As a Canadian/American who read The Rosemary Tree for the first time just a few years ago when in my late 40’s, I just wanted to say I found it rather depressing on the first read-through, but that it has grown on me since then. It is now one of my all-time favourite books. I keep it by my bed and often read and think about it. Currently I’m searching for a good hard cover copy within my price range; the paperback one I own is literally fallen to pieces, with no two pages connected together. I have to hold the book together whenever I read it, and as you can guess that’s hard to do when one is lying flat in bed.
When I was around 12, I read my mother’s old copy of Gentian Hill. I liked that better at the time because it was about a little girl of approximately my age, though of course I didn’t understand most of what was going on under the surface until I re-read it again as an adult. But Stella was really what modern “fan-fiction” experts call a “Mary Sue,” an impossibly flawless character who often represents, consciously or otherwise, the idealism of the author. There aren’t any characters like that in The Rosemary Tree. (I suppose Margery Wentworth comes closest.)
The reason I have come to appreciate The Rosemary Tree is that every time I read it, I see something new. The first thing I noticed, on about the second read-through, was that it was Harriet sitting at her window who started many of the other events in motion. As I was describing the book to others, I was surprised to realize as I heard myself say it, “This old woman who used to be the nanny but is now crippled by arthritis sits in the window and prays for everyone as she sees them go by. And slowly, all around her, things begin to change.”
Later I saw the contrast between Harriet, crippled by arthritis, in more or less constant pain, and unable to leave her room, who ranges far and wide in her thoughts and prayers based on her love for the family, and Mrs. Belling, crippled only by her own selfishness, who stays in her room because she is too lazy to leave it, and whose thoughts and aspirations have shrunk and shrunk over the years until all her love and care go only to making herself physically comfortable.
And still later I made the connection between these two and the third old woman of the story, Miss Wentworth, who was self-centred as a younger woman, lived to regret it, and is given another chance at loving and giving in her old age.
Then I noticed that the whole book is about second chances. Daphne, bitter about (among other things) the disappointment of her romantic concepts concerning marriage, is given a second chance to sort things out not only with her loving but inept husband, but with her first fiancée who hurt her so badly. Michael is given a second chance at resolving things with Daphne, with his own tragic past and with his personal moral weakness. (He even gets a second chance at romance with a decent woman when Mary shows up.) Mary is given a second chance at choosing to extend friendship to someone she has not considered a friend (Miss Giles) and to extend mercy where she believed it was not warranted. Even Margery, the most nearly perfect character in the book, is given a second chance at schools: she may, if she likes, quit attending Oaklands right now and go to another school where she would not be ill-treated, and she chooses to stay on till the end of the term–a sign of maturity, as she now understands why Miss Giles is so cruel.
It was chilling to realize that Mrs. Belling, too, was given a second chance of sorts on her very deathbed–the kind inner voice urging her to “call the little dog out from under the bed” where she had flung it in a rage, injuring it–but that she said “No” and chose, once again, her own selfish comfort, in the last few hours of life. She was the only main character who did not accept the necessity of, and opportunity for, personal change.
This would make an interesting movie if whoever undertook to adapt/direct it could manage to pick up on the possibilities for character development, action, and even a certain amount of comedy. It would be a pretty bad movie otherwise.
I enjoyed reading about Elizabeth Goudge on your website. Perhaps some day I’ll be able to read more of her work.
Barbara Bell A D