Archive for Towers In The MIst

A Torminster Tale

 

IMG_3058Wells 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.

tower-house-wall

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.

Wells Somerset

Wells Somerset

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.

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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 accepting the post had been the status it would infer on his beautiful, clever wife.

Elizabeth peoples her home with a young vibrant family called Leigh, who are coping without a mother, as she herself does, the matriarch of the household being a bedridden Aunt. Their father is Canon Leigh, a dignitary of the college, much like Henry, and it is tempting to say that Elizabeth brings in the young, vibrant family of the Leigh’s to fill the emptiness of the big old house. Maybe they helped keep the ghosts at bay. It’s a tale as frothy and sparkling as the foam on Raleigh’s beer tankard, tempting to label it a lesser novel. One written to fulfil literary obligations rather than one inspired. It is the novel about which Henry said “You make a little knowledge go such a long way”

Faithful is a poor aspiring scholar who in the company of gypsies has made his way to Oxford where he dreams of becoming a member of that great University. Gypsies seem to have held a fascination for Elizabeth as they play a part in more than one of her novels. During a May Day procession he meets the young Leigh twins who help to make his dream a reality. Joyeuce, the inappropriately named eldest daughter of the Leigh family is struggling to find some time for herself in the busy life of surrogate motherhood that she has been forced to take on. These are the two main characters of the story, through whose eyes Elizabethan Oxford unfolds, with all its riots, dirt, squalor and beauty. In its pages we meet with the good and great of the age, ending with the visit of the fairy queen Elizabeth I. The whole book is a mixture of history lesson and guided tours of the city.

This is a coming of age novel, charting the uncertain waters of love, aspiration and work. But like all teenagers throughout the ages the desire to “kick over the traces” of convention is ever present. As perhaps Elizabeth longed to do but never dared. There are shades here of that mysterious unknown and unsuitable suitor left behind in the Cambridgeshire fens. Which gate did she meet him at I wonder?

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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