Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Goudge’ Category

the bird in the tree elizabeth goudgeThe Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1940. This edition: Coronet, 1990. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-02683-9. 256 pages.

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.

 

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henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 001Henrietta’s House by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1942Alternate American title: The Blue Hills. This edition: Puffin (Penguin), 1972. Illustrated by Anthony Maitland. Paperback. ISBN: 0-1403.0520-3. 191 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10. I’ve been playing amidst the juvenilia these past few days, and last night settled in to read this much-anticipated slender story. No surprises here, but no disappointments, either. Elizabeth Goudge lets herself go in full imaginative flight in this gentle and beautifully written juvenile adventure/fairy tale/moralistic tale.

Contains elements of her other two better-known juveniles, The Little White Horse, and especially Linnets and Valerians. Best approached with a willingness to surrender disbelief and just go with it! The usual Goudge theological and philosophical debate is present, but in this case makes more sense and is easier to digest than in some of her other books; two statues/church carvings, a laughing imp and a crying child, appear and reappear as analogies to the “mockery of Providence and the cringing human soul”, which sounds rather deep but which makes complete sense as one works one’s way through this multi-layered story.

This is a less common Goudge title, and I went to some trouble to acquire it. I suspect it is much more abundant in British used bookshops and libraries; used paperback copies on ABE start at $20 (with shipping) and hardcovers climb steeply into the $60s and $70s.

A must-read for the Goudge collector; one to share with a bookish child who is open to a good old-fashioned story. The fictional children are gloriously real, all expected flaws and faults fully present, though they are supremely fortunate in the adults in their lives!

This edition has extremely well drawn pen-and-ink illustrations by Anthony Maitland; I’d love to find this in a larger hardcover one day.

*****

henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 5 001Young Henrietta, first introduced in The City of Bells as a poet’s daughter living with her adopted family in the cathedral city of Torminster – her father is alive and well, but is off roaming the world unencumbered by such prosaic details such as the housing, feeding and clothing of his offspring – is waiting on the railway platform for her beloved companion, Hugh Anthony, to return from his first term at boarding school.

Hugh`s birthday is impending, and a gala rural picnic is planned; what happens on the way to the picnic is told, in vivid detail, in this novel.

The birthday party leaves Torminster in five different equipages, and due to their varying rates of speed, soon lose sight of each other. Only one arrives at the designated rendezvous; the other four parties take the long way round and have some strange adventures before everyone finds each other in a completely unplanned-for common destination. Several extra guests add an unexpected dimension.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you, as the details of the adventures and the reference of the title are best discovered by the reader. Because this is, as the author declares at the close, a fairy tale, everything works out perfectly and a happy ending for all is assured.

Elizabeth Goudge is not for everyone, but if you’ve been exposed and find that she has “taken”, you will appreciate this slightly fantastical outing. A prior acquaintance with the characters (who also appear in The City of Bells and The Sister of the Angels) will add to your appreciation, but is not at all necessary; the story works beautifully as a stand-alone as well.henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 1 001

*****

I am here including a slightly edited review of Henrietta’s House from the Elizabeth Goudge Society website, which gives some background information on the author and the inspiration for the book. This is best read after reading the novel, so the references will make sense.

The dedication reads: ” For Dorothy Pope. There were once two little girls, and one had fair hair and lived in the Cathedral Close of Torminster and the other had dark hair and lived in the Blue Hills above the city, and they were friends. And now that they are grown up they are still friends, and the one who lived in Torminster dedicates this book to the one who lived in the Blue Hills, because it was she who saw the White Fishes in the cave. ”

The fair-haired child who lived in the city is obviously Elizabeth herself, and her friend Dorothy the template for Henrietta. I find it comforting to think that they remained in contact throughout their lives. It is an indication of Elizabeth’s loyalty and commitment. Elizabeth herself says that she never revisited any of the places she lived in because she wanted to remember them how they had been and not how they had become. So perhaps they corresponded with each other as she did with so many friends and admirers, a habit inherited from her Father.

It is a gentle story, a sequel to Sister of Angels and City of Bells, a tapestry woven with words around the charm of an Edwardian summer, when, as Elizabeth says “this story is set at the beginning of the present century, and in those days the world was often silent and sleepy, and not the bustling, noisy place that it is today.” (She is of course referring to the 20th century and not the 21st.)

