The Middle Window
Whenever I start to read a Goudge novel, it always sets me off on a journey of discovery, and I rarely end up where I anticipate. The book begins with this quote: ‘To those who cry out against romance I would say—You are romance. You are the lost prince herding obscurely among the swine. The romance of your spirit is the most wonderful of stories.’
A.E. The Candle of Vision.
Who was A.E.? George William Russell was an Irish poet, painter and author, a mystic who contributed to the early 19th century Celtic Renaissance. A.E. was short for Aeon, the pen name he had chosen for himself. He was a friend of Stevens and W.B.Yeats, producing a series of essays on journeys he had undertaken in the ‘inner realms’, a thesis on his perception of spirituality and the way it permeates the physical and mental planes of our lives.
It may seem strange to many of Goudge’s most avid readers that Elizabeth was influenced and inspired by some one who today would be called ‘New Age’, so maybe we need to put the book in context with what was happening in the larger world in 1935. What was the current mind set of the generation?
Elizabeth had grown up in the Edwardian era, a time when scientific thought was taking flight, literally and metaphorically. Every thing had to be compartmentalized and labelled, including God and the after life.
Conan Doyle and the Spiritualist movement were in vogue, with such intellectual advocates as J.B.Priestly, one of his best known works “English Journey” had come out the previous year. A book in which he had set out to define the English and their working landscape at that time perched precariously on the brink of War and foreign revolution.
The first Eco-warrior of the 20th century, a charismatic “Red Indian” called Grey Owl was touring the country to packed audiences in 1935, informing us of his observations on the inter connectedness of all life. He was even invited to Buckingham Palace, received by the King himself.
Dion Fortune published The Winged Bull, a book about obsession. She was a truly remarkable woman, a writer, lecturer, and founding member of the Inner Light.(1) A new edition of the Works of Mary Webb was brought out by Jonathan Cape and a Surrey housewife and writer called Enid Bagnold stormed the hearts of young horse mad girls everywhere with the tale of National Velvet, all in the same year. Hope was “springing eternal”, and how they needed it.
The First World War had left its sad legacy of depletion, grief and anger behind, but people were by this time well aware that it hadn’t been, “the war to end all wars”, and needed the panacea of “proof” that life itself was not the sum total of their existence.
The old Myths and legends were taken out and dusted down, refurbished to aid a new generation, their worth reaffirmed, the struggle, the fight, was life.
It was against this back ground that Elizabeth wrote and published her novel, “The Middle Window”, one of her most under rated and least valued works.
The book is about a young socialite called Judith Cameron, and her search for meaning and depth to her, so far shallow life.
In the window of a shop, she sees a painting, a triptych of pictures in fact, which show her three differing aspects of life. One is of a glittering ballroom such as she has visited the previous evening, the other a comfortable cottage interior. But it is the Middle picture that draws her, a painting of a Scottish mountain and loch.
”A world of stark and terrible beauty, of sorrow and failure, shorn of wealth and comfort but yet ablaze with joy, the world of the heights of the human spirit. It seemed to Judy that her little shivering self was flitting from side to side, unwilling to chose either of the worlds to left or right, yet cowering back in fear from that terrible middle window. And yet——– she had to chose it” (Goudge 1934 p 19).
Her quest takes her to the Highlands of Scotland and the ancestral home of Ian MacDonald. What follows is more of a home coming than a holiday as places and people she knows she hasn’t met before seem achingly familiar.
”I’m quite sure we’ve come the wrong way “complained poor Lady Cameron, “and James has gone to sleep again and Judy isn’t even looking at that route the R.A.C. gave us. She hasn’t looked at it for hours…….. Judy!” Judy did not answer and Lady Cameron prodded her in the back “Look at the route dear, I’m sure we’re all wrong” Judy stirred and sighed. “No” she said “we shall be there in twenty minutes.” Her voice seemed to come from very far away.” We’re just climbing up Ben Caorach. In ten minutes we shall be at the top. Then we shall drop down into Glen Suilag.”
”Judy exclaimed Charles, “how on earth do you know?” ( Goudge 1934 p 29)
Then when they arrive, the house itself, the people who live in it, the very rooms themselves are known to her.
There always appears in Elizabeth’s books a Goudgian room, one that you know the author is remembering and describing, probably one from her past. We meet them with subtle variations in Gentian Hill, The Rosemary Tree, City of Bells, The Dean’s Watch, The Eliot books, etc, etc. it will contain; spindly legged Sheraton chairs with tapestry covers, wood panelling, miniature paintings, shabby brocade curtains, china on the mantelpiece, and an old bureau or oak chest. There might be an Adams fireplace, or a moulded cornice, or as is the case in The Little White Horse and The Middle Window, a harpsichord. Whose house is she remembering?
As with rooms, so with times of the day and a Goudge book would not be complete without at least one spectacular dawn, a very important part of her day.
”The cold air was like fingers of snow creeping over her body and stinging her awake to vivid consciousness of the loveliness in front of her. The shadow of night still lay over the garden and the larch wood and the loch and the lower slopes of the mountains, but up on the summits day had come. There were no clouds now to hide the top of Judy’s mountain; it was outlines in indigo and violet against a golden sky that melted through apricot and primrose yellow to deep blue over head. Far up the sun’s fingers just touched the bog myrtle and bracken to green flame. “
(Goudge, 1934. pp 69/70)
As always Elizabeth draws on her personal physical response to place. She visited the Highlands and Islands on a walking holiday with a friend, after the success of her first novel and short stories, this passage describing an experience she had while on the Isle of Skye.
