On the 24th April 1900, at the start of a new century, Elizabeth Goudge was born, in the quiet “Edwardian erstwhile” of the small town of Wells, Somerset, in Tower House close by the cathedral in an area known as The Liberty.
Her father was the Reverend Henry Goudge, who taught in the cathedral school, and her mother was the former Miss Ida Collenette, who had met him while on holiday from her home in The Channel Isles.
Wells, in the early 20th century was a place set apart, surrounded by the low green hills of the county and only joined to the outside world by the slender steel link of the railway. The inhabitants still rode horses and drove carriages; even the railway taxi is described as a pumpkin on wheels. (Goudge 1949 p12) One age gently touching another.
An only child of a loving family union, a match made for love still quite unusual at that time, Henry Goudge’s career lead them to live in beautiful otherworldly places. They were also sheltered from the practicalities of life by being wealthy enough to employ three maids, a Nanny and a Gardener.
Her Mother was a semi invalid as the result of a bicycle accident, which occurred while she was carrying Elizabeth. In later years it was discovered that she had a displaced coccyx, something which would have been managed and mended today. She also suffered from sinusitis so badly that an abscess formed and pressed up against her brain. She went to London for a ground breaking operation that was watched by medical students from all over the world. The operation was a success, and the worse of her pain relieved.
An only child brought up in these circumstances was not educated or equipped for the modern world, but it was ideal for an imaginative embryonic writer, storing away instances and images which would resurface later in her books; such as City of Bells, Henrietta’s House, Linnets and Valerians, Sister of the Angels and The Lost Angel.
She was taught at home by a governess called Miss Lavington, who metamorphosed into the gentle Miss Lavender in the book The City of Bells.
The other world she grew to love as a child was the Channel Island home of her maternal grandparents. Her first novel Island Magic was really a collection of all her mothers’ memories of the Island and the folk lore and myth imbued in them. The du Frock family that Elizabeth wrote about in this book and in Make Believe were her mothers family thinly disguised. She was taken on annual visits by one of her Aunts who came over to England in order to take her back to Guernsey, a sea voyage of nearly two days. She stayed with her maternal Grand Parents who lived for a time in the town of St Peter’s Port, in a street which Elizabeth later called Green Dolphin Street, The Ozannes home was her grand parents. They later moved out into the country to the farmstead known as “Le Hechet”, close to another walled farm used as the setting for Bon Repos.
When she was 11, her father was offered a canonry at Ely Cathedral combined with the Principalship of the Theological College. This move took them from one cathedral city to another. Elizabeth was later to refer to this as her Home of homes.
The move was beneficial for her Mother too, Ely being situated on the top of a windy hill, rather than the lush, damp river valley of Wells. Wells, Elizabeth has described as a “fairyland” but Ely “had the hard strength of reality” (Goudge 1974 p101) about it.
In her school room high above the Fens she immersed herself in reading the books of Andrew Lang, The Waverly novels, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Bronte, and Jane Austen, in this order, prescribed by her Father He also took her visiting the poor of the town which shocked and horrified her, for the airless, lightless conditions that they lived in. The homes that were over crowded and noisy with people, she describes as “the dark patch upon the beauty of Ely, that creeping evil that invades all lovely things” (Goudge 1974. p 117). But she later came to realize that they probably preferred living in the warmth and companionship of their extended families compared to the bright hygienic impersonal geriatric wards of today.
She grew up in the fens of Ely and was sent to Boarding School in Hampshire, which coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. Suddenly she was no longer the centre of a small safe world, but one of many girls all away from home. Of her schooling, she is dismissive saying that it hadn’t prepared any of them to earn a living, but instead how to run a big house, arrange flowers and be presented at court, ” Jane Austen would have felt at home in the Boarding School I went to” (Goudge 1974 p 145) Elizabeth stated. She was taught music, divinity and how to love God. Fortunately for her she had a teacher who opened the doors of English literature to her, especially Shakespeare. Another experience it gave her was an introduction to the New Forest, and the sea marshes of Keyhaven, an area she was to re visit and write about extensively in later life.
