A Christmas Story, for all those who loved Henrietta.
So runs the dedication of this book which was written in 1939 three years before Henrietta’s House, as a short sequel to City Of Bells. It is a charming seasonal tale of Elizabeth’s fairy tale home in Wells Somerset, which draws on her own childhood memories and experiences.
Although Henrietta sounds like the description Elizabeth gives of her cousin Helen with her dark hair and fragile face, many of the child’s thoughts and emotions were probably Elizabeth’s own. ” She pictured Torminster lying under the moonlight, its steep roofs white and sparkling with frosted snow, its lighted windows patches of orange upon the shadowed walls, the great cathedral cutting patterns out of the sky with its towers and pinnacles and the tall houses throwing blue shadows across the snowy streets. Torminster was making itself very beautiful to greet the rising moon, creating ever shifting patterns of loveliness, quite uncaring that there was no one but the moon to see……..It was creating, and that was enough for Torminster. Ten o’clock struck from the cathedral, ten booming strokes that fell through the night as though ten great stars dropped from the sky” ( Goudge 1939 p81/82). Here Elizabeth is depicting the prospect from her bedroom window through the eyes of her child self of night falling over the tiny city.
Other thoughts and ideas seem oddly mature for so young a girl, such as her musings in the cathedral, ” Everywhere was this sense of space and height and a reaching out to an end that was never found. There was no time here, past and present and future were all one. Here she was a little midge of a thing, alive whether she liked it or not, gripped by life as she was gripped by this great cathedral.” ( Goudge 1939 p 25/26 ) Perhaps physically by the time these thoughts came to her she had moved on to Ely, and what we are hearing are the thoughts inspired in her slightly older self by another beautiful, holy place.
The story is one of outcasts brought home, prisoners paying the full price of their crime and then finding redemption, and an old legend concerning the oldest part of the cathedral, the mysterious crypt. All under pinned by the love and security given to Henrietta by Grandfather, Grandmother and Hugh Anthony.
Henrietta’s father, the by now successful poet Gabriel Ferranti takes an important part in the tale, cutting a wonderfully eccentric figure, as flamboyant and unusual as Poets are meant to be. Elizabeth had a great respect for the poetic Art, and became friends with many eminent Poets.
She gives us lovely insights into the less romantic aspects of Victorian daily life such as washing in cold water, on a freezing morning in an unheated bedroom, ” but on others days they were expected to wash all over, in their rooms, “by bits.” It was a process that called for great skill. The technical problem was how to wash a square foot of back, for instance, without uncovering the rest of yourself to the icy air……” (Goudge 1939 p 10 ) In fact any form of heating in bedroom was considered to be “coddling” (Goudge 1939 p 9)
The heart of the story takes place in the crypt at Wells Cathedral, a place that technically doesn’t exist. There is an Undercroft which is currently undergoing repair and renovation.
The fresco’s that decorate the Undercroft have a ghostly resonance in Elizabeth’s life. In her biography she talks about the “angel” or ghost seen in the “next door house but one” ( Goudge 1974 p 123) Here is what one poor unfortunate guest witnessed when staying in the spare bedroom. ” I cannot stay in the room with that!” cried the terrified guest, and pointed to the beautiful figure who stood in the moonlight against a blank wall.
” Why that’s nothing to be afraid of ” said the old maid soothingly. ” I can see it in my room too and I call it my angel. When the moonlight leaves the wall it will go.”
She fetched her mistress to comfort the girl and when the moon moved on so did the ghost”. (Goudge 1974 p123/124)
When this house was recently undergoing major renovations, the floor was removed for repair, and the workmen discovered a long concealed fresco, of an angel/woman on the wall. So maybe the moonlight picked out the painting behind the loose plaster. Which would explain why it disappeared when the moon moved on.
I have not been able to find out a definitive answer as to why Elizabeth felt such compassion for prisoners. They enter her work in many forms, from the Prisoner of war in The Castle On The Hill, or of Conscience as Parson Hawthorn in the White Witch, but usually just as prisoners who have served their sentences as Michael in The Rosemary Tree, Mr Hepplewhite in Scent Of Water, Annie-Laurie in The Herb of Grace, and of cause Nicholas in Sister Of The Angels.
None of her family were wrongly imprisoned, and I have been unable to find out if the Rev Goudge was a Prison Visitor, he certainly doesn’t seem to have been a Prison Chaplain, so it wasn’t something learnt at home. Perhaps it was because she felt imprisoned by her illness, her acute depression a form of gaol from which she was periodically released. Or perhaps it serves as an illustration of the Christian ethic of redemption, that following the teachings of Christ brings.
There is no doubt about the out come of the tale, it is the expected resolution, a closed circle of a story complete unto itself. Even though we are permitted a glimpse of Henrietta’s artistic future, for us she will always remain the little girl running through the streets and days of her enchanted kingdom of Torminster and its surrounding hills.
Sister of Angels is a Christmas card of a novella, a perfect story for reading aloud round the Christmas tree, a seasonal greeting from the pen of Elizabeth, a gift for us to enjoy.