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Wells, Birth Place of Elizabeth Goudge

Visiting a City of Bells

Written By Susan Lee Hauser (2019)

The train swung round a bend, the blue hills parted like a curtain and the city of Torminster was visible. . .  . It seemed a buried city sunk at the bottom of the sea, where no life stirred and no sound was heard but the ringing of bells as the tide surged through forgotten towers and steeples. . . . and out of this sea rose a gray rock with three towers. . . The Cathedral. Chapt. I, ii

In July 2019 I re-visited the most beautiful cathedral city in England, Wells in Somerset, and soon after re-visited A City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge’s loving tribute to Wells. I was delighted to recognize so much of what I saw and experienced in Wells reflected in her book. Goudge was born and spent her childhood in Wells and wrote Bells in 1935—one of her first books. Come on a tour with me and Miss Goudge!

by Barry Lewis – Picture Postcard Pretty- Wells CC

The water, that welled up no one knew how far down in the earth, was always inky black. . . . There were always pigeons wheeling round the holy well, the reflection of their wings passing over it like light. Chapt. I, iii

The most famous thing about Wells—and the origin of its name—is its ancient springs, which still flow around the Bishop’s Palace and right down the High Street through the market place. (Note that in this novel Miss Goudge has renamed the city “Torminster.”

Although the first church in the area was built in Saxon days (705 AD), there is some evidence that it was a holy place both for early British tribes and, later, for the Romans. The foundations of the Saxon church can be found today in the cemetery inside the cloister. The present cathedral was built from 1175 (under leadership of a Bishop Jocelin!) to the late 1400s, the first entirely Gothic-style cathedral in England.

The water from the wells is abundant around the city center. It flows in the gardens and moat of the Bishop’s Palace; it is home to fish and ducks, dragonflies and swans. (See below for more about the swans!) There is an actual well—Goudge’s “holy well,” above—that has stood in the market place for centuries. In the center of the photograph above you can see the well’s stone cover, and the channel to the right of the street runs with well water.

Springs behind Bishop’s Palace

Springs behind the cathedral

Between the tall Green Dragon and the equally tall bakery two doors off was wedged a little house only two stories high. . . . There were two gables, with a small window in each . . . and [a] large bow-window was to the right of the door and a smaller one to the left. Chapt. I, iii

The mystery house at the center of “The City of Bells” is still there on the high street at the market. (Both these photos, courtesy Robin McDowell Willis, 2018)  The house is now a restaurant on the ground level; it is said that William Penn once spoke from the double windows. The name “Green Dragon” that Miss Goudge gives the tavern may have come from  the fellow above, who can be found inside the Bishop’s Palace (see below).

Twice a week the market is full of vendors and shoppers for everything from books to delicious local cheeses or handmade jewelry to crocheted scarves or homemade sausage. But Wells is a busy city any day of the week. Tour buses now come barreling through “downtown” in a reverse of much of the same route Jocelyn took by foot in “Bells”: They completed the circuit of the Market Place and turned to their right up a steep street at a smart pace. Then they turned to their right a second time and passed under a stone archway into the Close. Instantly it seemed that they had come to the very center of peace. Chapt. I, iii

That ”steep street” is Sadler Street, and at its corner with the marketplace there is a pastry shop, much like the sweet shop Goudge often mentions. The “archway” of which Goudge writes is one of the old city gates, Brown’s Gate or The Dean’s Eye (1451). Incidentally, our apartment at 7A Cathedral Green—an apartment you may rent from Rural Retreats—was just two doors down from the gatehouse and several doors up from the Deanery, which is discussed below.

Gatehouse Wells

As for “the very center of peace,” that is the cathedral close, or green. It is a huge grassy area, sprinkled with starry daisy-like flowers and buttercups (are they in the aster family, dear reader?). The close may sometimes be the center of peace, but it was the center of football games, picnics, and play rehearsals while we were there (the city was conducting a theatre festival that weekend, with a local production of “As You Like It” set directly in front of the west doors of the cathedral.)

Jocelyn . . . looked across a space of green grass . . . to the . . . mass of the Cathedral. Its towers rose four-square against the sky and the wide expanse of the west front, rising like a precipice, was crowded with sculptured figures. They stood in their ranks, rising higher and higher, kings and queens and saints and angels, remote and still. Chapt. I, iii

Only the carved figures on the west front were still, those kings and queens and saints and angels who had faced a thousand such days and would face a thousand more. Chapt. II, iv

While Goudge describes the cathedral as being made of grey stone, Wells Cathedral is actually a honey color, made of local limestone. The entire western front is covered with some 300 statues, as Goudge says, of “kings and queens and saints and angels.” A good guidebook will help you figure out who’s who, but many of the statues are unrecognizable, having been destroyed in 1685’s Monmouth Rebellion. A handful have been restored recently, due to their actually crumbling. Interestingly, the front was originally painted with bright primary colors (as was much of the interior)!

In the photo above, you can see the audience and cast of “As You Like It,” which was performed on the front terrace that weekend. Inside the cathedral, I saw a new play about Jane Austin, “Austen Sisters,” written by and starring Susannah Harker and her sister Nelly. (Harker played Jane Bennett in the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice.”) It was fabulous!

