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.
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.
The heavenly beauty of the spring day sent her mercurial spirits soaring upwards, and she sang softly as she walked along the street, swinging her basket. The beautiful old houses about her seemed lovely as the houses in a fairy-tale…….”
(Herb of Grace p 16)
The book’s opening is fresh, vivid, all life’s possibilities lie ahead and the world is a stage set for adventure and romance An aspect of Spring we all long for at the end of a long grey winter. Sally in The Herb of Grace is the personification of all that we find attractive in youth and fresh beginnings. Our hearts go out to her.
“For Lucilla was not without hope for the future. She had lived long enough to know that the spring always comes back. Also, she knew that if it was to be a flowering spring one must make one’s preparations.”
(Herb of Grace p 64)
The book balances this with the knowledge and depth that Lucilla has found and puts into practise, when those cruel winds of March bluster around, gaining entrance from any small crack in our defences, telling the conflicting tales of spring.
The Herb of Grace is my favorite of the Eliot trilogy a book full of optimism and charm which could so easily have been the last written of the Eliots. Elizabeth always maintained that she had only produced Heart of the Family due to the pressure of fans asking for more about them.
Trouble is, I find I can never start a trilogy in the middle.
“Though this book is fiction, and the characters, not portraits, it is based on fact. That a man who had emigrated to the New World should after a lapse of years write home for a bride, and then get the wrong one because he had confused her name with that of her sister, may seem to the reader highly improbable; yet it happened. And in real life also the man held his tongue about his mistake and made a good job of his marriage.”
Preface to Green Dolphin Country
The book is based on the life experiences of Elizbeth’s Great Uncle William, who left the island to join the British Navy, went on shore leave at an eastern port, missed his ship after “getting into a scrape” and found a ship bound for Australia. His story is William’s in most particulars.
Elizabeth herself said she “made it New Zealand because my ignorance of Australia was, even more, total than my ignorance of New Zealand.”
(Joy of the Snow)
It took her a long time to write, a project that she took up and laid aside during the early days of the Second World War. Elizabeth and her Mother were living at that time in Marldon, a small village on the flight path to Plymouth, and endured many nights of sleepless listening as the German planes roared overhead on their way to bomb Plymouth. As the planes returned there was always the worry that they would jettison their bombs over their village.
Her Mother and Elizabeth shared a bed while this was taking place, determined to be together should the worse occur. Her Mother’s jewelry box and Elizabeth’s manuscript of Green Dolphin Country was with them.
“Perhaps, like the Egyptians of old, we subconsciously thought that what was close to our bodies in death would accompany our spirits as they entered a new life”
(Joy of the Snow)
Green Dolphin Country is arguably one of the most famous adult novels that Elizabeth wrote. It’s a blockbuster of a book and was made into a film in the 1940’s. It caused Elizabeth all sorts of problems as people wanted to visit her and the tax man became interested in her earnings for the first time.
Elizabeth always researched her work meticulously and for this epic, she found a work by F.E. Maning entitled “ Old New Zealand.” It was a chronicle of the author’s experiences in the New Zealand of the late 1800s and his relationship with the Maoris. With the benefit of the internet, I was able to find out that the character of Tai Harura is based on that of Maning himself. They both made their money from timber, both took part in the wars between the indigenous people and the settlers and both had a love-hate relationship with the Maoris. Maning was over six foot tall, had great physical presence and strength as well as a good sense of humor.He was known as a “Pakeha Maori”, the term given to white settlers who became immersed in the Maori culture, a “white Maori.”
Into the book’s opening chapters, she pours all her love for the island that was the home of her Mother’s family. It is lyrical in its descriptions describing minute details and broad vistas as only Elizabeth can. It was the last time she used Gurnsey as the setting for a novel, and she paints a vivid picture of the isolation and beauty of the place and time into which her Mother was born.
Elizabeth’s books always contain quotes which I like to imagine are the starting point for the moral content of her story, and Green Dolphin Country begins with one by Evelyn Underhill.