In 1941 as the story was being written, British troops were fighting in the desert against Rommel, the Germans were taking on the might of Russia and the Americans were about to enter the war after the massacre at Pearl Harbour. A gloomy time, with no end of the war in sight and on the home front the introduction of clothes rationing. What better place and time to escape to than the opulence of Wells in a time before either World Wars had blighted her generation’s life.

The story starts with Henrietta waiting on the platform for Hugh Anthony to return for the holidays from boarding school ending their first separation from each other, and chronicles the delights of a summer in the countryside surrounding the tiny city where Elizabeth lived out the first few years of her life.

It contains many of her childhood memories from the way that hat elastic hurts the chin, to stately picnics in the hills. The story is as pedestrian as the procession of carts that convey the party to the picnic, and therein lies its charm. We are not hurried on to the next piece of drama, but have time to observe that “(t)he canterbury bells, and sweet williams, the roses and the sweet peas, the delphiniums and the syringa were a blaze of colour and scent in the gardens and all the birds were singing.”

Hills for Elizabeth were, as for so many of us, a place of heightened spirituality. They house the gods, myths and legends. They are the place of the solitary, the Hermit, the Wise Man. We ascend above the valleys and plains of every day life and looking back and down are able to see the bigger picture, to view where we have come from and how far we have travelled to get here: “Looking back he could see the great grey rock of the Cathedral and the old twisted roofs of Torminster, dwarfed by distance into a toy town that a child might have played with, and looking ahead, far up against the sky, he could see the blue hills growing in power and might as they drew nearer to them. He felt for a moment gripped between the grey rock of the Cathedral and the grandeur of the hills, two mighty things that time did not touch.”

All of the people invited on Hugh Anthony’s birthday picnic end up getting “lost”.  None of them with the exception of Grandmother’s party arrive at their preordained destination. But all of them are enriched by their experiences, they all attain something vital to their well-being, even if, like the Dean, they didn’t at first know that this was necessary.

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The Dean recaptures his innocence and love of his fellow man, Hugh Anthony loses some of his pride and arrogance. Grandfather rescues another soul in distress, Jocelyn and Felicity lose their car and find fairy land, and Henrietta, well – Henrietta finds her heart’s desire.

The strange figures sitting on top of the gateposts are explained as they come from the Cathedral at Wells and must have captured the young Elizabeth’s imagination. The explanation of their meaning given in the story by Henrietta’s Grandfather sounds as if it had originally been told to Elizabeth by her father. “Replicas of those two figures in the chantry in the south choir aisle … the cringing human soul and the mockery of Providence.” Elizabeth herself was to call her future Devonshire home Providence Cottage, so the Symbology obviously stuck with her.

I thought at first that the caves Elizabeth writes about so vividly were the ones at Wookey Hole, especially as the Old Man in the ruined house could have been a metaphor for the Witch of Wookey. with his wax figurines and pins. But there are no recorded sightings of cave fish in Wookey, and the caves themselves weren’t open to the public in the time that Elizabeth lived here.

henrietta's house elizabeth goudge 3 001

Cheddar gorge however is close and one of the caves there is actually called the Cathedral cave for its stunning similarity to a cathedral interior. I love the idea of being able to look up inside rabbit burrows and see the rabbits looking back at you in astonishment, a picture an imaginative child would conjure up. Cheddar too has its underground river complete with little rowing boat, its vast system of unseen caves riddling the Mendip hills like a honeycomb.

I have been unable to find the fish, all sources telling me that the lead content in the water, (the hills have been mined for lead since before the Romans arrived,) is too high for fish to survive. So maybe, the fish were flashes of light reflected back by a carried lamp, a code between friends for a shared magical experience. But I like to think the girls saw them on that long ago Edwardian afternoon. “Look!” cried Hugh Anthony excitedly, kneeling beside the still, inky pool, “There are white fishes here. Quite white. Like Ghosts.” The Dean put his oil lamp on the ground and knelt beside him and together they watched fascinated as the strange white shapes swam round and round in the black water, their ghostly bodies rippling back and forth as though they were weaving some never-ending pattern upon the black loom of the water.”