My favorite carvings on the cathedral are the two seraphim flanking Christ triumphant at the top of the west front. They look like singing sunflowers, fresh from the set of “The Wizard of Oz”!  (The bible describes seraphim as having six wings; quite often in art even up in the eighteenth century seraphim are depicted literally with six wings, but with no arms or legs!) Goudge’s favorite carving, as described by Henrietta in Bells, was the infant Christ over the west door:

Henrietta . . . was in too much of a hurry to look up at the carved baby over the west door, as she usually did, always hoping that he would jump and crow in his mother’s arms at the sound of the bell. . . . ‘I do wish He’d laugh,’ said Henrietta, looking up at the Christ Child. ‘If I could I’d pinch his toes and then I’m sure He’d laugh.’ ‘Don’t be so silly,’ said Hugh Anthony. ‘He’s only stone. Come on. Run.’ Chapt. II, iv

Vicar’s Close Wells

To his left, on the opposite side of the road to the Cathedral, was another smaller mass of gray masonry, the Deanery, and in front of him was a second archway. Once through it they were in a discreet road bordered on each side with gracious old houses standing back in walled gardens. Here dwelt the Canons of the Cathedral with their respective wives and families. Chapt. I, iii

The Deanery Wells

The Deanery (photo above, left) is the former home of the Dean of the Cathedral, a magnificent 800-year-old mansion with its own Tudor garden out back. It is on the market for the first time, and rumors are that it may become an art gallery or a hotel. The photo on the right is of the Vicars’ Close, the oldest medieval residential street in Europe (1348). Built for cathedral clergymen, it now houses members of the choir and their families. I once had the good fortune to stay in the house in the far left back corner!

When she got to the Cathedral she turned to her left on to the Green by the west front, for it was possible for pedestrians to get from the Green to the Market Place through a little tunnel that bored through one of the houses. Chapt. II, iv

“little tunnel”

This “little tunnel” is another bit of medieval construction, known as the “Penniless Porch.” While it was a spot for beggars in earlier centuries, today one may frequently find a street musician playing and hoping for a bit of change. To the right through the opening is, as Goudge describes, the market place.

The interior of Wells Cathedral is nothing short of breathtaking. It beggars belief that the cathedral’s towering pillars and windows were built before the invention of hydraulic lifts and machinery. Some scholars credit the cathedral as being the first completely Gothic cathedral in Europe; certainly there are no Romanesque elements to be found anywhere, as there are in most medieval cathedrals. While the vaulting at the top of each pillar is spectacular, the other feature unique to Wells is the scissor arches at the crossing on all four sides. Absent from the original structure, the arches were added in the mid-14th century to bolster the building after the structure began to sink under its own weight.  

From where they stood at the west door it stretched away from their feet into the shadows in the distance so that they could not see where it ended. Great pillars stood in ordered ranks all the way up the nave, so tall that it gave one a crick in the neck to look up to the place where their straightness curved into lovely dim arching shapes that went up and up into the roof and criss-crossed high over your head like the branches of trees in a forest. Chapt. II, iv

Exterior clock face

Today you can tour the “higher parts” of the cathedral. During the tour you can observe the inner workings of the clock (see below), visit the masons’ drafting room, see a real stencil for the ceiling in the nave, sing through the singing holes in the western front (for the choir in the procession of psalms on Psalm Sunday); and enjoy some spectacular views in and outside the cathedral. This tour is relatively new and well worth the price and the stairs climbed!

“Jack Blandifers”

Then they . . . planted themselves in front of the clock on the north wall of the Cathedral to watch it strike nine. . . . It was a wonderful clock. A great bell hung between the life-size figures of two gentlemen sitting down. They had bushy hair and square caps on their heads, and held sticks in their hands, and for most of the day they sat perfectly still gazing at each other with every appearance of acute boredom. But at each hour they suddenly came to agitated life and made savage onslaughts on the bell. They struck it with their sticks and kicked it with their feet and made a great deal of noise indeed. Chapt. III, i

Interior clock face with jousting figures

The cathedral clock is a marvel. The interior clock face is the oldest in Europe, and it tells the months, days, and the phases of the moon. Above the face three men on horseback rotate in a circle, with one poor fellow constantly being knocked back on his horse and popping up again at every rotation. This performance draws quite a crowd every hour, on the hour!

Another hourly ritual at the cathedral is pausing for prayer. Led by different members of the clergy, visitors are asked to stop whatever they are doing to provide silence for the prayers that are then offered, reminding all present that the magnificent building monuments and carvings were built and are maintained for the glory of God. If you are lucky, you may also hear the organist or choir members rehearsing in the space. At 4:30, vergers rope off the eastern end of the cathedral to prepare for evensong (to which everyone is invited). If you have never been to evensong, do not miss this beautiful and ancient ceremony!

