She awoke to darkness and unfamiliar sounds. It took a few moments to remember that she was not in her bedroom at Providence Cottage, but in her new home tucked into a Chiltern lane. Her roots had been torn out of the red, fertile soil of Devon and roughly transplanted to this chalky, Oxfordshire pasture land. She would never be happy again and as for writing,,,,,,,, that had been left behind in Devon too.
Bedrooms were important to Elizabeth, a place of retreat when the pressures of life made her long for the solitude of a nun’s cell. She could always refresh herself in the shell of her room. It was an intensely personal space where all pretence could be laid aside, a place of prayer and meditation. How long would it take for this slope ceilinged room to become as dear as the one left behind?
All her life Elizabeth had been prone to bouts of depression, and the fatigue bought on by the move and the total rearrangement of her life must have been overwhelming. She was still grieving over her Mother’s death; the loss of her gentle tyranny must have seemed like a hand being taken off the tiller of her life. She had to make her own decisions now and live with the consequences. The first of them had been good, her companion and help mate Jessie had been suggested by her family who had worried about her ability to live alone and cope with the stresses and strains of life. Jessie was the answer to her prayers; she gave her independence and the time to write. The second change, that of leaving Devon had also been her family’s idea, and about this she was much less certain. Elizabeth needed the familiar to feel safe and she was not good at making friends or meeting new people. Society, even the literary one she was forced to occasionally inhabit for the sake of her work was anathema to her.
Devon had been the place where she had found “roots” even though she had been born over the border in Somerset. She loved the places and the people that surrounded her, the small rural community of Marldon that had sheltered her and her Mother for so many years. First in the sad stricken days after her Fathers’ sudden death, then throughout the uncertainty and fear of the war and finally supporting her through her Mothers difficult last illness and demise. She had achieved a measure of success here, her work becoming known worldwide. Green Dolphin Country was made into a film during her Devon years and many of her bestselling novels such as Gentian Hill, Smokey House and of cause the award winning Little White Horse were written here. What would she do, how would she feel in the park like tamed Chilterns so far from the sea?
The darkness outside her window was beginning to lighten and from some tree top a blackbird began to tune up for the dawn chorus. She had always loved the moments of transition, a pause for contemplation and renewal. Getting out of bed she went to the window and drew back the curtains.
She was met by a vision of light. An old apple tree, part of the hedge of trees around her new home was strung with raindrops and the rising sun had set a diamond in the heart of every one of them, the whole tree was cloaked in light. Framed in the branches, resting in the field behind the house was a gaily painted gipsy caravan, an old white horse cropping the turf nearby. Elizabeth was transfixed, here it was happening again, and something she had feared and dreaded had been transformed into something of wonder and joy. Life here was going to be alright. She would get to know and love the countryside and history of this place, just as she had in Devon.
Later on after they had been at Rose Cottage a while and begun to settle into the local community, she had her second vision of Froniga walking through the hedge and up to the well where she sat on the rim with her basket of herbs.
Jessie took her on long countryside drives round the hamlets, villages and towns in their locality. They walked the beech woods, joined the local church which they could walk to across the fields from the cottage and they began to make friends with the other inhabitants of Dog lane.
She discovered the story of the capture and hanging of the Catholic priest in the market square of Henley, caught and convicted of being a Royalist spy, as Yoben is in the book. King Charles really did spend the night at a local Inn nearby, so that Will and Jenny could go and get Will cured of “The King’s Evil” as scrofula was called. Her own cottage as well as others in the area was built partly from old ships timbers. She vowed that on hot summer days the scent of old spices permeated the house.
Jessie herself was a knowledgeable gardener those love of herbs helped form Froniga’s character. I’d love Elizabeth’s description of Froniga’s garden to be her own, but with two small dogs to accommodate this seems unlikely! The well however is well documented, as we have a picture of Elizabeth sitting on its rim as Froniga had done. The hedges around the cottage contained old roses and the small wild dog rose, and Jessie grew herbs in the garden borders.
All these revelations fed her imagination and formed the bones of her new book The White Witch, published in 1958.
This book is about how civil war rips families apart, opening rifts and fostering miss-understandings that last for generations. But the war was fought on religious grounds not just over earth and dust, but over human minds, hearts and ultimately souls, becoming more bloody and obdurate as a consequence. The belief of divine right invested on both sides, gave an added dimension to the fight.
Set in an Oxfordshire village the story centres on the Haslewood family and those who are connected to it. Robert the local squire lives in his small manor house with his wife Margaret and their twin children Will and Jenny. Their cousin and Robert’s childhood sweetheart Froniga lives just across the common from them and is the white witch of the title. This family and the small community with the local parson, tribe of gipsies, and an itinerant painter are the characters we follow through the years of unrest and upheaval the civil war brings to their lives. To Elizabeth’s characters the spiritual battles are as hard to overcome as the physical and it is not just the politically awakening Robert who undergoes a radical transformation.
It turned out to be a pivotal novel for Elizabeth too, a “coming of age” of sorts, because after she wrote it, she seems to have put away “childish things” The spiritual struggles of the civil war mirrored her own quest for enlightenment and understanding. While never losing her love for the old tales of folklore and legend that had surrounded her from her cradle, from now on her novels take on a maturity and depth of spiritual conviction.
Elizabeth had grown up surrounded by the beauty of the church, its celebrations marking the turn of year. Now she whole heartedly embraced the Anglican faith which satisfied her love of ritual and answered for her the fundamental questions of life and death. She had found purpose and meaning in her life. Her father’s example of charity and good works was perpetuated by the increased income her success as an author gave her.
Her books, never preachy, became manuals on life, holding out the hope of understanding, compassion accompanied by the gift of the storyteller held between their pages. No longer did “a little knowledge go a long way” (Goudge Joy of the Snow)
Her life at Rose Cottage was strictly regulated, with a routine of prayer, work and study. While her health permitted she still walked the countryside with her dogs and played an active part in the church. Later she became reclusive and Jessie guarded her privacy fiercely, enabling her to write six of her best novels during the next fifteen years. Elizabeth also compiled and edited six Poetry anthologies, and wrote a biography of St Francis as well as her auto-biography before she died. But she still found the time to personally attend to a correspondence which grew over the years from family and friends to an ever widening circle of fans, extended family and petitions from all over the world. She maintained the literary contacts with her publishers and wrote promotional pieces for other writers, as well as short stories.
The themes of the White Witch let Elizabeth explore the different paths of faith and the way people from different sects love, revere and follow the disciples of God. It solidified her faith while it opened her to a respect for the faith of others. Someone who knew Elizabeth well in her later years once told me, that she was the most tolerate and compassionate person she knew. She felt that the present Middle Eastern conflicts would have saddened her, not with their radical views and intolerance, but because of our own