torbay to take up their married life at Weekaborough Farm.

“And thinking this there gradually came to him complete and utter comfort in the thought of the oneness of all men with each other and their God. Of all the illusions which torment the minds of men one of the worst is the illusion of separateness.”(Goudge 1949 p.399)

There is always a larger theme entwined with her human stories, and in this work, the words of the hermit are the message I think Elizabeth is trying to put across.

Goudge E. 1949 Gentian Hill Hodder & Stoughton