There is also an enigmatic reference to a love affair conducted in Ely, which ended in tears, but that became “part of that particular magic” (Goudge 1974 p 155) that was Ely and herself at that time. Perhaps her father considered him an inappropriate suitor, we don’t know. The War had ended and the young men that had survived came home exhausted and disillusioned, another wave succumbing to the influenza epidemic that was rampant in Europe.
Her parents didn’t know what to do with their young daughter, who seemed to know nothing that could be put to use to earn a living, and she herself felt that she lacked the beauty, charm or grace to attract a husband. The openings for a girl of her class to earn a living were limited. She could have been an actress or a nurse, but she stammered when nervous, and didn’t have the physical strength for nursing. It must have been at this period of her life that the Depression which was the burden of the Cross in her life first reared its ugly head.
Her Mother who knew that she loved making things and that she adored children suggested that after training she could teach in a school for the disabled. Her Father had a friend who was the Vice Chancellor of Reading College, and a family of cousins living in the same town who could house her while she studied. She was disappointed about not being able to go to nursing school, but The Art College was a good one and she soon settled down and thoroughly enjoyed learning all the crafts she was taught. She says of her time there that it gave her the ability to observe things in minute detail and stimulated her imagination. But it did not provide her with a job.
Then the axe fell on their Ely Idyll, when in 1923, Henry was offered the post of Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. He knew that the move would be detrimental to his wife and daughter, and yet he considered himself as a soldier would, under orders, the Arch Bishop wanted him to except the promotion and his wife gradually came to see that it was best use of his talents.
Shortly after the move to Oxford Elizabeth’s Mother suffered a nervous breakdown. The dark, stuffy town house in The Quad, full of mice and a few rats, with only a small draughty garden to redeem it was too great a contrast to Ely. It was also noisy with the constant sound of the bells, clocks and the activities of the students, which irritated her sinus trouble. She was far too ill to enjoy the social life her husband’s elevated position expected of her Henry on the other hand was in his element, returning to the place he had been a student in and enjoying the stimulation and challenges of his new job. So for a while Elizabeth and her mother tried to hide how unhappy they were
But the situation got so bad that it was decided that they should look for somewhere else, preferably near the sea and not to far from Oxford for them to live. New Milton in Hampshire could be reached by train from Oxford, and they soon found a bungalow in nearby Barton-on-Sea, which they eventually bought for £500.00 A pattern was established of Mrs Goudge living here in summer and Oxford in winter, “where closed windows and warm fires made it acceptable to her” (Gower 2001 p 43).
Elizabeth had been very distressed over the family’s move from Ely. It meant not only a new city environment to get used to, but a whole different way of life. The position her father had obtained required a social commitment which she had to fulfil as her Mother was unable to do so. We only have to look at the character of Jean in the book Scent of Water to understand the traumas that Elizabeth went through. “She was expected to return numerous social calls and her shyness and the stutter she had acquired at school made her very nervous. Her hands would tremble as she rang the bell fervently hoping the people were out.” (Gower 2001 pp 43, 44)
But, Oxford did provide her with stimulation and broaden her horizons. She quickly found compensations in the form of exploring the surrounding area and getting acquainted with the Oxford college quads and buildings. She was also introduced to some of the finest minds of the generation such as Dr Spooner and Bishop Gore.
Elizabeth had to learn to oscillate between her Fathers needs in Oxford and her Mother’s in Barton, spending time with each It was at this time, while she was still earning a small income from teaching that she began to write in earnest. Her love for the theatre had been fanned by the flames of the Oxford Playhouse, so she wrote three plays which were performed once in London in aid of a charity. But a publisher that she sent them told her to go away and write a novel. We are for ever in his debt.
Her first attempt she considered so appalling that she burnt it! But thankfully she persevered and finally submitted Island magic to Duckworth’s who published it in 1934. Short stories for the Strand magazine followed and then The Middle Window and City of Bells both in the same year 1935.
