My rating: 6/10
This is the first book of what was to become the well-known “Eliots of Damerosehay” trilogy; three novels centered around a (mostly) artistic and intellectual upper-class family before and just after the World War II years. The setting of the ancient ship-building village in Hampshire, the real-life Buckler’s Hard referred to as Fairhaven, or “The Hard”, consisting of Big Village and Little Village, is lovingly drawn from life. The houses so eloquently described in the books as to be characters in their own right – Damerosehay, and, in the second book, the Herb O’Grace, were fabricated by the author from memories of similar places important to her in her own retreat from the world to recuperate from her own emotional breakdown following the long illness and traumatic death of her beloved father, which prefaced the writing of this novel.
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 at 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 Della Robbia cherubs modelled 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 bought 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 were 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…
And as the story opens, the approaching visitor is very well beloved indeed. It is David, grandson of the matriarch of the country home Damerosehay, Lucilla Eliot, and the children referred to are his three young cousins, Ben, Tommy and Caroline, who are living with their grandmother in Hampshire while their father is in India and their mother in London.
As well as gifts for the children, David comes on this visit with some disquieting news for his grandmother. He has fallen in love with the children’s mother, his own aunt-by-marriage Nadine, who has just obtained a divorce from Lucilla’s son George. David and Nadine, despite the vaguely incestuous awkwardness of their relationship and the five year difference in their ages (Nadine is thirty; David twenty-five) propose to marry, and David has screwed up his courage to confront Lucilla with the decision as unalterable.
Lucilla cannot agree; she still hopes that Nadine and George will reunite, and she is utterly appalled at the thought of the trauma which the children will undergo, in particular the sensitive and sickly Ben, who worships his older cousin as well as his absent father; his mother’s proposed marriage will shatter Ben’s fragile peace, and Lucilla refuses to countenance such a thing.
Lucilla fits the pattern of benignant family matriarch wonderfully well. She is a woman of strong personal attractiveness, being both physically beautiful and deeply invested in the interests of her extended family. She had, years ago when the child David was orphaned shortly after the Great War, purchased Damerosehay and built it up as a place of refuge to her children and grandchildren to retreat to for emotional and spiritual healing from the stresses of their workaday lives. And, like all matriarchs, she frequently feels as though she knows best in every situation, regardless of what her family wishes for themselves. So Lucilla sets out to make David and Nadine see the errors of their ways, and to knit together the unravelling family bonds.
Damerosehay itself has a fascinating history, and it is through the discovery of the details of the lives of those who have resided there before the Eliots that Lucilla finds support for her passionate defense of the virtues of loyalty and higher responsibility – to family and God, and to community and society – which she presses upon both David and Nadine as of higher importance than personal happiness.
Elizabeth Goudge was a loquacious describer of both people and places, and her sincere nature-worship and delight in the beauties of the rural world come through loud and clear in this novel. The descriptive passages, though frequently gushing, do paint clear and evocative pictures of the Hampshire countryside and village worlds; her descriptions of the people in her stories are equally well drawn.
If the story has one major fault – and it does have many small ones, too – it is that the conclusion is very obviously contrived and owes much too much to convenient discovery of old manuscripts and vaguely supernatural occurrences including a mysterious blue bird and a phantom mother and child. Capping things off is a well-placed storm and rescue-by-rowboat of an old family retainer with a key part to play in the background tale of Damerosehay’s earlier inhabitants, and its mysterious carved drawing-room mantelpiece, which exerts a strangely compelling influence on everyone who enters the room.
This whole concluding episode is sentimentally melodramatic, and not particularly convincing, unless one accepts the extra-special specialness of the Eliots’ collective hypersensitivity to atmosphere, which selectively is a trait shared among the main characters, in particular Lucilla, David and Ben. And in this case, Nadine, who is temporarily allotted the same sensitivity in order to allow her to benefit from Damerosehay’s special atmosphere. (In later books she goes back to being herself, to my great relief, as she is a breath of sensible, sarcastic fresh air among the dreamy Eliots she finds herself saddled with as in-laws. I personally wish frequently to give David a good hard shake when he starts maundering poetically on in his actor’s way.)
The story has its merits, chief of which is its introduction of the very winsome Eliot children and its value as a back story to the even more sentimental but completely endearing Pilgrim’s Inn, the second book of the trilogy, which is one of my secret comfort reads when I need some moral pepping up. I also greatly enjoy Lucilla’s two adult children who are always steadily there in the background. Saintly Hilary, living in bachelor squalor in the local vicarage, and overworked and underappreciated Margaret, with no fashion sense, plain looks, and little talent for doing things as Lucilla would wish them done in the house, but with a secret life in her glorious garden, both give a refreshing breath of reality to the rarefied Damerosehay atmosphere.
If I seem to be damning this story with faint praise, I do wish to add that I am very fond of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels, and read them through on as regular basis, so my criticisms are those of an old, occasionally querulous, but ultimately well-meaning friend. This is not one of my favourites, but it is very readable despite my quibbles, particularly in context with the two companion books which follow.
This novel has been cursed with a wide array of hideous covers, so instead of sharing the actual Coronet illustration on my edition’s cover I am cheating a bit and using a much more lovely vintage cover, which sadly is inaccurate as to its depiction of Damerosehay overlooking the sea. In the book, the house is set in a sheltered place, set among walled gardens, and separated from the sea by an ancient oak wood. But let that pass; it will suffice.