”Suddenly she flung up her head, her eyes dilating with terror. There was a curious, crackling, thudding, sound behind her, as though a galloping horseman cracked a whip as he rode at her to drive her away. She jumped to her feet and looked behind her, but there was nothing there, and no sound but the burn. She took to her feet and ran, not stopping until she was down among the crofts again and sitting on a stone by the roadside.” (Goudge 1934 p131).
Both the character and Elizabeth herself put it down to intrusion of place by a stranger, “I tired to be to intimate and It resented it” (Goudge.1934 p 131)
Joy of the Snow deals with the experience on pages 135 to 136.
The story is placed in three parts, The Search, in which Judith arrives at Glen Suilag and meets Ian MacDonald, Union, which takes us back to Jacobean times, and The Finding which brings us back up to the present.
Each part starts with its corresponding quote, The Search we discussed at the begin of the piece, Union starts with a quote by Jami,
All that is not One must ever
Suffer with the wound of Absence,
And whoever in Love’s city
Enters, finds but room for one
And but in Oneness, Union.
Jami was the name of a Sufi poet and philosopher who was born in the village of Jam, Ghor Province, Afghanistan in 1414. He studied Peripateticism,( the teaching method of Aristotle, who, like the troubadours of the Middle Ages walked from place to place to teach) Maths, Arabic literature, Natural Sciences and Islamic Philosophy at Nizamiyyah University. He was one of the last great Sufi poets, and a teacher of renown. He wrote 87 books on Mysticism, Poetry and History, he was on the cutting edge of thought in the 15th century.
So what drew Elizabeth to a writer from such a different background? I think it was that in his view, LOVE was the fundamental stepping stone for starting on the spiritual journey.
”Love is the Lord by whom we escape Death “(Goudge 1960. p.346)
Also the fact that Judith and Ranald’s love is unrequited doesn’t make it a negative event, but a sowing of love that will be reaped in the future. Are we being told that this is how she viewed the lost of her love, her Ely love, only mentioned in passing, and that she to used the experience to enrich her life? Was Ranald the idealist and social reformer modelled on some one she knew?
The Finding, the final part of the story is headed with a quote from Samuel Butler.
”Yet for the great bitterness of this grief,
We three, you and he and I,
May pass into the hearts of like true comrades hereafter,
In whom we may weep anew and yet comfort them,
As they too pass out, out, out into the night.
So guide them and guard them Heaven and fare them well.
He came from a Victorian clerical background like Elizabeth’s father Henry Goudge. He attended Shrewsbury School where his Grandfather, also called Samuel, the former Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry had been the headmaster. Afterwards he went to Cambridge and after graduation lived in a low income parish in London to prepare for his Ordination into the Anglican Church. Here he discovered that Baptism made no apparent difference to the morals or behaviour of his peers which led him to question his faith. His father was so angry with him that it led to him emigrating to New Zealand where he made his fortune Sheep Farming before returning home to pursue his literary career.
Nine years and five books later, is the character of William Ozanne and the country he ended up making his fortune in, in part inspired by the tale of Samuel Butler? It is one of the few books Elizabeth wrote about a country she had never been to.
The quote certainly encapsulates her thoughts on reincarnation and the legacy left behind by people we consider to be our spiritual families. She was always uneasy about the theory, seeing it as a form of possession.
”They don’t “she whispered “the dead are dead.”
Ian was looking at her his eyes burning her, and she turned her head away. She could not meet his eyes.
”They’re not” he said” they are alive. They possess the living”
Possession! That fear that had been lying at the back of her mind, haunting her, through all her time at Glen Suilag, leapt out now and seized her, just as the first flash of lightning shone out over the garden, showing up Ian’s figure black and frightening.”
(Goudge, 1934. p. 155)
Jesus after all had only needed one life, so why should we be any different? Except of cause that we are not fully realized spiritual beings.
She was much happier with the inheritance of ideas and values contained in the Butler quote and used it too good effect in many of her later works.
This is a book about a Spiritual Journey, a dedicating of a life to values inherent in the life of Jesus and the gospels that she read every day. But I believe Elizabeth realised early on in her life that all spiritual striving was valid.
The research she under took into the works of A.E. and Evelyn Underhill, (ii) were the equivalent of Henry reading the Catholic Missal that so distressed his parents. She wanted to know what others thought about the nature of God and the way of spiritual growth, and then make up her own mind.
The principals and disciplines that Judy undertakes in her daily life, were the ones Elizabeth adopted, those of daily learning, contemplation, prayer and Service Work, which are the same whichever doctrine or creed one chooses to follow.
Almighty God, who enlightened your Church
by the teaching of your servant Evelyn Underhill:
enrich it evermore with your heavenly grace
and raise up faithful witnesses who,
by their life and teaching,
may proclaim the truth of your salvation;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
From Common Worship (Church of England.)
Elizabeth was one of the faithful witnesses who tried to live her life by the principals laid down by in the gospels. She was however, never afraid to enhance her study by thinking outside of the Anglican Church. But like Evelyn Underhill, felt most at home with the religion and creed she had assimilated and grown up with.
Goudge Elizabeth 1934 The Middle Window
Goudge Elizabeth 1960 The Dean’s Watch.
1 An organisation set up to teach and study esoteric subjects, and the New Testament, especially the Gospels and the teacher Jesus. She was even approached by the M.O.D to carry out physic defence of Great Britain during the II World War against the Black Arts employed by the Nazis.
ii Evelyn Underhill was born in 1875, the daughter of a wealthy barrister. She became a committed worshipper in the Church of England in which she was raised, and wrote a number of books on mystics, mysticism as well as reviews, lectures and leading retreats. Her book Worship is still recommended reading in theological colleges. She died on 15th June 1941, and is remembered in the Calendar of the Church in a special collect on that day.
Written by Deborah Gaudin. Summer 2007