The story was written at a time when the bells of all the churches and cathedrals of England were silenced, only to be rung in a time of national emergency. They were to signal the devastating news that we had been invaded by Germany. How people must have dreaded the thought of hearing them ring. It would have been an especial sadness for Elizabeth, whose life so far had been lived and to a large extent regulated by the bells of the cathedrals her father worked in. No wonder she wanted to transport herself and her readership back to a time of innocence, when the bells would have rung out for worship and celebration as they were intended to be.

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The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1941. This edition: Coronet, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-00396-0. 256 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Rating based on the author’s body of work; I’ve read most of her books, and thought this one was one of the “upper end” in accessibility and lack of long, rambling, philosophical-religious side paths. I enjoyed it.

This is a deeply poignant story, written in the early years of World War II when the outcome was still very much in question, and the author and her fellow countrymen, along with her characters in the novel, were steeling themselves to bravely face their possibly horrific fates under a sea invasion of England. As she penned this novel, Elizabeth Goudge was living in a small country cottage near the village of Marldon, Devonshire with her frail, elderly mother; their days and nights were punctuated by the droning of fighter planes and bombers passing overhead, and the sound of explosions as German bombs exploded in the nearby coastal cities of Torquay and Paignton. Though Marldon itself escaped direct bombing, the inhabitants were extremely aware of their very real danger, and the stresses of living in wartime are very evident in this novel.

*****

Miss Dolores Brown is in a bad place, both literally and figuratively. Her home and source of income, the boarding house she has established in the family home she inherited upon the death of her parents, has been requisitioned by the government for wartime use. A relocation to London and attempts to find a job have proven fruitless; no one much needs or wants a quiet, unassertive forty-year-old woman with only her domestic skills to recommend her. Her friends and relatives are tired of hosting her; she needs to move on. Now news has come that her house and all of her stored possessions have been destroyed in a bombing raid. A train ticket to travel to stay with a relation for a day and a few coins remain between Miss Brown and utter destitution; her predominant emotion is an overwhelming fear of what will happen to her now.

As she sits outwardly proper but inwardly forlorn on a bench in front of the London Free Library, a strain of music catches her ear. Somewhere nearby someone is playing the violin, and Miss Brown rises to find the source of the music, and comes upon Jo Isaacson playing for coins in the street. Miss Brown impulsively puts one of her last shillings in the fiddler’s hat; they have a short exchange, and she goes on her way cheered and encouraged by the brief encounter.

Mr. Isaacson, born in England but musically trained in Leipzig and then settled on the Continent, was once a celebrated musician.  Now fallen on hard times both through his predilection for drinking and the growing persecution of the Jews which forced his flight from Germany, Austria and then Italy, Mr. Isaacson fears that even his old homeland England will reject him next. He has determined to earn a shilling to use in the gas fire in his room to commit suicide; due to Miss Brown’s impetuous generosity, the means to his end is now at hand.

Through a series of coincidences and under the sheltering hand of fate, Jo Isaacson does not use the shilling for his fatal final intention. He ends spending some of it for taking his landlady’s two small children to the train; they are being evacuated to the relative safety of the country. Ending up on the train himself, Mr. Isaacson has set in motion a series of events which will lead to his ultimate attainment of his longed-for place of peace.

In another part of the train, Miss Brown has just met and been taken under the wing of a prosperous historian, Mr. Birley. Mr. Birley has been to London to try to engage a housekeeper for his stately home, Birley Castle, and its household of men: himself, nephews Richard and Stephen, respectively a dashing fighter pilot and an emotionally tormented pacifist conscientious objector, and butler Boulder and gardener Pratt. Not to mention the elderly Alsatian dog Argos, and Steven’s fiery horse, Golden Eagle. But once Miss Brown has unburdened herself of her tale of woe to sympathetic Mr. Birley, he looks at her with calculating surmise. Could she, would she… ?

She certainly could and would. Bucked up by sympathy, a substantial dinner and the prospects of a job, Miss Brown brightens up considerably, and optimistically tackles the daunting task of bringing order to a heedless masculine world.

Meanwhile the two daughters of Mr. Isaacson’s landlady are also on their way to Torhaven, location of Birley Castle, to be billeted with a foster family there, as is Mr. Isaacson himself, who has been taken under the wing of Mr. Holly, the railway guard who discovered him collapsed in the baggage car after the express train left London. Mr. Holly offers him a chance to get settled and find a job “somewhere near the kiddies” – he has mistakenly thought that the children Mr. Isaacson was escorting are his own.

