May I present to you Elizabeth Goudge?
…he did not believe in capricious fortune, but in a carefully woven pattern where every tightly stretched warp thread of pain laid the foundation for a woof thread of joy.
– Gentian Hill
It is hard to believe that I have only known of Goudge a short time- could it really be just a year? The notes in my journal tell me I have read 6 of her novels in that time. Her stories and her characters tend to repeat themselves, leaving me with a somewhat cloudy remembrance of the individual book plot details with many of the characters blending together, but even so (or perhaps consequently so?) I have a clear picture, a firm trust and strong liking for Goudge herself.
She is predictable. She is dependable. She will always concentrate on the power of place, on the glory of humility, the grace of sacrifice, the effectiveness of prayer and the taking of joy, and all of this in a very believable, fallible context. She uses all of these to build a belief in the reader- a conviction of hope.
I have heard it said that writers, directors and artists in general are just professional manipulators, trying to sell you on something. If that’s true, Elizabeth Goudge peddles Hope, and suckers me in every time.
“The element of the miraculous has come into your life. You are being offered a second chance.”
–the Rosemary Tree
She never knew what put it into her head that she, unloved, should love.
–the Dean’s Watch
Three aspects of her craft deserve special attention.
The power of place, as I called it, is, I think, the most unusual and unique aspect of her writings. The place, usually the home, but sometimes the church or city, is pulsing with meaning, history and the haunting, healing stories of individuals. It is as if the place itself is given power by God to change the people. Usually there is a quiet secret or lesson from some fellow sufferer who went before, who still speaks, in the tradition of righteous Abel, through the loved spot. I have known this encouragement on my own land, formerly loved by a Mr. Shade and his wife, Abby. I often find their things laying around, from the early 1900s to 1950s, and walk the same ground they walked and perhaps it’s just my powerful imagination that makes me feel like they are my kindred and I have a inheritance, also, from them. This may be one of those things that can’t be understood until it’s experienced. In our transient, temporal culture, characterization of place and the abiding hold of history is strange to us, and harder still are the bounds and laws that living in such a close-knit context brings. Wherever you may be in life, I guarantee Goudge will make you lovesick for home- to stay in your place, to return to your place, to find your place- whatever it may be.
“Visitors to Damerosehay, had they but known it, could have told just how much the children liked them by the particular spot at which they were met upon arrival. If the visitor was definitely disliked, the children paid no attention to him until Ellen had forcibly thrust them into their best clothes and pushed them through the drawing-room door about the hour of five; when they extended limp paws in salutation, replied in polite monosyllables to inquiries as to their well-being, and then stood in a depressed row staring at the carpet, beautiful to behold but no more alive than three Delia Robbia cherubs modeled out of plaster. If, on the other hand, they tolerated the visitor, they would go so far as to meet him at the front door and ask if he had brought them anything. If they liked him they would go to the gate at the end of the wood and wave encouragingly as he came towards them. But if they loved him, if he was one of the inner circle, they would go right through the village, taking the dogs with them, and along the coast road to the corner by the cornfield, and when they saw the beloved approaching they would yell like all the fiends of hell let loose for the afternoon.”
— the Bird in the Tree
Joy-taking is that simple enjoyment in life that God loves to see in His people. It is common for a Goudge protagonist to come to the shocking realization in the story that God is glad when they are glad. It is amazing to see the joy coming, like the sun to the character’s darkness. It is God’s gladness that makes this joy different than worldly pleasure. There is a clear sense of the smile of God- His favor. This joy rekindles that hope I mentioned earlier. As Goudge beautifully illustrates, sometimes joy comes as a surprise and sometimes taking joy is an act of the will. Either way it is truly astounding what a little pure joy can do for the battered heart. I never get tired of reading about it.
“Though most natural,” said Miss Montague. “With so many burdens to bear on your shoulders, it must have been difficult to look about you. But now you must, for you’ve not much longer to gratify heaven by taking a little joy. I have discovered, Mr. Dean, that in old age God seems to delight in giving us what our youth longed for and was denied. You know what that was in your case.”
“And so do you, I expect,” said the Dean, smiling at her. “Sometimes, ma’am, I think that you know everything.”
“Certainly not,” she said a little tartly.
– the Dean’s Watch
They worked now in companionable silence, broken by an occasional word or two, which between two who are as attached to the work they do together as they are to each other is one of the most satisfactory things in life. Love of the work strengthened the love of each other. Love of each other enriched the work. This is good, thought Job. There will never be anything better than this.
–the Dean’s Watch
And finally, the very real, fallible and broken nature of her themes and characters are most notable. There are difficult and teetering marriages, discontent women, angry men, disobedient children, hard feelings and in short, everything darkly real about this fallen world. Yet, even in this, Goudge is to be trusted. She does not justify sin and neither does she hurt the reader unduly. I think she is one of the best examples in literature of the redeeming nature and benefit of grief and pain. She is the only writer who has made me want to be the crippled spinster confined to her bedroom! This seeming dichotomy- the broken and beautiful- is something every Christian tries to communicate, to explain how the valleys could be raised and the mountains be made low, how things are not as they seem, how Christ came to save sinners. Elizabeth Goudge gets this and typifies it, telling us the story we need to hear over and over again.
“The God who had thrust him through in the darkness with probings of dread and shame was the same God who now held out the sword and shield.”
― The Rosemary Tree
“I had not known before that love is obedience. You want to love, and you can’t, and you hate yourself because you can’t, and all the time love is not some marvelous thing that you feel but some hard thing that you do. And this in a way is easier because with God’s help you can command your will when you can’t command your feelings. With us, feelings seem to be important, but He doesn’t appear to agree with us.”
― The Scent of Water
Of course, Goudge is not perfect. She tends to over-romanticize childhood. She has a Catholic flavor sometimes and occasionally throws in a vagrant theology. She is hardly sympathetic to Cromwell! But even being a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian, I found these things easy to overlook -even humorous- and certainly not offensive, not in light of so much goodness. And, as I said before, you might feel like she is repeating herself with characters and themes. As the quotable Wodehouse said in his wit: “A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled this man by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”
And, so, with Goudge. Once you hit upon the true and beautiful (or the comical, in Wodehouse’s case)- Why move on?
So: Go and read! I would recommend starting with the Dean’s Watch, as it is still my favorite and does not belong to a series.
“There were still children in the world, and while there were children, men and women would not abandon the struggle to make safe homes to put them in, and while they struggled there was hope.”
― Pilgrim’s Inn