The Child from the Sea

51JdkrVUiZL._SX344_BO1,204,203,200_I finished it!

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Goudge’s The Child from the Sea off and on for over a year. A 736-page historical novel that offers an alternative reading of Lucy Walter, secret wife of Charles II, the book shines in its place descriptions, touches of realistic detail, and attitude of wonder about the natural world. But I had my struggles with it just the same.

For one thing, I wasn’t up to speed in my knowledge of the subject matter when I started. Not until I did some investigating did I realize that the official view of Lucy Walter is that she was Charles’s mistress and mother of James, Duke of Monmouth, who was ultimately beheaded in a failed bid for the throne.

Lucy Walter
Lucy Walter

Goudge offers a highly sympathetic alternative interpretation of Lucy, born in Roch Castle in Wales. While there appears to be a valid controversy over the reliability of Lucy’s tarnished reputation, Goudge’s depiction struck me as over-the-top when it comes to Lucy’s purity and depth of character. She may well have had reason to believe her marriage to the king was legitimate, though he denied it more than once. The story depicts Lucy’s maid conspiring with the king’s confidantes to spread torrid rumors about her, and this too is possible. But the moral glow and high-toned spiritual sensibility Goudge gives her are somehow not very plausible.

Charles II (by Sir Peter Lely)
Charles II (by Sir Peter Lely)

I read the book less out of interest in the subject, and more out of loyalty to the author. Yet the more I read of Goudge, the more torn I am about her. I love the attitude toward nature and place, and I am interested in the spiritual themes she takes up. But more and more her beliefs seem like a hodge-podge of Christianity and the occult, mysticism, even other quasi-religious elements. The Child from the Sea, ostensibly taking up the theme of forgiveness and prominently featuring an Anglican cleric who mentors Lucy, also implies reincarnation, mystical psychic connections between lovers (Lucy and Charles seem to have sort of a Heathcliff and Cathy connection), and visitations from the dead to impart wisdom when needed. Once, such wisdom is imputed to Christ, but often it is other characters that Lucy feels indebted to and has lost. “The great ones come back,” she tells her son firmly, and there is at least one character who seems to be a reincarnated martyr, appearing and disappearing mysteriously to dispense eerily personal counsel. (Aside: It was interesting to me to learn that one of Goudge’s books (The Rosemary Tree) was plagiarized by an author in India. The religion was changed to Hindu, and the setting was changed to India, but large chunks of the book were simply copied wholesale. It seems like this would be difficult to do if the book was pervaded by a distinctively Christian point of view.)

Part of my problem is that I picked the book up and put it down too many times, and this broke the continuity. Goudge apparently had the same problem. She lists this as one of her three favorites among the books she wrote, explaining in her autobiography The Joy of the Snow,

Further along the coast [of Pembrokeshire] is St. David’s Cathedral, one of the great shrines of the world, and further along still is Roch castle, where Lucy Walter, the secret wife of Charles II, was probably born and where she spent her early childhood. It was on my first visit to Pembrokeshire that I read a book about her written by one of her descendants. It is a rare book, now out of print, and giving a very different account of her from those given in the history books. It was lent to me by a friend who is one of the leaders in the fight to defend the beauty of Pembrokeshire from ‘modern development.’ She insisted that I must read it, and wanted me to write a novel about Lucy in keeping with this book. I had not got far with my reading before I was longing to write about this new Lucy, the girl of whom I was so conscious when I stood in the little church at Roch, beside the old font where she was perhaps baptized. And I wanted, too, to express the pent-up joy of the birds and the sea and the holiness of the Cathedral. That book, The Child from the Sea, like Green Dolphin Street, took years to write, and was beset by so many total interruptions that it too became too long. I doubt if it is a good book, nevertheless I love it because its theme is forgiveness, the grace that seems to me divine above all others, and the most desperate need of all us tormented and tormenting human beings, and also because I seemed to give to it all I have to give; very little, heaven knows. And so I know I can never write another novel, for I do not think there is anything else to say.

I did like importance of forgiveness in the story, and certainly the natural setting is depicted vividly and made me wish for the sea. (I quoted a passage here.) But there seem to be so many other elements thrown into Goudge’s spirituality that it’s jarring; I have trouble “losing myself” in the book.

It’s always disappointing when an author who seems like a potential favorite on first reading turns out not to be such a friend after all. How do you class authors? There are aspects of Goudge’s writing that just sing, aspects of her vision that I absolutely love, and they are consistent across her books. (I’ve read a fair number of them now.) But there are also distractions, beliefs and judgments I just cannot relate to, and these keep the endorsement from being truly wholehearted. She is an author I enjoy, one who can create a lovely fictional world, but not one that I trust as a guide in the deeper, persistent questions of faith and living.