Her success both delighted and puzzled her parents, her father once said to her after reading her fourth novel Towers in the Mist, “you have such a wonderful gift, but before her head could swell he continued you can make a little knowledge go a long way.” (Gower, 2001 p 45). If he had lived longer, he would have seen what a remarkable talent she really possessed, having the ability to transform the every day world into a place of magic and wonder and lifting her readers up with her as she wove her stories and created her characters.
As her hard work began to pay off she could afford to travel, going on walking holidays to Cumberland and Scotland where her visit to Skye and the Isles inspired the story of The Middle Window. She went aboard to Norway, Crete, Greece Sicily and Corsica, taking in the sights of the ancient civilizations, her own Grand tour. She was a rising literary star and enjoying life. So it seems doubly tragic that she also suffered her first nervous break down, probably brought on by the hectic lifestyle she was forced to live and the strain of writing, however much she enjoyed it. She was ashamed of this “weakness” as she saw it and fought her battle with mental illness courageously all her life.
But her endearing capacity to emphasise with others and to find the comic in the darkest of situations helped her through. She speaks movingly about a visit to the oculist, where she sees another woman in the waiting room. “Her face had the glazed look of someone who had suffered much, something I did not recognise then, but I do now. For a few moments I seemed to fall into a cold misery that I can not describe. It was not her alone it was all the people whom until now, apart from my mother, I had refused to think about; battering them down under hatches so that I should not have to feel too miserable. Quite suddenly, if only for a short while, she had let me through into their company.” (Goudge 1974 p 199).
This is the wonderful light she shed in her books, her characters finding salvation and redemption through living for the greater good, of friends and family, rather than selfishly for themselves. It takes real strength of character to make that journey and commitment to keep on the road.
In the spring of 1939, Elizabeth’s father died suddenly at Barton. He had suffered a bad fall, and “after a fortnight of pain and bewilderment” he became unconscious and died in his sleep. She sat with him even though the nurses at the nursing home told her it was a waste of time. She was vindicated however as he regained consciousness long enough to say to her “Dear one, it is loving that matters” (Goudge 1974 p 207)
Her Mother was of cause devastated by the death, they had been a close and loving couple, and Elizabeth had lost a friend and mentor as well as a Father. They had to pack up the house at Oxford and could only bless their lucky stars that they had Innisfree as the Barton bungalow was called to move to. Most bereaved clergymen families had no where to go After the first shock of grief had worn off, Elizabeth’s mother decided that they all needed a long holiday and that they would go to Devon for a month.
Mrs Goudge had only visited the county once, while on honeymoon with her husband, and Elizabeth had never been before. But they were following a guiding star and the partnership of landscape and writer eventually produced some of Elizabeth’s most famous and well loved stories They answered an advisement for a cottage in the village of Marldon, not far from Paignton, which they could cheaply rent for the summer. The bungalow was small, made of wood and set up the top of a slope, which is why it was referred to as The Ark. The dark wet afternoon and evening transmuted into a beautiful Devon morning and when Elizabeth saw the view of the valley she fell in love. It was a small hamlet, set deep in the quiet of the Westerland valley, just the place to mend shattered nerves and come to terms with a new life without Henry.
While they were there the Second World War broke out and they received a telegram from relatives living in London who wished to move to the comparative safety of Barton. They wanted to buy Innisfree as a refuge and Elizabeth’s Mother promptly accepted. Neither of them had wanted to return to a place of sad memories, they wanted to stay in the tranquil Devon countryside. But could they find anywhere they could afford to live? The huge amount of taxes they had had to pay on the death of the Reverend Goudge, plus the fact that any surplus money he may have had after the upkeep of the large Edwardian homes they lived in, had been used in his charitable works, meant that they were not as well off as they thought they were. Elizabeth’s books were bringing in a small income, and they had the money made by selling their Hampshire home, but it wasn’t much.
Any one who has read Bird in the Tree will remember Lucilla driving her children to distraction because she didn’t like any of the suitable houses they had chosen for her to view. I think this was taken directly from their experience of house hunting in Devon; Mrs Goudge liked nothing that they could afford But by one of those wonderful coincidences which fill her novels, they happened to meet a Mr Clare who had lived in Wells at the same time they had and remembered them well. He was a builder, and was in the process of building property on the edge of a wooded valley near Cockington. He and his son drew up plans for a small bungalow suitable for an invalid and found a plot of land not far from the Ark. It was built and they moved in the following spring. They called it Providence Cottage and from here Elizabeth and her Mother began to weave a new life for themselves. They were to live happily here for over ten years.
