Herb of Grace
There’s rue for you: and here’s some for me:
we may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays:
O, you must wear your rue with a difference.
The sun rising on the first page reveals Sally, waking up to a new day in her London apartment. Who is she? What will be her colour in the tapestry of the tale? With the sure sweep of the experienced film director, Elizabeth opens the story in a completely unexpected place, with people we have yet to be introduced to.
The Herb of Grace or Pilgrim’s Inn as its called in America, is the second in the Eliot trilogy and was published in the dark days of 1948. The war was over, but life was still hard in Britain, rationing was in force, every thing from fresh fish to houses was in short supply. The Marshall Plan which was helping a devastated Europe rebuild itself, was intended for the losers of the conflict, not the cash strapped nominal winners. Some of the key moments of the story take place against these stark facts. The first meeting Sally has with the Eliot children is in a Greengrocers where the children lament the lack of grapefruit for their Mother and Sally becomes guilty about being in a position to buy flowers. Later on in the same chapter Sally uses her last rations to complete an outfit for a party, “To save coupons she had made it herself out of a very fine grey wool material, soft and thin and she had spent the very last of her coupons on grey silk stockings and grey suede shoes to match.”( Goudge 1948 )
Life was slowly returning to normal, in fact Britain was hosting the “Austerity Games” as the Olympics were known that year. Can you imagine the athletes of today using recently vacated army barracks as their Olympic Village? Or people arriving with packed lunches on buses and commandeered army vehicles, as there were no catering facilities or public transport?
Everyone was mad for a little colour and glamour in their lives after the unrelenting greyness of the war years. The entertainment industry bloomed; Powell & Pressburger bought out the film The Red Shoes, Lawrence Olivier starred in and directed the film version of Hamlet, and Champagne Charlie with Stanley Holloway as the lead, was the hit musical comedy of the day, perhaps it was the one from which Sally hums a tune in the opening sequence.
The plot is the continuing story of the Eliots, and their homes which are important characters in their own right. It lets us catch up with and then accompany members of a family that we have come to care about. We follow George and Nadine further into their troubled marriage, watch Ben, Tommy and Caroline grow and develop into young men and women, get to know the twins and revisit Lucilla, Hilary and Margaret at Damerosehay. The tension in the book doesn’t arise through the subtleties of the plot. We know that Sally is destined for David, that the family will buy the inn and that the old, strange octagonal store-room will turn out to be special, that Jill will win the love of the twins. The drama comes from the emotional and spiritual growth that we share with characters.
The supporting cast of subsidiaries of which Annie-Laurie and Maloney are chief, help to emphasis points that Elizabeth wishes to make. In this case ones of loyalty, commitment and unconditional love as promised in the marriage vows that all the partners have taken or will take. There is nothing new under the sun, and although it seems a modern idiom to have people living an itinerant lifestyle, it was far from uncommon at the time, people needed homes and would make them where they could.
In this work with its theme of painting and artistry, Elizabeth uses the metaphor of the old masters to describe the crowded canvas she is painting. Sally’s father the eminent portrait painter says upon arrival at the Inn, ” there’s no coincidence. You stepped into a picture Sally, so you said, when you came into this house. The great masters, no matter how densely populated their canvases, never get a single figure there without deliberate intention. ( Goudge 1948).
One of the main characters of the novel is a monk from the local abbey, whose legacy of hospitality and healing is integral to the book, he too is also a consummate artist, writing his story so hugely into the fabric of the house that he is still a dominate presence hundreds of years after his death.
While in Hampshire we located the ruins of the Benedictine abbey, vast, roofless, reaching up out of the surrounding fields and farm. In the article titled Hampshire Pilgrimage is a description of the ruins made by Cobbett, and both he and I think that this was the original Beaulieu, as the situation is a more open and beautiful place than the “newer” Abbey. Although called St Leonard’s by the locals and the farmer whose land it is on, it lies in the right relation to Buckler’s Hard. Elizabeth would have driven by this stirring romantic site many times, with is view across to the needles, that distinctive rock formation that strides away from the Isle of Wight.