The Blue Hills

51+2UsEuzgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I enjoyed Elizabeth Goudge’s The Blue Hills over a period of about two days. It’s actually a children’s book, though it was not located in the children’s section of the library when I came across it. However, it’s one of the children’s books that can be read with pleasure by adults — at least, by this one. Not much happens; it’s a tale about a birthday picnic in which almost all of the guests lose their way and have adventures in a mystical wood, but the adventures, though rich spiritually, are of a quiet personal kind. These characters are pilgrims in progress, and they return transformed.

In some ways The Blue Hills bears some similarities to Goudge’s more generally known The Little White Horse. (My review here.) It depicts a contrast between the wilder communities of the hills and the civilized ones of the city. Goudge sets forth the contrast before the story even begins, in the dedication: “There were once two little girls, 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...” The book opens in Torminster, but most of the action takes place in the blue hills, where trails no one has ever seen before appear mysteriously, and strange characters emerge from strange houses to open hitherto unknown gates. The hills have their own history and folklore as the place out of which the original inhabitants of Torminster, with its magnificent cathedral, emerged. As the party sets out for the picnic site, we have the sense that they are heading into the terrain of a different world that operates by different rules.

The natural setting is, typically for Goudge, wonderfully evocative. Her landscapes and woods and gardens are all places we would enter if we could, they are so fertile, beautiful, and fully imagined. Taking place at the start of the 19th century, the story unfolds in a pastoral setting where only one motorcar mars the picnickers’ horse-drawn journey with its noise and smoke before coming to an unceremonious end. Goudge uses the settings to reflect the characters’ internal states as they each undergo a rebirth of sorts. Her perspective is Christian and I appreciated the spiritual depth she gives the story, although as in other books there are times that magical, even occult, overtones color the action. (There is one character, for example, who makes wax figures and sticks pins in them — a practice he is called to turn from in order to enter into the joy of relatedness to others.) There are numerous connections between the hills and caverns above, and the cathedral below, and they help to show how deeply the city’s redeemed Christian character is rooted in the hills and their history.

Originally, it appears that the title was Henrietta’s House.

All of this sounds a bit heavy, but in truth the story has a wonderfully enchanted feel, and the characters’ wishes come true. Like The Little White Horse, in this tale the main character is a young girl, Henrietta. Her dream is to have her own house, which in her imagination is fully furnished right down to the titles in the library. Like most of the characters, she’s insightful and basically good. It’s comforting to read Goudge and experience intact communities and growing people.

Somehow The Blue Hills puts a finger on a child’s hopeful, joyful outlook, too. Part of the journey the older characters take is toward a more childlike faith, and a more light-hearted perspective. One of the advantages of living in an area familiar to me since childhood is that every now and then as I am driving or looking at a familiar scene, I have a fleeting memory of what it was like to be a child and see it through carefree, expectant eyes. My eyes now are often clouded with responsibility and anxiety, and those inner shifts are always welcome. In this book Elizabeth Goudge maintains that sense of seeing through a child’s eyes, and I liked being in that imaginative world.

The Scent of Water

the-scent-of-waterWhat a deep well of quiet reflection and spiritual satisfaction this novel is. It was my first Elizabeth Goudge book when I read it back in 2010, and having read a number of her other books since then I wanted to revisit it.

I stand by everything I wrote about it in my first review. There I summarized the plot and offered a few observations about things I liked. One of Goudge’s trademarks is that she writes with special insight about places, and I love her idea that they retain the character of the people that lived there.

Upon realizing that she lives in a house that was once the infirmary for a Cistercian monastery, protagonist Mary Lindsay’s predecessor writes,

What is it that makes one place more than another home to one? Not length of stay. I think it is compatibility. I want God and so did the monks. The unseen spirit of a place has its deep desire and if it’s the same as yours then your small desire goes down like an anchor into the depths.

This idea is worked out in a number of ways in this novel. There is a sense in which the English hamlet of Appleshaw “sanctifies” its people, for ultimately there is something healing in the atmosphere. The richly layered historical resonance of the place is one of this tale’s deepest satisfactions for me.

