April 2007 and I’m standing in the lime avenue on the approach road to Turville. The day is grey and overcast and all sound is muffled. The trees soar away towards the clouds and at their feet a few bluebells are beginning to unfurl their crumpled petals. There are no people in sight and only a kite traversing the field beyond the limes shows any sign of life. I have come to Oxfordshire to attend the Blue Plaque ceremony which will take place tomorrow, today is for exploration and how could I not come to the place where Elizabeth set my favourite of her books?
The Scent Of Water was written in the early sixties, published in 1963, at a time when Elizabeth had just moved to Peppard Common from Devon. and it chronicles the move of the central character Mary from a high powered executive job in London to the rural quiet of Appleshaw. She tells her disbelieving friends that she wishes to experience village life before it disappears for ever. Her reasons however are deeper and more personal than that. She has been bequeathed a house by a cousin whom she met just once as a small girl and thinks at first that she will just put the property on the market and sell it. But as the memories of her visit resurface she changes her mind and moves in.
For me this novel is a distillation of all the books that have gone before as it contains all that is best in Elizabeth’s work. Her ability to layer a book so that the threads and narrative lead one ever deeper into the heart of the story, in this case renewal, is inspirational.
Elizabeth herself was coming to terms with the lose of her mother and the lose of her Devonshire home. She was obeying the dictates of her concerned family and moving closer to the few cousins she had left at their request. At first she was unhappy and missed the countryside of her beloved Westerland valley and the companionship of the village people she had come to know. She was always nervous and shy about meeting new people, and the thought of a whole new community to come to grips with must have been daunting to her, even with the help of Jessie.
The world must have seemed a frightening place in the early sixties with the Cuban missile crisis dominating the news and President Kennedy advising all prudent families to build a nuclear bomb shelter. The Berlin wall was dividing communities and the whole world seemed on the brink of a nervous break down. All the tried and tested theories of the past where being severely tested. What hope for the future was there except to retreat to a safe haven and pray?
At that time Elizabeth and Jessie were both young enough and curious enough to start exploring the neighbourhood and it wasn’t long before the charm of their more manicured surroundings captivated her imagination. It was in fact to become one of her most productive writing periods, producing a book every two years until in her eighties she became to frail to write.
Turville is a charming village a few miles from Elizabeth’s new home, nestling under an arm of down land and surrounded by wooded fields. It has been used as a location for screen and television, the latest productions to use it being The Vicar Of Dibley and Midsomer Murders. So it is hardy surprising that Elizabeth should have been inspired to use it as the template for Appleshaw. The novel she placed there has stood the tests of time dealing with subjects such as; financial fraud, infidelity, teenage crime and the complex relationships within families and the wider community. It could have been written yesterday.
It is a book of discovery, a journey into the heart and mind of mental illness, a subject on which Elizabeth had personal experience and as such is one of the most auto-biographical of her works. She speaks movingly of the isolation that depression brings, as only someone who had experienced it could.
“I thought, I can’t bear it,. I was lying on stones and the walls were moving in. And then, and that was the third time, I said, “yes I will”. But it didn’t help. The walls moved in nearer and as they closed right round me, trapping me, I screamed. I don’t suppose I really screamed. What had happened was that I had fallen asleep at last and drifted into nightmare. I was imprisoned in stone. I knew then what men suffer who are walled up alive.” (Goudge 1963 p 136 )
Elizabeth had always been haunted by the Ely ghost and the horrific tale of entombment, but I have also been told by those who suffer depression that this is a very graphic and honest portrayal of how it feels. So many people see mental illness as an affliction sent by God as some form of punishment and only get as far as questioning why it has happened to them. Elizabeth seems to have got beyond this and in her suffering come a little closer in her understanding of God’s love and compassion.
“They’ve not come yet, I thought. All the prettiness the artists painted isn’t here. No angels, no shepherds, no children with their lambs. Its stripped down to the bare bones of the rock and the child. There’s no one here. And then I thought, I am here, and I asked, who am I Lord? And then I knew that I was everyone.” (Goudge 1963 p 136 )
There is no sense of pride here, Elizabeth had discovered and is trying to share with us her way of Prayer. The offering of her, as she would see it, small pain as recompense for others greater trials. Elizabeth’s compassion for out casts and outsiders is well known, a whole section of her Diary Of Prayer is directed towards prisoners and refugees. I wonder what she would have made of Sangatte just across the channel from us today?
Her empathy with Paul the writer and the processes he uses to manifest his craft make me wonder if Elizabeth wrote at night to minimize distractions. Perhaps she too, liked to map out whole sections of her story in her mind and then write them down in large sections or chapters. I suspect that Jessie didn’t involve herself in proof reading or criticism of Elizabeth’s work. One of the reasons Elizabeth cites for getting along with Jessie so well is that she has never read any of her books which she finds refreshing. But was there someone in the village who did have this enviable role?
There is a sense of renewal throughout this book, from Edith confessing her small sin, to Mr Hepplewaite’s major fraud, from Mary’s conversion to Cousin Mary’s revelation, each of the characters becomes reborn. It is a book full of hope, hope founded on the past and a belief that we can bring what is of value back to bloom in the future. Mary who had moved to Appleshaw to discover the past, ends up with ” the future shining on her face,” (Goudge P 282 )
I didn’t find the Talbots new build hidden behind firs in Turville although the cottages nestled around the old church is pretty much as Elizabeth describes it. The house which could be the model for The Laurels was close by, if not opposite. It had a walled garden with a door in the thickness of its stone, but it was called Orchard Cottage, and I couldn’t see the tunnel of wisteria which led to the front door, just a gate and a gravelled drive. Probably another instance of Elizabeth transposing a childhood memory to some where else.
The Randall’s row of cottages were undergoing extensive renovations and were partly shrouded in tarpaulin. A windmill is perched on the downs shoulder dominating the skyline and is never mentioned. But the lime avenue is there in all its glory.
Job chapter 14
- for there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.
- Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground;
- Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.
This sense of renewal is something Elizabeth experienced again and again through out her life, and it is one of the precious gifts she won, struggling with her own personal demons.
The scent of water was in the air that day too, misting through the trees and slicking the horizon with the promise of proper rain. It gave to this pretty little village glamour, a soft beauty the harsher light of summer with its compliment of tourists would have destroyed.