Throughout the book, the characters refer to the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. It was obviously a favourite of Elizabeth’s, it was published when she was eight, and The Herb of Grace has many parallels with the story. The twins pretend to be Mole and Rat, consider Ben to be badger, Tommy the boastful toad, and Caroline the Gaoler’s daughter. Ben’s first thoughts on seeing the river are to quote Rat ” Believe me my young friend, there is nothing,– absolutely nothing- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” ( Grahame 1908 ).The twins see the wood as the Wild Wood from the story and when Sally takes them to the wood they tell her they are going ” deep in to the Place Beyond, where the fairy person with the horns is.” Before they have been as far as Ben’s special place “where the person is who plays the pipes” ( Goudge 1948 ) Sally describes Damerosehay as ” the house of the perfect eaves” all phrases from the “Willows” But has she borrowed more than this? Is the Cistercian monk a representation of the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn?” Both were healers having sympathy for trapped and hurt creatures, showing compassion for those less fortunate than themselves, both lived far from the haunts of man, both were the genus loci of the countryside.
Most importantly, both books have the value of hearth, home, and the worth of family and good friends at the heart of them.
I have tried to find out if there was a legend about a local monk in Knyghtwood, but although I found a Knightwood Oak at a place called Boulderwood, I was unable to find the man. So along with the imagined Inn, I think that this was a device of Elizabeth’s. The tale that Ben hears from Auntie Rose and fleshes out for the Christmas play seems to be a Christian version of the ghost of old countryside gods
Throughout this book as with others, we gain insights into Elizabeth’s life.
The first is the description of Sally Adair, clothed in Elizabeth’s favourite colour yellow, and sounding remarkably like her first glimpse of Jessie. ” She had a glorious mop of unruly red-brown curls, the white skin that goes with such hair and golden eyes like a lion’s that looked you straight in the face with a lion’s courage. Her voice was deep and beautiful, and the Scotch Nannie who had looked after her had imparted to it a Scotch lilt that increased its beauty.” (Goudge 1948) Her description of Jessie whom she met for the first time after her Mother’s death at Providence Cottage says, ” I saw an upright, capable-looking young woman with a head of hair like a horse-chestnut on fire, and the white magnolia skin that goes with such hair. Her eyes were very direct.” (Goudge 1974) Jessie too had Scotch connections. so may well have had a lilt to her voice. Red hair is a physical attribute that Elizabeth admired, it is given to many of her heroes and heroines. Perhaps the mysterious Ely lover had such hair.
The wonderful train journey that Caroline takes home is another instance. ” She was glad, for this was the first time she had done the journey from school to The Herb of Grace, and she wanted to be alone so as to get the landmarks well into her mind. She saw a group of pines outlined starkly against a lemon-coloured sky, a farmhouse with higgledy-piggledy roof and lights in the windows, a white wooden bridge crossing a stream, and knew that she would not forget them as long as she lived” ( Goudge 1948 ). These sights could be from anywhere, are we hearing the young Elizabeth returning to Ely, her home of homes, from boarding school?
The Herb of grace is a symbol for clear sightedness, intuition, self knowledge, the ability to forgive even yourself for past mistakes and then the strength to go forward with conviction. The Inn helps The Eliots to do this, it has a strong personality of its own as Damerosehay has, giving to those who seek it an inner strength. Nadine comes to realize as Lucilla does that the war has swept away all the old certainties, but that there are some worth the effort to recuperate. ” she recognised Lucilla’s efforts at preservation as what they were, not so much the salvage of useless trash from a lost past, but paving-stones set upon the quagmire of these times, leading to a new dignity whose shape she could not guess at yet.” ( Goudge 1948.)
Through the whole book weaves the sights and sounds of the river as it winds its way through the New Forest to the Solent. ” All was a-shake and a-shiver-glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man, who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and then tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.” (Grahame 1908) We too are held by the narrative until we arrive at the climax of the year and the satisfactory ending of the book.
This is the best book in the Eliot trilogy, and one that I find myself re-reading constantly. The whole ethos of the book speaks to me of values that are enduring, and although placed in a specific time and place gives us a grounding in the eternal merits of strong family bonds and home. It remains as valid today in the shifting patterns of family life, and the constant moves that work demands, as when our careers and lives fixed us to the same place.
Goudge Elizabeth The Herb of Grace Hodder & Stoughton 1948 pp 9 22 72 136 252
Goudge Elizabeth Joy of the Snow. Hodder & Stoughton 1974 p 244
Grahame Kenneth Wind In The Willows Methuen 1908 pp 3 5