It retains too its identity as a place set apart, on ground that was once devoted to God. I was reminded of a similar place in The Little White Horse, but in this book it’s a whole community. Though it is not any longer an explicitly religious place, one of its distinctives for its protagonist is that it has managed to retain its rural flavor in the midst of industrialized England. The cottages still have thatched roofs. There is still an active bodger in residence. (If you don’t know what that means, neither did I. If you read the story you’ll find out.) Writing in 1963, Goudge is prescient in giving her protagonist the awareness that this older way of life is on its way to vanishing altogether. This is part of the appeal of Goudge (and of Wendell Berry) for me. Some might call her a nostalgic writer, and I suppose the label fits. But the sense that we are in over our heads in mechanized, urbanized, modernized living, and that something important to our humanity has been lost, is all too real for some of us. The Scent of Water speaks comfort to that feeling of dismay.

Spiritually the book was nourishing to me. In particular I like the way Goudge works out the theme of Christ being at the center of any of our experiences of suffering — of his having lived through it and redeemed it already, and of his being an ever-present help now. Two characters in the story are turned from tragic ends by visions of Christ already having suffered what they suffer. The ancestor and former inhabitant of Mary Lindsay’s home, for instance, leaves behind some journals through which Mary becomes acquainted with her, and in them she writes of a frightening dream of walls closing in on her, burying her alive. But she escapes through a crack in the wall and finds that she is in the stable with the Christ child, and recognizes that the stable and the tomb closed in on him, too:

Two stony caves, forming as it were the two clasps of his life on earth… Shut up in the prison of aching flesh and torn nerves, trapped in it… The Lord of glory… I remembered the sword of light that had split the rock of sin, making for me the way of escape to where he was at the heart of it. At my heart… There was always a way of escape so long as it was to the heart of it, whatever it was, that one went to find him.

Having had this mystical vision, her life takes on a whole different significance as an act of prayer and worship. Even the experience of personal suffering becomes a glad offering, and sometimes an act of intercession on behalf of another. This vision of prayer is similar to that of The Dean’s Watch. (I wrote about it in my review.) Altogether the immanence of God is beautifully depicted in this quiet story of quiet lives against an eternal backdrop. One of my favorite books, and hands-down my favorite by this author.

Storm writing


Even in the Northeast, everyone is bracing for Hurricane Sandy. Back on Wednesday, before it had really registered as a force to be reckoned with, I read this episode in The Child from the Sea and thought it was just stunning. I’m not sure why it had such an impact on me, but it’s partly that it represents some fine nature writing.

I live inland and have never spent much time near the sea, but Elizabeth Goudge consistently enables me to feel the immensity and power of the ocean. It’s a presence in almost everything she writes, and I find myself longing for the sound of the breakers and the cold spray of salt water. The sea seems like a counterpart for some aspect of the human soul that has been tongue-tied or asleep in me.

This scene describes the evening before a storm in Wales. I don’t usually copy out long excerpts from books I’m reading, but this one seems appropriate for this period of waiting for Sandy. (A full review will have to wait till I finish the book.)

She stood knee-deep in tawny bracken and the vast sky above her was the dim gold of very old beaten metal, thunder gold. Yet there was no haze or oppression of thunder. The only hint of storm was the deep eerie boom of the tide in the caves below the cliff. The sea was calm gold, yet below the surface Lucy knew it must be stirring around the tree trunks of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the lost land under the waves. The orange sun was low over the sea, the path of its reflection trembling a little on the surface of the gold, but Lucy tonight would not see the green flash as it disappeared into the sea, for above the horizon was a bank of cloud the color of the fading heather. The sun reached it and sank slowly, and then all the cloud bank was edged with fire. It grew colder and the land darkened and it seemed to Lucy that the sky reflected the darkness. Then from somewhere far down below her, from some hidden cave, came a great and tragic cry, like some heartbroken prophet crying out in despair at what he had seen. Coming at such a moment the seal’s cry seemed dreadful to Lucy and she turned and fled inland.

It was then she became aware of the birds. They were coming down from the sky like drifting autumn leaves, martins, chaffinches, goldfinches and linnets, finding their way to the bracken-sheltered hollows and the warm dry hedges and the safe crannies of the rocks. Lucy had watched the bird migrations before but she had never seen one halted like this, halted as the warning sounded along the shore. She stood still, scarcely breathing, her arms out and her face turned up to the darkening sky, and they had no fear of her. A wing brushed her cheek and just for a moment some tired little being alighted on her hand, putting on one finger for ever the memory of a tiny claw that clung like a wedding ring. It was for her a moment of ecstasy, of marriage with all living creatures, of unity with life itself, and she whispered in Welsh, “Dear God, this happiness is too great for me!” Then she began to cry again and she no longer saw the birds, only heard them and felt them, drifting and rustling, their colors muted in the twilight, glad to drift upon the tides of the air, to fall and sleep.

What follows is a description of the storm and a shipwreck, the second shipwreck description I’ve read in a Goudge novel. It must have been a part of life for the islanders she writes about.