Man with toothache
Fan vaulting Chapter House
Man pulling a face

At the far end of the Market Place yet another of the archways in which Torminster abounded led to the great trees and green grass that surrounded the moated Bishop’s Palace. . . . Gray, battlemented walls, with loopholes for arrows, surrounded it and its gardens, completely hiding them from sight, and a wide moat, brimful of water, surrounded the walls. Chapt. VI, iv

The swan filled moat

The foremost swan turned gracefully towards her . . . and then turning from her with beautiful contempt he pulled with his beak the bell-rope that hung from the Palace wall. He rang it once, imperiously . . . and instantly a human menial showered bread from a window. Chapt. VI, iv

The swans of Bishop’s Palace have been a fixture for centuries. Apparently, Miss Goudge had some less than pleasant encounters with the swans as a child (see quote above), but most visitors are charmed by them. Now and again the swans fly away, but they are soon replaced and newcomers are trained to ring the bell for food as did their predecessors. It is certainly one of the most photogenic spots in a very photogenic city! There are a café and gift shop adjacent to the moat where one can watch the swans and have tea before visiting the spectacular palace ruins and gardens.

Fewer lovelier rooms were to be met with at this time in England than the gallery of the Bishop’s Palace at Torminster. It stretched the whole length of one wing of the Palace. . . . From the walls of the gallery the former Bishops of Torminster looked down upon it from their portraits. Chapt. IX, ii

The Gallery
The E

The bulk of the Bishop’s Palace was destroyed after the dissolution of the monasteries, but its ruins are still quite impressive. The portion of the palace described by Goudge—the gallery, stairwell, chapel, and some drawing rooms—remains for visitors. As you can see, the palace is still decorated for Christmas, recalling the party for the choirboys in City of Bells:

The polished floor shone like dark water.. . . At each end of the gallery a log-fire was blazing, its glow reflected on floor and walls, and in the center was a Christmas-tree, its top reaching to the ceiling and its branches laden with twinkling candles and presents done up in colored paper. Chapt. IX, ii

For fans of Elizabeth Goudge, no trip to Wells would be complete without paying homage to the house where she spent most of her childhood, a house affectionately called “the Rib.” Goudge was born elsewhere, the nearby but difficult to see “Tower House, but moved to this second location the age of three. The Rib can be found adjacent to both the eastern end of the cathedral and the Vicar’s Close. It is still a private home.

It is easy to fill a week or more with a visit to Wells. One can easily spend a couple days touring the cathedral—its carvings and stained glass, its high parts and outside carvings. There is a self-guided walking tour of the city, plenty of shopping (the cathedral also has a fine gift shop), several wonderful restaurants, a museum of the city and the surrounding area (including archaeological finds, as well as native flora and fauna), and nearby caverns and caves.

He saw this pattern now as a series of lovely things hung one behind the other like great curtains closest to him was the life of men with the moving figures of those he must love, an old man and a little girl and a husband and wife whose generosity would make their home his. Then came the city of bells and towers, then the blue hills behind it, then the sky that was now to him a rich o’erhanging firmament. And behind that? He was no imaginative child and his vision of wings and crowns was not as clear as Henrietta’s, but behind the things that are seen he was aware now of the things that are not seen and in his new-made pattern they were the warp.” Chapt. XIV, vii

For more information on Elizabeth Goudge, see this link, https://www.elizabethgoudge.org/index.php/a-short-biography/

All photos by Susan Lee Hauser (2019), unless otherwise noted.

Charms for lost Serenity

“Never have we longed for peace as we do now, when war has become an obscene horror worse than any imaginable storm, and noise and confusion so invade cities and homes that we are in danger of having our very minds and souls battered to a uniform pulp.”
( Book of Peace 1968)

So wrote Elizabeth Goudge in the preface to her collection of poetry “A Book of Peace.” published in 1968. They apply to the world we inhabit today. I had turned to my collection of Elizabeth’s anthologies, because of an email I had received about them.

There are books in any personal collection which speak to the owner and this is one of my great books. It is a 1st edition American copy, published by Coward McCann and signed by the author. The dedication is to Mary McMaster of the Community of St Luke dated February 1975. The cover is beautifully unstated, a blue background with a sunflower.

Inside was this slip offering a protection for the book on its journey from America to my bookshelf in England. It also contains a letter written to me by Sylvia Gower, the author of “The World of Elizabeth Goudge” and a photograph of Elizabeth sitting on Froinga’s well in her garden at Rose Cottage. It has thick creamy pages which appear to have been hand cut. All perfectly valid reasons for it being an important book to me. But the real and most compelling reasons are the poems it contains, the writers and poets she introduces me to and the voice of Elizabeth, gentle, lucid, speaking to me through her choices.

 

 

 

A Fresh Perspective on Green Dolphin Street

This is a great article, accessible from the link below by Stephen Foote, which he wrote for the Guernsey Literary Festival to celebrate the fact that Sebastian Faulks is the headline guest in May.

It traces the connection between his novel “On Green Dolphin Street” back to Guernsey via Elizabeth Goudge’s novel.

