Heart Of The Family
With drowsy eyes
I have seen
Something I want to tell you.
It is daybreak. Opposite me
a prisoner wakes up.
He raises himself on one elbow.
Takes out a cigarette. Sits up.
His gaze as he smokes
and his forehead is untroubled.
(The wind is dreaming
in the window.)
He draws at the cigarette. Bends forward.
Takes a piece of bread,
eats it slowly
and then begins to cry.
(This does not matter perhaps.
I am just telling you.)
As for me, you know that the flagstones
have worn down the core of my heart,
but to see a man crying
is always a terrible thing.
Marcos Ana, written when he was a political prisoner.
Taken from A Diary of Prayer. Elizabeth Goudge.
Marcos Ana, now 88, was 19 when General Francisco Franco had him thrown in jail in 1939. As a political inmate who had fought against Franco’s victorious troops during the Spanish Civil War, Ana was tortured, shunted from prison to prison and managed to avoid two death sentences before he emerged, bewildered to the point of nausea, a free man in 1961. He was 41 but retained the desires of innocent youth. Marcos Ana is a nom de plume formed by combining his parents’ first names: his real name is Fernando Macarro Castillo.
1953 was the year of The Coronation, when a slim, dark haired young woman was crowned Queen Elizabeth II, the new Elizabethan renaissance, of Art, Science and Technology had begun. Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzig Norgay conqueror Everest, many will follow. While at home the east coast of Britain was devastated by The Great Storm, which caused major sea flooding all down the coast.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton won the Carnegie medal for Children’s literature and Elizabeth Goudge presented the last in The Eliot saga to her readers. She says about the book, “This is a novel for all those who asked me to write a third book about the Eliots”. The first two books of the trilogy stand alone, but with The Heart of the Family we need the history of the two previous to drive us into the finale.
It is the Outsider Sebastian Weber who brings us into the book. We arrive like him a voyeur in the Damerosehay Oak woods watching the approach of the child Meg down the drive. We instantly know who she is and wait with anticipation to go with them into the familiar sanctuary of the house.
This is at times a hard, dark book dealing as it does with Prisoners, the dispossessed, infidelity, illness, racial hatred, war and death. Yet it remains ultimately uplifting, a spiritual tour de force and the ending is triumphant.
I had braced myself to find the family struggling to come to terms with the death of Lucilla, and was pleasantly surprised that she was still alive. Then I began to read Elizabeth’s moving portrayal of old age and the imminence of death. I realized how brave she had been and how following the paths of Lucilla’s thoughts and memories and the way one dove tails into another, gives us a deep insight into the way the elderly think and feel. The dark night of Lucilla’s soul made me afraid and then exultant as I lived each twist and turn of her thoughts and feelings. The wonderful pin prick that Hilary delivers the following morning grounds the whole experience, making it seem believable rather than fantastical.
The rest of the family are still living and growing in the homes we left them in, although Tommy is at Medical School and the twins at Boarding School for most of the year, as Elizabeth was, but we rediscover them and their growth through the eyes of someone fresh, someone who has in a way been sent to shake them out of their complacency
For me the Heart of the book is Chapter IV, as Sally and Sebastian confront each other in the Damerosehay garden. It is full of all the contrasts which are the themes of the book. Sally is very pregnant and tired and the last thing she wanted to come home to from an exhausting journey was a stranger. David, who has hired Sebastian as a secretary, has forgotten to tell anyone else that he has invited him to stay. Sebastian, feeling refreshed already, goes out into the beauty of the early evening garden only to find that this lovely place leads him straight back into the heart of the nightmare he is trying to put behind him.
They meet and while Sally is full of remorse over her seemingly banal remarks on greeting him, they really look at each other, and find there the total opposite of themselves. Sally looks on real suffering such as she has always believed she could alleviate, and he sees a young woman so naive and innocent that he feels fear for her. The Have and Have nots face each other out. Sally possesses all that he has lost, and for the first time he realizes that he might be the more fortunate, as he faced and lived through this misery, but for her it may lie in the future. Like David before him he finds the thought of Sally without her refreshing child-likeness distressing. Their close and loving friendship has taken its first steps.
There is a lot of repetition in this book, character traits and places that are reiterated and revisited again. From George’s simplistic nature and Tommy’s brashness, to the houses, gardens and woods in which the drama takes place. It’s like going back to a favourite holiday venue, we need to see that all is more or less as we left it.
The contrast between Sebastian and Heloise who have both had grim war time experiences is marked. Heloise now the Nanny to David and Sally’s children, has lost both parents, her Father murdered in front of them by the Nazi’s and then her Mother fighting with the resistance in France. She joins the Resistance after her Mother’s death and her life is only obliquely referred to as being unpleasant and at the mercy of men. Nevertheless, she seems to be able to make positive her future, knowing that her integrity is intact. Whereas to Sebastian life was ” a senseless affair….Why did God, if there was a God, demand the continued existence in time and space of such disconnected items as himself? There should be a celestial bonfire once a year to burn up all extraneous humanity.” ( Goudge p19 1953 )
We follow the course of Sebastian’s conversion, his relief in his capacity to still love, while at the same time teaching the family endurance and tenacity, showing them by the light of his experiences how fortunate they are. If he can survive and rise above the evils and misfortunes of his life, then they can muddle through their own short comings and failings. As Sally says “Grandmother is old, and David hasn’t got a happy nature, and I am afraid, and Ben never knows what to do for the best, and I expect all the others think themselves hardly used in one way or the other. But there is not one of us who has been crucified.” (Goudge p 263 1953). Although Sebastian is horrified by her remark, she explains that they all needed to see the high price of love, and through this ultimately be able to love God more fully too. Sebastian is humbled and remembers with shame and confusion his feelings on first arriving at Damerosehay.
Throughout the story, Elizabeth faces uncomfortable issues. People who knew little of her life thought that she was a slightly eccentric spinster, who lived a middle class existence in a comfortable country home, with her servants and dogs. This was the outward exterior that she showed to the world, and I’m sure was also to some extent the image she had of herself. But in reality Elizabeth cared for people, not only those that she came into daily contact with, or were her family, but humanity. She was so intensely private that we will probably never know the extent of her charity, but it didn’t stop there. In her daily life of prayer she prayed for the poor and the homeless. prisoners and refugees, Royalty and Bishops, Saints and sinners. Prayed in the deep, physical giving way that she talks about in the book. Offering up the small stresses and strains of her life as Lucilla and Sally try to do. Not asking of God, but trying to Give to the World.
So the book is not only about infidelity, but marriage, integrity and prevarication, fear and serenity, poverty and affluence. It is about the contrasts between attitudes to life and how one chooses to live it. It is about the perpetrator and the victim, the bombed and the bomber. This is Elizabeth confronting the dark and trying to place it in God’s grand plan. “There is in God some say a deep but dazzling darkness.” (Vaughan 1621/1695)
Elizabeth finds comfort in the past, the reiteration of pleasant occasions and a greater depth of knowledge about the people she has grown to love. The future is one full of anxiety, an unknown country. David on his trip to America was aware of its being in the throes of The Korean War. The country was full of anti-Communist feelings and belligerence. The Western world was enduring the nervousness brought on by the Cold war with “warm war” an ever present danger. How relieved Elizabeth and others must have been when the armistice was signed in 1953.
I wonder too if it was not with a feeling of relief that she wrote the concluding chapter to the book. Against all the odds and in spite of the “crinkled pink petals” strewn in the path of those who would have preferred red, the Family had survived and was moving forward into the next generation.
Goudge Elizabeth 1953 The Heart Of The Family Hodder & Stoughton
Vaughan Henry 1621/1695