Add in Prunella, the lovely doctor’s daughter who has been the romantic interest of first peaceful Stephen and now exciting Richard, and elderly Mrs. Heather, endlessly smiling inhabitant of the cottage at the Castle gates, and you have all the players assembled on the stage.

Elizabeth Goudge loves to bring her characters together by impossibly convenient coincidence, and this novel is a prime example. The two little girls are billeted at the Castle, and Miss Brown eventually meets Mr. Isaacson; they are united in common memory and relief at each finding at least a temporary haven. Mr. Isaacson is modestly successful as a street musician and music teacher, and Miss Brown has settled nicely into her niche as the housekeeper of the Castle.

Mr. Birley returns to his creative solitude untroubled by household concerns; Stephen prepares for his upcoming hearing to allow him to avoid military service by working at rescue and recovery in the bombed sections of London; Richard comes and goes between missions, dallying with the passionate Prue whenever chance allows; Miss Brown wins over the initially hostile Boulder by her gentle good nature and hard work; Pratt gets on with things much as usual; Mrs. Heather keeps smiling.

Tragedy and turmoil turn this newly peaceful world upside down, and the responses of all concerned show the best qualities that lie buried in everyone to be brought forth under adversity, another favourite Elizabeth Goudge theme.

This condensation leaves out everything that makes this book so appealing: the glimpses into the inner thoughts and deeper motivations of every character involved. Stephen is handled particularly well as he wrestles with his decision to be a non-combatant; his brother and uncle are fiercely and actively patriotic, and though they treat him with respect and affection it is clear that they are impatient rather than understanding of his dilemma.

The character of the quiet and dedicated Miss Brown serves to highlight the divisions and expectations of the class system, soon to be changed forever by the new equality of the war and post-war years. She feels something more than subservient and feudal affection for the Birley family; they however regard her as an appreciated and respected but somehow not-quite-equal being. Miss Brown hides her feelings well; her pride lets her go forward with head held high even when the oblivious Birleys unintentionally disregard her occasional attempts at a deeper friendship.

Mr. Isaacson resolves his feelings of anger towards the world and its unfairness and is able to move onward in his life. (And I would like to mention that I thought he was one of the most awkward characters, as his creator did not seem sure of how she should portray him – he is inconsistent throughout, one moment gruff and earthy, and the next full of academically poetic musings.)

Elizabeth Goudge likes to sort out her couples and pair them off in their proper order. Children are inevitably provided with the best possible homes; damaged marriages are salvaged; family rifts are healed; happy spinsters and bachelors regain their peaceful solitude and worthwhile occupations. The Castle on the Hill runs true to form, but it has much to recommend it in its thoughtful passages and articulate characters. The setting is lovingly described, and most of the characters are fully realized and allowed their chance to show their full and complex humanity.

Given that the book was written in wartime, in the very time that it portrays, it acts as an interesting and quite readable realistic-idealistic period piece. The horrors and tragedies of the war are true to life; the human response of the heroes and heroines is certainly the ideal.

The last few pages have numerous references to the comforts of religion and the role of God in human lives, but this is not at all a “preachy” book.  I thought it was one of the less rambling and more focussed adult novels by this often-underrated writer. I could definitely see shades of some of the characters of Goudge’s most well-known and beloved books, the Damerosehay novels (The Bird in the Tree – 1940, The Herb of Grace – 1948, and The Heart of the Family – 1953) which were written during and after the war years; The Castle on the Hill is something of a dress rehearsal, though it stands alone as a story complete unto itself, with characters whom we never again meet, though their soul sisters and brothers reappear in different guise in her many other books.

Note: I am here including, with some reluctance, the cover shot from the 1975 paperback re-release. The cover at the beginning is from an earlier edition. I am not sure who these illustrated people are supposed to portray; in my opinion they do not represent actual characters of the story, but instead have strayed onto the cover from an Eaton’s mail-order catalogue, Misses and Gents section, circa the polyester era! Quite one of the ugliest covers possible for this book, and not at all indicative of the content. A dire reminder not to judge a book by its outward appearance!

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The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge ~ 1935. This edition: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1949. Hardcover. 310 pages.

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.

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