Chasing Ghosts

An interview with Erlys Onion, God daughter of Jessie Munroe

While on holiday in Pembrokeshire back in 2007, my husband drove me to Newport to meet Erlys Onions the goddaughter of Jessie Munroe. Elizabeth had been to stay here a number of times, as Jessie had as yet un-revealed connections with the area so knew it well. We descended a winding lane that led us ever closer to the coast, terminating in a sweep of gravel and fields behind some houses hidden by conifers. Mr Onions with companion dog was there to open the field gate and show us in. We descended steps entering the calm of a small but pretty back garden, a good private sun trap on a bright day. Drwy gymorth (black dog) lead us towards the gravelled patio in front of the double doors at the back of the house. I was aware of containers filled with plants and a well-stocked garden, which on a different day I would have stopped to admire. Maybe Mrs Onions had inherited green fingers. The doors opened into a flagged dining area, with a study to one side and the lovely proportioned sitting room, both with extensive views over the bay, ahead. The kitchen dining room I was to discover, led off of this room and had three windows making it light and airy even on a grey day.

Mr Onions opened the doors calling out to Erlys that we had arrived. She came through from the depths of the house, a slight, dark woman, trim of figure and smiling in greeting. She was younger than I had expected,  and although probably in her early sixties, she appeared younger. She ushered me through the living room into the kitchen and we exchanged those safe, small, weather words of the newly met, which are common currency throughout the British Isles.

We went through and sat in the sitting room, whose window overlooked the bay. I could appreciate now that the cottage sat on the quayside. I sat rather nervously on the edge of an extremely large and comfortable settee, the sort that if you knew the people it belonged to well, you would kick your shoes off and curl up on, and sipped good tea out of a thin china cup, and tried to listen with all my senses to what Erlys was saying. The room was painted a silvery grey and cream and its colour, the spiral layout of the rooms and influenced no doubt by the view from the window, it reminded me of the inside of a whorled shell. It was very quiet.

I thanked her for seeing me and explained why Sylvia Gower, author of “The World Of Elizabeth Goudge”, had given me her address and why, as one of the few people left who truly knew Elizabeth I wanted to meet her.

She started off by talking about Jessie, as it was only natural for a god daughter to do. Jessie it transpired had been a highly principled individual, who hadn’t had much sympathy for the emotional frailties of people, which had led to a prickly relationship between the two of them, as Erlys tried to look after her in her old age.

It seems that Jessie Munroe was a wealthy woman, and chose to live with Elizabeth because she wanted to rather than needed to. She had attended Horticultural College and had been working for the Bishop of Worcester’s family when she was asked if she would consider being interviewed for the position of companion/housekeeper/Gardner to Elizabeth. Her family were extremely well off, Erlys said, everything they touched turned to gold; shipping lines, chutney and perverse making, anything they participated in succeeded. But she was fiercely independent and wanted to work in her own chosen field of horticulture.

During the war, she had been sent to work on the land near Newport, on the other side of the bay. She worked on a farm and fell under the magic spell of the place and in love with a local man called David. Why they never married Erlys doesn’t know, but when she was helping to sort out Jessie’s effects after her death, she came across a letter from a mutual friend saying how sad he was that she and David hadn’t married. but that he was pleased that David had been ordained. Perhaps that was the reason. Jessie really had been brought up on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and was passionate in her beliefs. Perhaps they clashed over religious doctrine, or maybe she simply didn’t want to become a vicar’s wife, having to take second place to his parish.

Erlys went to great pains to explain to me that Jessie and Elizabeth’s relationship was purely platonic and that they were never lovers. I had not imagined that they were and was frankly mildly irritated but not surprised to hear that rumours to that effect had circulated. Two women living together in a strong relationship is going to attract gossip in any day and age I suppose. Elizabeth would never have treated her as a subordinate, but as a valued friend, and people are always going to go for the salacious.

What I found more surprising was that Elizabeth had no idea of Jessie’s wealth and independent means. At one stage, after Green Dolphin Country the movie had made a lot of money in America, Elizabeth found herself in the embarrassing position of not being able to pay a large and unexpected tax bill. She had to ask Jessie to move out as she could no longer afford to pay her wages and Jessie went. She doesn’t seem to have offered to lend her friend the money and stay but chooses on the face of it to leave behind her friend and employer to sort out the mess herself, returning when she had done so. Maybe Elizabeth turned her offer down; I didn’t like to ask such a personal question.

Jessie was a very controlling person and tried to dominate her relationship with Elizabeth. But, although on the surface it appeared that she did, Erlys assured me that this was not the case and that Elizabeth had a quiet, firm way with her that prevailed. She quoted a lovely story to illustrate this. It seems that Jessie had been approached by the magazine Homes & Gardens to have Rose Cottage appear in an issue. Jessie had worked hard on the garden and was naturally delighted. She told Elizabeth and then said that she now going to buy a gun to shoot” them pesky birds” that were ruining her lovely plot. Elizabeth gently reminded her that they had both been lifelong members of the RSPB and that Jessie would purchase a gun over her dead body. No gun was bought.

From this point on, it was easy to steer the conversation onto Elizabeth. Erlys it seems was adopted, and her family sent her to boarding school which was nearer to Rose Cottage than her family home, and she spent many of her school holidays with the two women, not where a young teenager necessarily wanted to be. She would rather have gone home at first and bitterly resented it. But, despite herself, she began to enjoy it and as she got older to value Elizabeth’s friendship, insights and warmth.

Erlys thought that Jessie played on Elizabeth’s frailty to make herself indispensable to her and that although Elizabeth had a mild heart condition and her propensity towards depression were both debilitating, neither was as bad as Jessie pretended. In part, it was a desire to protect Elizabeth from the world so that she could get on with her writing, something Elizabeth probably needed. But it was good to find out that she possessed a little of her Mother’s iron will and ruled her own fate and home life.

