My rating: 3.5/10
This is a rare negative review. Rare, because if I sincerely dislike a book, I will put it down unfinished and never pick it up again. Since one can’t honestly review a book without reading the whole thing at least once, and spending some mulling-over time on it as well, the situation generally doesn’t arise.
In this case I persevered with The Middle Window (though it took me numerous tries) because it is an early work by an author whom, for all her many literary flaws – frankly purple prose, excessive sentimentality, long passages of vaguely theological navel-gazing, repeated use of the same characters under different guises, and improbably tidy “happy” endings – I generally enjoy, and I was eager to add another title to the growing Elizabeth Goudge section on my shelves. I have at last choked the whole thing down, several years after its much-too-pricey purchase, and at least three aborted previous reading attempts. So I am going to review it, and then tuck it away at the back of the shelf, and move on.
Warning: spoilers follow. If you’re already a die-hard Goudge fan, you won’t be put off by knowing what happens; it’s utterly predictable but you won’t mind that – all of her books follow generally the same pattern, and you’ve already figured that out, right? If you’re just getting started on her books, or are wondering if they’re worth your time, this may help you make up your mind. This author wrote some MUCH better novels – do not start with The Middle Window! Try the Eliot trilogy instead (The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace, The Heart of the Family), or The Scent of Water – my personal favourite.
Spring had jumped straight out of heaven into London. For an eternity coughing, sneezing millions had coughed and sneezed at the centre of a black balloon of fog and dirt, frost and misery. Young and old, rich and poor, fair and ugly, they had all alike choked and shivered and beaten imprisoned hands against that rounded black wall that shut them in. But now, suddenly, between the hours of sunset and sunrise, the miracle had happened. The boy Spring, his arms full of glories stolen from divine treasuries, had strolled to the portal of heaven, had poised tiptoe on the lintel, had spread his wings and jumped. Crash! His feet, pressed together and pointed downwards like a slender arrow, had punctured the black balloon. All that was left of it, torn black scarfs of smoke, evil-smelling wraiths of fog, drifted and coiled into the foul, dark corners of London, while the boy, speeding downwards, flung out his arms and spread his treasures sweeping fanwise over the city.
The crash awakened the millions. Running barefoot to their windows they looked out. Beyond the smoke-grimed panes they were aware of a drifting glory and showers of rainbow light. Some of them, throwing up their windows and thrusting tousled heads out, were just in time to hear a rustle of wings and glimpse the downward gleam of arrowy feet, and a few, a very few, as the sun rays slanted across the sky, saw the shadowed sparkle of a boy’s blue eyes behind the curve of golden lashes.
Whew. First two paragraphs of the novel. Elizabeth Goudge has let her writerly hair down, and that’s just from the prologue.
Beautiful, wealthy and rather spoiled young socialite Judy Cameron is just getting over the flu, and is feeling physically and emotionally fragile as a result. Wandering window-shopping this spring day through the London streets, Judy is inexplicably drawn to a painting in an art gallery window. It is a Scottish scene, mountainside and loch and heather, and as Judy stares into it the traffic sounds fade and she is drawn into a strangely familiar world where, in reality, she has never been before. Luckily her doting fiance, Charles, a cheerful if not particularly intellectual army captain, turns up in time to rescue her from her daze.
Soon Judy is off to Scotland to holiday in a rented estate house, dragging an entourage of doting father, volubly complaining mother, and bemused Charles. (They were supposed to holiday in Bournemouth.) They are heading for what Judy just knows is the original setting of the painting. And, lo and behold, she’s right! Everything is familiar to her, she knows exactly how things will be before she gets there, it’s just as if she was once there in a previous life! How intriguing!
It gets even more intriguing as the estate’s picturesque butler (“Arrr, do ye be the wealthy Sassenach interlopers? Here’s yer tea, then…”) stares deeply into her eyes and calls her “Mistress Judith” with a certain knowing intonation. And look, here’s the young laird himself – a hunky dish named Ian Macdonald – come to welcome her. What is this thrill of mutual recognition, and why does he also stare into Judy’s lovely eyes with such passion, heedless of her looming official lover, Charles?
To condense: Judy and Ian turn out to be the reincarnations of 1700s’ doomed lovers Judith and Ranald Macdonald. Before consummating their wedding night, Ranald tears himself away from his passionate (and passionately frustrated, one must assume) bride to take part in the attempted restoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the British throne. And, as we all know, that whole adventure is doomed to end badly. Goudge subjects us to a long and tiresome historical fiction episode in the middle of the story in order to explain all of this. Modern-day Judy puts on dead-and-gone Judith’s dress and suddenly travels back in time (mentally, not physically – in real life she merely faints) where she relives Judith’s experiences. After the Jacobite rout at Culloden, Ranald sneaks home, after a side trip to help row the prince to Skye, good for another few pages of filler.
Unluckily for Ranald, British soldiers are already there waiting for him; they intend to hang him as a traitor. He manages to duck the soldiers and briefly reunite with Judith, but slides away again to hide nearby until she can get rid of the arresting officers. They know something is up, are not fooled by Judith’s vague excuses, and hang around in ambush mode. Eventually Judith fires a warning shot through her parlour’s “middle window” and fatally wounds Ranald, who was lurking just outside. He dies in her arms, but not before telling her that their great love will be fulfilled in a future generation. Judith is left to linger on, which she does for many years, as the estate falls into ruin and the Scottish mists mingle with the tears in her eyes.
Hence Judy and Ian’s overwhelming mutual adoration. Poor Charles is eventually given the heave-ho, but that’s all right, because Ian’s chipper sister Jean is there to catch him; she’s been giving him the glad eye the whole summer, and she’s a much better fit for him anyway, so all’s well that ends well.
Gar. What a tiresome story this was. I feel all bilious; I think I need to read something crisp and witty to cleanse my emotional palate. Or maybe another Goudge to prove that she can do better (a lot better!) than this overblown romantic mess. The whole reincarnation thing was just downright disturbing. Not that I have a problem with the concept, at least fictionally speaking, but it felt exceedingly contrived in this case. In later novels Goudge tones this idea down, or perhaps “refines” would be a better term, but she still continually trots out the troubled ancestor “coming back” in the contemporary character for some sort of redemption or fulfillment.
Stereotypical characters, predictable plot, overly rambling, and decidedly over-written. This was Goudge’s second published book, following her very popular first novel Island Magic, which I have not yet read; now I’m rather afraid to! She was definitely still very much finding her narrative voice.
Goudge was, in her heyday, a very popular writer of the “inspirational-romantic” genre. Daughter of a noted theologian, Elizabeth Goudge’s strong Christian faith is obvious in every one of her stories, though she also generously allows strong pagan overtones in some of her tales and has a deep tolerance for other religions; some of her best characters are atheists and agnostics. She was all about finding “God” in your own way, not blindly following a laid-out creed; something I must admit I deeply appreciate in many of her works.
While I have a sentimental fondness for Elizabeth Goudge and her often inspirational messages, I have reservations about certain aspects of all of her books. Even in my favourite, The Scent of Water, there are several rambling sections I scan over quickly to get back to the thread of the story. But none of her later books are anything near so dreadfully messy as The Middle Window! Such a relief that this writer’s style evolved.