During this period Elizabeth wrote prolifically, ten novels, one of which Green Dolphin Country became a film made by M.G.M. in America, numerous short stories and the life of Jesus, entitled For God So Loved the World. Her most famous children’s novel The Little White Horse which won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction, in 1947, was one of the books written during this time, and will become the second Goudge book to made into a movie. Others include, the first in the Eliot trilogy The Bird in the Tree, Smokey House, written for her Nana, her perceptive war time novel Castle on the Hill, Henrietta’s House, the sequel to City of Bells, The Herb of Grace, Make Believe, and The Valley of Song Her love for the history and countryside of the West Country shines through the pages of her work. She couldn’t understand herself why she had so quickly become at home there, ” I have never felt so deeply rooted anywhere as I was in the earth of Devon. Or rather I did not so much put down roots as find roots that were already there. And yet I had not been born in Devon, I had been born over the border in Somerset. I could not understand it then, and I do not understand it now.” (Goudge 1974 p 212).
As well as all her writing, Elizabeth had to look after her increasing ill Mother. She had been a brave invalid for most of her life and now in her last months, had to suffer mental illness as well. Elizabeth was urged to place her in a nursing home, but with the help of people in the village and her own courage and determination looked after her at home until she died in the May of 1951.
Exhausted, shattered and shocked she retreated to Harewood House in Hampshire. Elizabeth had first stayed here after the death of her father to recuperate from a break down and other medical complications which had resulted in a stay in hospital. The house was run as a small private hotel by a Mrs Adams. It was to be the place where she set the Eliot saga, and she returned here again in a time of personal crisis. By the time of this visit the house was beginning to look shabby and Mrs Adams was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain and run. It was sold on, turned into a hotel that wasn’t successful, became empty and ruinous until it was finally demolished. Elizabeth was thankful that she had been inspired to write about it because now the spirit of the house she had loved had the chance to live on and be “visited” by others.
Before she died Mrs Goudge had urged Elizabeth to stay on in Devon for at least a year while she made up her mind what to do. A close friend suggested that she have a companion to stay with her during the winter rather than be isolated and alone. They knew someone who might be suitable, and reluctantly she wrote to Jessie Munroe. Jessie wrote back saying that maybe she could manage to stay the winter, which settled Elizabeth as she seemed as reluctant as herself. However, she says of their first meeting, “I saw an upright, capable-looking young woman with a head of hair like a horse chestnut on fire, and the white magnolia skin that goes with such hair. Her eyes were very direct. She looked young enough to be my daughter and I doubted if she would stand me for long, yet when I went to bed that night to my astonishment I found myself flooded with happiness, and slept deeply.” (Goudge 1974 p 244).
Despite their religious differences, and the gap in years, Elizabeth had always had a fondness for red heads, and Jessie was practicable, strong, loved gardening and hadn’t read any of Elizabeth’s books, something she found refreshing. She didn’t want a relationship built on fiction. Their first common bond being a love of Dogs, they bought their first a Dandy Dinmont puppy called Tikki. Jessie would stay with her for the rest of Elizabeth’s life.
Her family wished her to move nearer to them and she decided to go and stay in Reading with them as she had in her college years, while she looked for somewhere suitable to live. They eventually found Rose Cottage in Peppard Common, a 17th century house with a garden and settled in to their mutual contentment. The garden was perfect for dogs and Jessie loved reawakening it from its neglect.
After a settling in period, Elizabeth finished her last Devonshire novel, The Rosemary Tree, and established a pattern of work and study that produced a new book every two years for the next fourteen years or so. Jessie was now able to take care of her as she had her Mother, giving her the time and space to write. Her next book The White Witch was based on a dream or vision she had of one of the past occupants of her new home. Jessie was able to provide her with a knowledge of herbs, and gypsies really did camp in a near by field. There then followed some of her best loved novels, The Dean’s watch, The Scent of Water, Linnets and Valerians, and Child from the Sea, as well as a biography of St Francis of Assisi, two short stories for children, and A Christmas Book.