One of the questions I wanted to ask was about Elizabeth’s lifestyle, and if it was true about the simplistic nature of her life. She had indeed lived a regulated, quiet life, with good simple food, a writing regime and a routine of pray and contemplation. I was delighted to find that she too had her own personal alter, it sounded like a prie-dieu, or kneeling stool, for praying. Erlys had found a battered statue of the Madonna in an attic at Rose Cottage after Elizabeth’s death.

Erlys was too young to have met Elizabeth’s Mother and didn’t know anything about a relationship in her distant past at Ely, but then I don’t suppose that it would have been the sort of thing that Elizabeth would have confided to a young girl. She also knew nothing about her connection to Evelyn Underhill, although she did remember that she had used a quote from her at the beginning of Green Dolphin Country, this apparently being Elizabeth’s name for an earthly paradise or Shangri-la. She too thought that had Elizabeth been alive now, she might well have been considered “new age” with her empathy towards all sincere religious strivings.

She said she thought it would surprise many people to know that Elizabeth would have been firmly on the Muslims side and outraged at the war being waged in Iraq. She would have seen it as a failing on our part of faith and negotiations. We have become a secular society, and although she was liberal in her thoughts, views and actions, she was also able to see our weakness and their strengths.

I found out that when Elizabeth had stayed with them, she had sat in the window overlooking the bay when writing. She had always bought the dogs, and Jessie drove them around the area, to all the places of interest that they visited, such as Roch and St David’s. She was apparently not a quick writer, as she liked to undertake through research before she wrote on a subject. She had a good relationship with her publishers Hodder & Stoughton, who over the years had reason to trust her methods. Nothing like today when publishers expect a book every other year or so from their authors. She knew other writers well and was one of the inner circle which included Mary Steward and Rosemary Sutcliffe. Confirmation of the letter I have got at last! Erlys when I told her agreed with me that it certainly sounded like it was to them, and said that Jessie had indeed disposed of books and papers at Elizabeth’s request.

I asked her if she would share her favourite memory of Elizabeth with me, and after a slight hesitation, she did.

She had gone through a sticky and thoroughly unpleasant divorce, I don’t suppose they are often simple or pleasant, but Jessie had been very unsympathetic and not understood the situation at all. Marriage was for life as far as she was concerned and that was that. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had been understanding and empathic towards the frightened, distressed Erlys, earning her deep gratitude. Elizabeth told Jessie that she shouldn’t be so quick to judge a situation that she knew little about and that they should support Erlys in her time of need.

Later with the divorce in the past, she met her present husband and when they realised that the relationship they had was going to be special and long lasting, she wanted to take him to meet the person whom she had come to love and respect and who had stood by her in her dark days.

It was nine o’clock at night and Elizabeth, now in her seventies, was already in bed when they arrived. Jessie was all for making them wait till the morning, but Elizabeth insisted that they are shown up immediately, and held court in her bed without the least show of shyness or reserve. She was so pleased that Erlys had found happiness and love and wanted to meet the person she loved.
This sounded like something Lucilla would have done.

Both Erlys and her husband’s abiding memory of her is of her compassion and grace, a great lady, an epithet that would have delighted and abashed the shy Elizabeth.

Another story she told me was of a dinner party held at Rose Cottage shortly after Elizabeth’s death. Jessie was still living there, although it was becoming increasingly obvious that she would have to move nearer to Erlys to be looked after.

There were two other guests beside Jessie and herself, her daughter Helen, home from University and a blind lady whose name Erlys couldn’t recall. They were sitting at the dining table in the rather small cottage and Jessie had got up to fetch something from the kitchen.
Erlys was sitting with her back toward the double doors that led into another room when she saw a hooded or cloaked man walk towards her across the room, and disappear through the doors. She felt the classic cold shiver and realised that she had seen a ghost. The blind lady, who had been talking, stopped and followed the apparition as if she could see it too.
As her daughter was present and Jessie was still living in the house, Erlys did not tell them what had occurred in case they were frightened or thought she had imagined it.

Some time later, when Jessie was living in the nursing home in Wales, Erlys told Jessie what had happened and to her surprise, Jessie was very matter of fact about it. She told her that Elizabeth had seen the Monk/Priest a few times and neither of them had been concerned about sharing their home with a ghost.

She also mentioned something about the ghost in Devon at Pomeroy Castle, which I know nothing about. I think in fact that it was Jessie who introduced Elizabeth to spiritualism, although I can’t quite make this fit with her Presbyterian faith. Pomeroy Castle is the Castle on the Hill that Elizabeth wrote about in the book of the same name and is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in Britain.

By this time I felt that I must wind down the interview, as the weather was closing in and I felt rather sorry for my husband wandering around in the cold and wet with his camera. In fact, he ended up coming in for coffee while Erlys kindly printed off a copy of an article that she had about Elizabeth from the “This England” magazine autumn 1989. The interview had gone well and they had both been so kind to two complete strangers. She also gave me a photograph of Elizabeth I had never seen before, a head and shoulders shot, taken in a studio, possibly for publicity purposes. It is one of my treasured mementoes of this wonderful author.