She writes with the exact and loving detail of someone who has observed carefully. She names the birds. She captures the colors and the emotional import of the seal’s cry. She takes her time with the stages of the sunset. The level of awareness, of literacy at reading the natural scene, is something to aspire to, something that only comes from spending alert, unhurried time outdoors.

I read the passage to my daughters, and they both made a little spontaneous outcry as the bird landed on Lucy’s finger. We’re helpless birdlovers around here, and the feeders will be full for any “tired little beings” who drop from the sky and wait out the storm here.

The pre-storm brooding is a very different experience for us, much farther from the source. But the gusts will reach 70 mph even here next week, the forecasters warn. This scene will be in my mind as we wait.

Green Dolphin Street

When I finished Linnets and Valerians, I vowed I was not going to read any more Elizabeth Goudge. (I wrote about why here.) But now I’ve gone and read Green Dolphin Street.

What can I say? My Goudge ban is not the first impassioned vow I’ve broken, and it’s had very happy results. Green Dolphin Street is the most absorbing, most satisfying, most meaty book I’ve read in a very long time. It’s a tale epic in scope, one that follows the stories of three characters from childhood all the way through to their sixties, from the Channel Islands to New Zealand and back again. Goudge explores the redemption of personality through both divine and human love.

All of which probably sounds quite dull. But there is such rich, nourishing food for thought in this book that I was aware of its influence the whole time I was reading it. The three main characters — Marianne and Marguerite, two sisters, and William, the man they both love — are so well drawn that it was impossible not to see parts of myself reflected in each of them, for better or for worse. But the underlying story is captivating, full of adventure, evocative descriptions of places, and deep understanding of human nature. It was a transporting experience to read it.

Linnets and Valerians (Revised)

I started reading this novel to my daughters last week, and I raved about it. I’m withdrawing my rave. In fact, I’m discontinuing it as a read-aloud. Normally I don’t write about either unfinished or abandoned books. But since I foolishly wrote about this one before I finished it and would feel bad if anyone else picked it up based on my premature enthusiasm, I feel the need for a second post.

The opening chapters have the Elizabeth Goudge trademark of wonderful place descriptions, as well as entertaining and lovable characters and a goodly dose of humor. A bit farther in, however, it became apparent that in order to read this aloud to my children, I would need to be prepared to talk about witchcraft, voodoo dolls, so-called white magic, and the interweaving of folklore and myth with fact in a way that’s misleading and confusing. I decided to pause the reading aloud and finish it myself before going any further, then realized it would be a mistake to continue it together.

Goudge is classed as a Christian author and comes from a religious family, but Christianity is depicted as colorless, stuffy, incomprehensible and powerless in contrast to the beauty and vitality of nature and its attendant spirits. One of the main characters is a vicar, but even he, along with his servant and the children in his charge, entertain a mysterious faith in honeybees, to whom they pray for protection. (Honest.) The happy ending is brought about not by God’s help (he is never appealed to) but by counteracting black magic with white magic.

What’s the difference between a book like this and, say, the Narnia chronicles, or the Oz books, or The Hobbit, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or Stardust? There are many fantasies that don’t bother me. One difference is that they have boundary lines between fact and fantastic: a wardrobe, a tornado that takes your house far away, a totally imagined universe like Middle Earth, a rabbit hole or a village wall that defines and limits the realm of alternative reality. This book has no such boundaries. It seems to purport that Pan really walks in Devonshire, that honeybees really are angelic protectors, that superstition is more deeply real than the church of England.

In a separate class is the kind of witchcraft practiced by Emma Cobley in this story, which is of course real. It belongs to the tradition of King Saul in the Bible when he consults the witch of Endor, or Simon the Sorcerer in the New Testament. It’s not defeated with “white magic” but by the Spirit of God. Goudge’s handling of these themes is not what we’re justified to expect from a professing Christian writer.

C.S. Lewis felt that part of literature’s job is to re-enchant the world, and that was what initially attracted me to Elizabeth Goudge. She evokes so effectively the non-physical aspects of a place, evoking a sense of its history and offering exact and detailed observation. It seemed at first to help me remember my own delight in the world, a delight too easily overshadowed by the more prosaic concerns of adult life. But in the end her spiritual vision corrupts my original feeling of kinship. I think I suspected this when I read The Bird in the Tree, then moreso when I read her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow. But somehow I kept hoping I was wrong.

It’s tough to find an author who seems wonderful — only to discover, a few books later, that you have large and serious differences. I still like The Scent of Water and The Dean’s Watch. But my first impressions have significantly cooled as my reading list has lengthened. In fact, this may be it for me.

