In 1974, the B.B.C. sent one of their immaculately spoken interviewers, to visit the successful and talented writer Elizabeth Goudge at her home Rose Cottage deep in the Chiltern countryside. When asked what she expected Elizabeth to be like, Jane an acquaintance said she thought that Elizabeth would be a well dressed, handsome, older woman surrounded by friends and family, living in a large and gracious home, rather like the matriarchal characters that inhabit Elizabeth’s work, a Lucilla in fact. Jane was a great fan of Elizabeth’s work, exulting in the lavish description of landscape she used and the detail of the feasts and parties that so many of her novels include. She appreciated the depth given to the characters and the comfort that Elizabeth’s stories provide in an uncertain world. The knowledge that good will continue its fight against evil, even if the struggle seems at times hopeless, the outcome uncertain.
In fact at that time Rose Cottage was very small with only one room downstairs, the kitchen being built out in an extension, and with only two bedrooms upstairs, it must have come as something of a shock. Elizabeth herself could not be less like Lucilla, being more a cross between Margaret Eliot and Jean Anderson. The previous inhabitants of the cottage had been The Rectory coachman who was succeeded by his daughter, a benign ghost whose presence both Elizabeth and Jessie were aware of.
The cottage was wonderfully chaotic, with Frodo the current Dandy allowed to keep his bones in the fire place, and the space cluttered with objects inherited, sent by avid readers of her work, and items Elizabeth was just interested in such as a collection of watches, one of which belonged to a grandfather of Jessie’s, the inspiration for the “The Dean’s Watch.”
“For it was not only a beautiful watch but an uncommon one. It had a jewelled watch cock of unusual design, showing a man carrying a burden on his shoulders. Isaac had seen hundreds of watch cocks during his professional life, and many of them had had impish faces peeping through flowers and leaves, but never so far as he could remember one showing a human figure. The pillars were of plain cylindrical form, as in most of Graham’s watches. He had never favoured elaborate pillars for like all great craftsmen he had always made ornament subsidiary to usefulness. Isaac closed the thin gold shell that protected the delicate mechanism and turned the watch over. It had a fine enamelled dial with a wreath of flowers within the hour ring. The outer case was of plain gold with the monogram A. A. engraved upon one side, and upon the other a Latin motto encircling the crest of a mailed hand holding a sword.”
(Dean’s Watch 1960 p 13)
I learnt that she had a collection of horse brasses, bought for her by Jessie, one for each book she had published. They reflected the theme of each story Elizabeth had written. A Welsh Woman in a tall hat for “Child From The Sea”, a dolphin for “Green Dolphin Country”, a bell for “City of Bells”, and so on. Elizabeth wrote eloquently about the teams of horses used on the land, from the Hampshire fields of the Eliot’s to the Somerset of The Rosemary Tree, the round of the arable year was to her moving poetry.
No mention was made of the Icon on the Wall, a painting which is visible in one of the photographs I have of Elizabeth, and the title of one of her collection of short stories. But we were introduced to the Little Things, though sadly, not in any detail. They had been a gift from a Channel Isle Aunt. Elizabeth said that like her Aunt and her Mother before her, she had given away some of the collection to children who had seemed to connect to them, and that this was only a remnant of the collection. Which little boy got the Gnome Mary gives to Isaac in Scent of Water, who Queen Mab in her hazelnut coach?
She gave a wonderful description of the figurine that Miguel crafted and gave to her, part bird, part man, a Franciscan monk ‘with a very naughty look on his face. I wonder what became of it? I felt privileged to know the background to the Prisoner story Elizabeth related, although no mention was made of her relationship with his family.
No allusion was made to her austere and simple life style, or to where she worked and wrote. I cannot imagine someone who uses their bedroom as a retreat from the world, using the same space to write in. Yet the old cottage had no small study space that could be used. She must have written in the large downstairs room with its view of Dog Lane and front garden.
It was interesting hearing her speak, so 1940’s in the rhythm and patterns, so of her class and time. Yet she belonged to Amnesty, before they became International.
They talked about seals and how they came to Jessie but not to her and the interviewer played some seal noises recorded in Pembrokeshire. They spoke of the cottage they stayed in above the bay, and I remembered the window she wrote in and the view of the sea, the little harbour wall and the pink fuchsias swinging in the wind.
“He ceased playing and listened, and from over the water was answered by a low fluting cry. It was so mysterious, so beautiful and yet so eerie that when Charles took Lucy’s hand he found it was cold and trembling He played a few noted like a call and was answered. He did it again and again and each time like an echo his music came back to him. Now here, now there, now near, now far.”
(Goudge 1970 Child from the Sea p 346).
When asked about her hobbies, if she had time for any, Elizabeth spoke eloquently about her love of music and of one piece in particular, the opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s third piano concerto. It had seemed to her as if the orchestra had come down to meet the soloist, and it was if eternity had come down and picked up the mortal thing that was Elizabeth and she was comforted, lifted out of her misery.
She spoke too about the embroidered chair seats she had made depicting wild flowers such as Bryony and Rose, a family skill inherited from her Great Grandmother, whose sampler had been made into a fire screen.
There was no mention of her love of poetry, in fact there was no discussion of her creative life at all, it was a sort of “Home and Garden” of a famous writer, rather than an in depth look at her life and work.
The garden which had been wrestled from the wilderness by Jessie, was walked round and the herbs and old roses discussed at length. Elizabeth recounted folk lore about Rosemary being a protection against evil, never growing higher than the height of Christ while He lived on Earth, and Rue granting second or clear sight. Which was the reason it was often grown in graveyards. There were fennel, hyssop, wild strawberries, red sage, herba Barona, caraway thyme, for rubbing on a baron of beef, if you ever had any, tansy, and a Glastonbury Thorn given by a friend who was a nun.
The old roses were told over as if they were beads on a rosary. Maiden’s Blush, Apothecary and Rosa Mundi, fair Rosamund, William Lobb, a moss rose, hips and leaf colour as important as the flowers, Gold finch that smelt of pineapple. It was a hide and seek garden that children loved.
It was obvious that Jessie was the plants woman and loved her garden as Elizabeth loved her words. But Elizabeth detested Magpies, they had wreaked havoc on the small bird population of the garden. She saw them sitting in an old oak at the bottom of the garden, preying on the other birds. Despite being a pacifist if she had known how to fire a gun and had one she would have shot them all!
The tour ended at the well which Elizabeth said was a rain water well. She began talking about making the garden well safe because of all the children who visited her and her concern for their safety. Did many children come and stay she was asked? Oh yes very many, Elizabeth replied with a smile in her voice.
Here the interview ended. It had been a privilege to walk with Elizabeth round her home, to listen to her voice and see through her eyes some of the things that inspired her and that made up her inner life and enriched her days. Being such a private person, it was a small miracle to me to have this almost complete interview to listen to.