 

 

Matrilines: Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal :- Feb 2016

Most readers have favourite writers. But sometimes you find that, over time, these change. A writer who spoke to you directly at one age can fade as your circumstances change, while another writer who was formerly less appealing may reveal new value. Certainly this is true of me. There are writers I read and reread as a teenager, in my twenties, in my thirties, whom I still love, but no longer need to read. But there are a handful who have stayed with me lifelong, in whose books I continue to find new things. One of these is Elizabeth Goudge.

I was five or six when I first encountered her, via her Carnegie Medal–winning children’s book, The Little White Horse. It was one of my favourite books as a child, and it remains a book I consider essential to my personal library. I reread it last week, as I prepared to write this piece, and found it as engaging and magical as I always did. Goudge—like Dodie Smith and Rumer Godden, two more of my lifelong writers—wrote for both adults and children, although I suspect these days it is mainly her children’s books for which she is known. For most of her career, moreover, the idea of genre was minor, and all her books were published as mainstream novels. Some were set against historical backgrounds, including all her children’s books; others have contemporary settings. The central concern in all of them, however, is the life of the spirit, and the blending of the mundane and the transcendent, and all of them are in certain ways profoundly magical.

Goudge was a devout Christian and her faith informs all of her works. I can at this point hear some readers of this turning away. But I ask them to bear with me—and with her—for unlike many of the best known religious writers (including C. S. Lewis) she never preaches, nor lays out moral parameters, and, to paraphrase Louisa Alcott, she does not reward the “good” with gilded treats and the “bad” with dire punishments. Indeed, I’m not sure she deals in good and bad at all: she writes rather about compassion and understanding and resolution through empathy. Her work is not showy and it is not melodramatic. It is, however, often surprising and sometimes startling. And she rarely if ever does what the reader expects.

With the exception of her children’s books, most of her work is not what most people would think of as fantasy. The children’s books are all set in a version of our real world, too, though her towns and landscapes in them are imaginary. Yet in all her work the boundaries between worlds are thin. Folklore and poetry, transcendent experience, and glimpses of the immanent pervade them, and her characters—especially the youngest and the oldest—slip between these worlds easily. Her characters channel folktales and legend through their lives and their connections with others. This is most clear in her children’s books, in particular, her three best known—The Little White Horse, Henrietta’s House, and Linnets and Valerians (recently retitled The Runaways). In The Little  White Horse, which is the most directly fantastical of Goudge’s books, the protagonist Maria must explore the history of her family and their ancestral home via a blend of fact and magic—the injustices done by her forefather Sir Wrolf were real enough, but their context and consequences belong as much to the realm of magic and the liminal as to reality. A white horse and a giant dog come and go throughout the history of her family—and her own experience—guiding, observing, and sometimes leading Maria to the discoveries she needs to make. The dog—another Wrolf—is real enough but seemingly immortal, but the horse is a unicorn and a creature of the sea and not to be grasped or owned. The story sounds soppy, and the recent film (titled The Secret of Moonacre) tried hard to make it soppy by replacing the very real magic of Goudge’s writing with sentiment and gloss, but in the book, it is not. Rather, everything is tied together by extra-mundane bonds, so that Maria’s friend and ally, Robin, is at first a boy in dreams who becomes real, and the white horse brings not only Maria but the book’s main antagonist to a solution to the ancient problem they face that is partly realistic, yes, but rooted in liminal experience.

Henrietta’s House leads a cast of characters through a series of experiences from fairy tales, including “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Giant Who Kept His Heart in a Bag,” all set in a realistic landscape and blended with new legends invented by Goudge herself about saints and bandits and the continuity of myths within certain locations. In Linnets and Valerians there is a witch to defeat, and an old evil that has damaged the present. All three books are populated by a rich cast of characters, of all ages, not all of them human (Goudge wrote animals well and with sympathetic realism), all of them nuanced. Unusually for a writer of her period, she includes characters of colour in positive roles, and people with disabilities who have full and valuable lives (this is also the case in her adult books).

Her children’s books are easy reads and highly entertaining. Her adult ones are more challenging. They can be deeply philosophical—Goudge spends more time on the life of the mind than the “what-happens-next” in many of them. Characters make sacrifices that are not necessarily rewarded or even recognised. But as with the children’s books, the adult novels weave mundanity with the liminal. If she were alive and writing today, she might well be classed as a magic realist writer. Thus A City of Bells is both a bildungsroman for the protagonist Jocelyn and a recreation of the tale of the Pied Piper, and the story of the latter—represented by the figure of the lost, perhaps dead poet Gabriel Ferranti—weaves in and out alongside details of Edwardian omnibuses and the problems of bookselling and raising children in old age in a way that makes each add to the depth of the other. And there are ghosts, benign and painful.

The Rosemary Tree is perhaps the most overtly religious of Goudge’s novels, but this element is present far more through glimpses of Otherness and of human attraction to the transcendent than through any direct reference to Christianity (or any other faith—and Goudge presents the latter as valid and true when she does speak of them). And the spine of the novel is the story of the Ugly Duckling, with the characters each finding ways of dealing with their particular problems and self-defined weaknesses. Goudge does not restrict this access to the liminal to approved characters, either—in The Scent of Water, the walls between past and present break down not only for the main protagonist Mary but for a minor character, a venal businessman, who finds his own comfort through his glimpse of something outside himself.