It was a fulfilling and creative period, although not without its base notes of sadness. Elizabeth’s health was declining, her arthritis meaning that she could not take an active role in the local community, although she did attend and grow to love the local church, whose spire she could see from her bedroom window. She became reclusive, or rather, retired from “society” preferring the company of her dogs to that of most humans. She retained close family and local connections and was on friendly terms with her publisher and editing staff.
Many visitors were puzzled by the simplistic life style she chose, but although she was by now comfortably off; she had adopted a lifestyle that she felt at peace with. Anyone who has read her work will recognise the longing for an almost monastic life.
Never the less, all those who visited them, spoke of the warmth of their welcome and the hospitality they enjoyed. “The great and Christian virtue of hospitality is a rather weakly plant in myself and Jessie; it needs a lot of nurturing; but in the cottage itself it is so strong that the moment the front door is opened to a guest I can feel the delight that rises up from its hospitable old heart. I once entertained thirty writers in our sitting room and even above the noise of the thirty all talking at once I imagined I was aware of the contented cat-like purring of the cottage. It liked it. This cottage knows in its wisdom how much human beings need each other.” (Goudge 1974 p 255)
Like Adam Aylescough in The Dean’s Watch, perhaps Elizabeth thought she loved places more than people.
She corresponded with fellow writers such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and met the poet Ruth Pitter who also lived in The Chilterns. Many readers were lucky enough to have their correspondence answered personally, and this sometimes led to a deeper friendship. Jessie helped her with her paper work and kept the more intrusive or inopportune visitors at bay. She remained busy and cheerful, writing publicity material for books such as Sword at Sunset and Rider on a White Horse, putting together anthologies of verse and finally after much persuasion, wrote her auto-biography Joy of the Snow in 1974.
Her osteoarthritis was affecting her mobility, she developed high blood pressure coupled with a hardening of the arteries, all of which brought on her depression. Her concentration became poor so that she could no longer write, another deep sadness. Then early in 1978 Elizabeth had a bad fall at home, and was admitted to Reading hospital where she had a pin inserted in her shattered leg. This became very painful as the pin pressed against a nerve. Several operations followed which don’t seem to have been very successful, but after three months in traction, a brief period of respite gave her time to “put her affairs in order” (Gower 2001 p 152) Then in January 1982 she fell again, and while in hospital it was discovered that her backbone was disintegrating, and placing another pin was difficult. She is quoted as saying ” I am like King Charles II, I am an unconsciously long time dying” (Gower 2001 p.152)
Her books were still as popular as ever, with new editions being printed and the BBC contacted her about making a programme of her life, but the project had to be abandoned due to her ill health.
In 1983 a further health problem arose with the forming of cataracts making her work virtually impossible. After yet another fall and stay in hospital, she came back to Rose Cottage and died there peacefully on April 1st 1984 a few weeks before her 84th birthday.
Obituaries appeared in The Times and in local papers, The Times ending with the words” Fragile in appearance, but strong in spirit, she seemed at one with the peace and simplicity of her setting. Few novelists have had comparable knowledge and faith in the goodness of human nature, the beauty of childhood, and the pursuit of things lovely and of good report. As with Jane Austen, she “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery” (Gower 2001 p153).
How Elizabeth would have blushed to be compared to Jane Austen. A service of Thanksgiving was held at Peppard church on Friday 6th April which was attended by family and friends. The three lines of her favourite prayer by Thomas Traherne were read out, Elizabeth quotes them in “The Scent of Water.
Lord Have Mercy, Into Thy hands, Thee I adore.
Goudge E 1949 City of Bells Duckworth
Gower S. 2001 The World of Elizabeth Goudge Periwinkle Publications ISBN 0 9542 0150 7
Goudge E. 1974 Joy of the Snow Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0 340 18531