“Three deep cravings of the self, three great expressions of man’s restlessness, which only mystic truth can fully satisfy. The first is the craving which makes him a pilgrim and a wanderer. It is the longing to go out from his normal world in search of a lost home, a “better country”; an Eldorado, a Sarras, a Heavenly Syon.”
New Zealand is all these things. Even today with our ease of world travel, it is still the other side of the world, Middle Earth where Lord Of The Rings holds sway. How much more exotic and unimaginably far away it would have been in the 1940s.
Elizabeth, always a homebody, would shortly be making her own way in the world, and unknown to herself was at this time forging the tools to do so.
It was the springboard that gave her the recognition and financial space to become a professional writer. At first, it all seemed unlikely, as she was told that the book was too long, and with the war on there was just not enough paper to justify printing it. But thanks to an American Publisher, it was sent in as a candidate for a Metro Goldwyn Mayer film prize and won. The film sadly does not live up to the book but is a better rendition of the story than the film version of The little White Horse.
As Elizabeth, so often does she uses the local legends to give depth to her characters, such as the footprints of the Abbess in the “bay of fairies.” She uses her family home as the home of the Le Patourels, in Le Paradis, “built high up in the rock citadel of St-Pierre.”
The book deals with the themes of class, the upper-class Patourels and the “trade” Ozannes. The material wealth that one has and the noble calling of the doctor. Yet another doctor who has chosen his work over the love of his life, this time in the person of Dr. Ozanne. The same device which was used in “Bird in the Tree.” Are these echoes of a love that Elizabeth once knew? Was there an unsuitable boy who went away to study to become a Doctor, who promised to return but didn’t?
The book charts the growth of the inner as well as the outer life, the person who stays at home and the one who goes as far from the cradle of her birth as is possible. Yet who changes the most and where and when it takes place is unexpected.
“ They were alike only in their mutual realisation that whatever one expects to feel in this life one will probably feel the opposite.”
(Green Dolphin Country p481)
Moving from one set of small islands to another, both isolated from the changing modern world that was rapidly developing, it is a tale of adventure, both of the natural world and the inner world of the spirit.
Editor’s Letter January 2017
The start of a fresh calendar year. A time of resolution and the gift of a clean sheet, anything seems achievable. I wanted to read something from Elizabeth’s repertoire that reflected this time and came up with nothing. Many of Elizabeth’s works end with Christmas. But the frivolity and secular nature of the New Year celebrations seems to not have inspired her. In desperation I turned to her short stories, a volume called “White Wings” and found that this collection had been printed in January 1952. A small gift of chance.
If anyone knows of a story or story line that Elizabeth wrote about the New Year, please let me know.
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.
Dear D. Gaudin,
When I was a child (I’m 67) ‘Henrietta’s House’ was one of my favourite books. I have since read many of Elizabeth Goudge’s books and am presently re-reading ‘City of Bells’
I would love to find a copy of the book I used to get out of our local library, and I wonder if you know of this one.
It was a hardback, with, as far as I can recollect, green boards. There were full-size colour illustrations on shiny paper. One showed Henrietta in a lovely pink dress, and one showed her in a white dress as she welcomes everyone into her house.
I’ve searched Abe books but none of the 13 books there seem to be the one I remember.
Can you help?
In hope, and friendship,
Thank you for visiting the site, hope you return again.
I have a 1949 re-print of Henrietta’s House published by the same company as produced the original, University of London Press Ltd
The front cover and two of the coloured illustrations inside, on shiny paper show Henrietta wearing a pink dress, and indeed a white one when she welcomes them to the house at the end of the story.
The boards however are orange. Perhaps this is the copy you remember?
Elizabeth’s books are getting harder and harder to source, especially her children’s books, as children tend to not look after them and they disintegrate.
I have a friend who runs a bookshop via the internet and I will ask him the next time I see him if he has a copy.
I hope that this helps
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.
Copyright © 2016 Kari Sperring
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).
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.”
Wells 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.
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.
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.
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.