And in all Goudge’s novels there is a profound sense of the magic, which is contained in the everyday (a skill she shares with Ray Bradbury, who in many ways she resembles as a writer). Thus in Island Magic—a historical novel set on Jersey and deeply imbued with the folklore of that place—Peronelle has a deep experience of otherworldliness while washing the dishes. The most overtly magical of Goudge’s adult books is probably The White Witch, which is set against the early years of the English Civil War. The protagonist Froniga is, as the title suggests, a working witch, the daughter of a settled father and a Romani mother, and she possesses both the power to heal and the power to see the future. Yet while both are important to the plot, the book is not about her powers, but about her selfhood and character and her effect on those around her. A lesser writer would probably have taken this theme in the direction of witch trials and melodrama. Goudge uses it to examine the effects of divided politics on families and communities and the ways in which our beliefs affect others outside ourselves. Her characters do bad things, sometimes, and those have consequences, but she rarely writes bad people—I can think of only one, the greedy and self-obsessed school-owner Mrs. Belling in The Rosemary Tree. Goudge was concerned not with judging others but with understanding them with compassion. In her case, that compassion is linked to her sense of otherness—the most profound experiences of liminality her characters experience are often when they are most concerned with others than themselves.

Like a lot of writers of her generation, she is fading from memory, save as a children’s writer, and awareness of her other work tends to focus on her faith, which some readers find off-putting. That’s a shame: her ability to express the magical, the liminal, the fantastical is peerless, and I recommend her works highly.


Kari Sperring is the pen name of the Anglo-Welsh historian Kari L. Maund. She has published six books and many articles on Welsh, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Viking history and has taught the history of these peoples at university level. As Kari Sperring, she is the author of two novels, Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009), which won the 2010 Sydney J. Bounds Award, was shortlisted for the William L. Crawford Award, and made the Tiptree Award Honor List, and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012).

The World Shot Through With Magic

L & V Interior

Linnets & Valerians interior of The Manor

At first glance, Linnets & Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge, doesn’t look like children’s fantasy at all: No one goes to a school for wizards, or meets an elf, or a fairy; no one travels to another dimension, or to another time; there are no talking animals, no invisibility cloaks, no magic mirrors or poisoned apples. And not one character flies through the air on a broomstick, or on anything else: everyone’s feet are firmly planted on the good rich English earth.

And yet, in some ways, none of that is true, and many of those things DO happen. Because Linnets and Valerians is a book of both the purest naturalism and the purest magic. There are guardian bees and a shapeshifting cat and a book of evil spells, and at least three people are bewitched. There is one character who may be an elf and another who is almost certainly a very nasty witch. There is a mirror that on one occasion seems to reflect something, or someone, from the past. There is a statue that may or may not occasionally come to life. There are corridors, and woodland paths, that lead different ways at different times. There is evil, and there is good, and both those things have demonstrable power.

The plot is like a delightful mash-up of E. Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett: the four Linnet children run away from their prim-and-proper grandmother and, almost by accident, end up with their curmudgeonly but secretly doting Uncle Ambrose, a curate and retired schoolmaster. The children ramble freely in the nearby countryside and village where they meet a bevy of characters: Lady Alicia Valerian, a recluse who, grieving for the long-ago loss of her family, never leaves her manor; Daft Davie, a mute hermit who lives and paints in a cave on the mountainside; and Emma Cobley, who owns the village shop and whose sweet candy-selling surface disguises sour intent. There is also, importantly, Uncle Ambrose’s servant, Ezra, who sings and dances in the moonlight and talks to the household bees, which he insists need to be told about any new residents or other important events. Through curiosity, friendliness, and sheerest bumbling, the children uncover long-held village secrets and enable generations-old wrongs to be put right, and in the end, everyone lives happily ever after.

The real-life magic of the English countryside is part of why the book resists easy categorization, why it’s a toss-up to describe it as a book that feels naturalistic although it’s all about magic or one that feels magical while being firmly grounded in the natural world. The beauty of the landscape — the flowers, the woods, the hillside, the tor — literally enchants the children, who’ve grown up in India and don’t know anything first-hand about England. So the magic seems natural, and nature seems magical, and it all gets mixed up together in their experience of the place and their new life.

The natural and supernatural are intertwined for the author, too. In her afterwards, she describes talking with people in a Dartmoor village much like the one described in the book, and the stories she heard of woods appearing out of nowhere one evening and never again, and of people seeing elves on the stairs, and of witchcraft black and white.

I read Linnets and Valerians as a child and remembered it as one of those books like The Secret Garden that plays with the tropes of fantasy, and with the reader’s desire to believe in magic, without actually being fantasy. I started rereading a few weeks ago, armed with sticky notes, and a plan to mark each point where something magical, or something that could be interpreted as magical, was mentioned. I figured I could review the marked places when I was done, and see if the balance tipped towards fantasy or realism. But when I finished, my copy was bristling with sticky notes, too many to count: the whole book is shot through with magic.

