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