It’s all, to use Jo Walton’s lovely phrase in, “Among Others” deniable magic: nothing happens that couldn’t be explained naturalistically. The shape-shifting cat could just be frightened children imagining things. The bees leading them into discovery or out of danger could be…bees, flying around. The book of magic spells could be mere ill-wishing. What Nan, the oldest child, sees in the sewing room might simply be an odd reflection in an old and wavy mirror. The most frightening scene where the two boys are trapped in a beech tree, and Emma Cobley and her confederates plot to counter the protection of the beech with their own wicked power could just be grownup bullies trying to scare kids.

But there are other explanations, that Ezra believes wholeheartedly, and the children come to believe, and even Uncle Ambrose, who explains at one point that as a curate he is not permitted to believe in ancient gods or supernatural powers, shows signs of accepting as real. Emma Cobley certainly does believe she’s casting spells, with intent to do harm, and harm is done. And Ezra and the children set out to undo — and, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say, succeed in undoing — that harm, on the same terms.

So the question hangs in the air: if everyone believes it, and it has the desired effects, is it real?

The answer, for the characters and the author, for the bees and the woods and the statue in the garden, is a resounding “yes.”

Elizabeth Kushner

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A Torminster Tale

 

IMG_3058Wells Somerset, a perfect late summer morning. A dark dogs leg of an arch and we enter the circle of The Green, lined with its gracious houses and the back of  The Swann Inn, the very one from which the pumpkin shaped coach left to pick up travellers from the train station when Elizabeth lived here. The grass, velvet in the shadows, gardens hung with their late season’s colours and a few people wandering or going purposefully about their business.

We had come to find Tower House, where Elizabeth had been born and where is lived out the first few years of her life. We knew, thanks to Sylvia Gower approximately whereabouts it was, but I thought I would ask at the local museum anyway. After a little investigation with the help of Google, the curator told me she thought it was in St Andrews Rd and gave me directions, it wasn’t far.

We passed mullioned windows where the notes of practising musicians fell over the pavements, an older melodious sound in contrast to the modern noise of traffic. Tall stone walls and mature trees seemed to hide the most likely candidate. But although there were doors in the wall, there was no indication of a name or anything to confirm our belief. Along one side of the garden wall the ground was raised and we tried from here to glimpse a view, to gain some clue as to what lay behind its defences, but no luck. We crossed the road and mounted the step to a Music college, balancing precariously, but still trees blocked a view. We walked back around the perimeter, and I picked up a chestnut from amongst the debris fallen from what we really thought was Elizabeth’s garden. She was fond of redheads, and the poll of the cob in my hand was a small consolation.

tower-house-wall

My partner, however, was a little more pro-active and tried the green door in the wall as we passed. I think we were both a little surprised when the handle turned and the door opened to his touch. There could be no doubt, we had found Tower House, easily recognisable from George’s black and white photo. Nick quickly snapped a few shots and we were just about to close the door and quietly leave when the most Goudgian moment occurred.

A woman was walking towards us burdened with bags of shopping and I knew from her expression and the route she was taking that she was the owner and resident of the house. I stepped forward and asked her if she was indeed the person who lived here, and if this was Tower house, the Tower House that Elizabeth Goudge had been born in? At the mention of Elizabeth’s name she smiled and assured us we did indeed have the right house and then invited us in for a better look!

After putting her shopping away she introduced herself as Pam. She told us she had lived here for many years and had got a little wary of tourists. I told her about the website and she confessed that “she didn’t do them” but seemed pleased and interested that we had met so fortuitously.

She asked us if we would like to see something rather special, indeed something unique to the place we were in. We were as intrigued as she intended us to be and followed her, without turning round as she also requested. We walked through the walled garden, past herbaceous beds and through an orchard which would have delighted the young Elizabeth, tawny grass with the dew still on and caught leaves dealing out splashes of colour. It was quiet, the sound of traffic muted by the high old walls, covered with climbers.

As we drew closer to the wall we had tried so hard to see over, she asked us to turn around and look.

Wells Somerset

Wells Somerset

It was a view that only those who lived there would be able to see. The towers of the cathedral rising over the walls and greeting the tower of her home across the city streets. A ripple of roofs, a mountain side of carved stone and pinnacles, trees from other gardens. The view that Hugh Anthony and Henrietta would have seen from their bedroom window, the view that had shaped Elizabeth’s early world.

Pam had also met Kate Lindeman from the states and had shown her a rosemary tree such as Elizabeth had written about, growing to “the height of Our Lord while he was alive on earth.” My partner snapped away while we spoke and then we took our leave, speechless at our luck. If we hadn’t persisted and hung about, if we hadn’t had the courage to try the door, to “walk into the painting”  we would not have been in the right place at the right time to have gained access to a place so connected with Elizabeth, which had helped to shape the person she became.

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Elizabeth’s Favourite Story Book

the-cockyolly-bird

 

This was Elizabeth’s favourite book as a small child. I know nothing about the story it contains, except that he has a series of adventures with two friends called Kit and Jum-Jum.

Cocky Olly means yellow cockerel.

Elizabeth’s favourite colour was yellow. The image it gave to her was of a man standing on a mountain with his arms lifted high praising God.

 

 

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