The Heart of the Family

Over the last year I discovered Elizabeth Goudge, a 20th century Christian author with a remarkable gift for capturing the beauty and sense of place in the English countryside that forms the setting for many of her books. Readers of Goudge will be familiar with her trilogy about the Eliot family, their indomitable matriarch Lucilla Eliot, and their country estate Damerosehay, a 16th-century mansion patterned after the the one to which Goudge herself retreated to face her own inner demons.

The real Damerosehay is demolished, but this country estate is listed at the Elizabeth Goudge website as suggestive of how it may have looked:

The Heart of the Family concludes the series about the Eliots, and I found it the most difficult and least enjoyable of the three. A great deal of it revisits ground already covered in The Bird in the Tree and Pilgrim’s Inn through descriptions of places and people, which is fine if you feel the attachment to this family that many readers apparently do. It gives you the sense of returning to a loved place for a visit.

I find myself impatient with the Eliots this time around. Members of the gentry, they have little to do, it seems, other than hold forth in philosophical discussion about things they openly admit they haven’t really experienced, chiefly suffering. Their casual quoting of Shakespeare and discussions of various works of art seemed implausible to me in Pilgrim’s Inn because it’s hard to imagine so much easy brilliance in the same genetic pool. Several times as I was reading this book I felt like Goudge was really writing drama, as the book is full of set speeches where characters give voice to Goudge’s views on a variety of weighty topics including suffering, infidelity, death and dying, war, artistic temperament, and mental anguish. The idea of substitution reappears as well, an idea I also encountered in Charles Williams’ novels, whereby a person can offer up their own suffering on behalf of another person.

Much is written about the spirituality of Elizabeth Goudge, but the more I read of her the less I see much of any true vertical dimension in her books. It may be that I, with my Protestant sensibility, simply miss it. But mostly it seems like her way of configuring the problems and solutions of human existence is horizontal. People strive to attain a level of enlightenment through which they can help one another, admittedly in God’s name, but through a conception of prayer that seems to have more to do with reaching a particular mystical union with others than with actually interacting with God as a divine Person. If you’re a reader of Goudge, feel free to comment on this and direct my attention to anything I may be missing. On one hand I like the emphasis on spiritual discipline and mental transformation; it’s a nice antidote to an exclusively verbal faith. But this seems weighted too far the other way, toward, almost, self-salvation.

To sum up, this book revisits the Eliot clan and introduces a new character into the mix: Sebastian Weber, a guest at Damerosehay whose experience in World War II poses a stark contrast to the privileged Eliots. We also meet David and Sally’s two children and greet their third. There is little physical action, but a fair amount of discussion and flashback, and Goudge somewhat heavy-handedly works out her ideas about suffering, the contrasts of life and character, and the romantic idea that children and the elderly have mystical insight because they are “trailing clouds of glory” — close to “the other world.” The unmistakably occultish flavor of some of her ideas about the spirits that haunt certain places and people is present but much less prominent in this book. Written in response to requests for another story about the Eliots, The Heart of the Family no doubt satisfies those hungry for a bit more resolution and confidence in the family’s future after Pilgrim’s Inn.

Linnets and Valerians

*Edited to add: See my revised view of this book.

It’s Read-Aloud Thursday, and none of the shorter books we’ve read this week seem post-worthy. But we’re a few chapters into Elizabeth Goudge’s Linnets and Valerians, an ALA Notable Book for Children published in 1964.

We are having a blast with it.

For one thing, I’m getting a chance to introduce the girls to a recently-discovered author, my favorite discovery from 2010. Elizabeth Goudge has a knack for writing descriptions that capture the essence of a place, and the places are invariably appealing to me. This book is no exception. It concerns four children who run away from their grandmother, steal a pony and cart, eat all the groceries stashed therein, and are taken by said pony to the delightful rambling home of a retired schoolmaster who happens to be a distant relation they’ve never met. (So if you insist on “good role models,” I suppose there’s no argument to be made for these children — at least not yet.) That’s all we really know at this point, but I’m looking forward to listening in as he educates the children in the classical style.

Goudge’s descriptions seem to be inspiring lots of belly-laughs. Here’s an example, from a scene where the retired schoolmaster is leading his just-discovered charges and their dog, Absalom, through his study:

The children followed in single file, Absalom bringing up the rear with his tail between his legs. Then he caught sight of the owl, barked joyously, and leapt up into the elderly gentleman’s chair. The owl took off and floated to the top of a large oil painting of some ruins and a thunderstorm that hung over the fireplace. Then he opened his beak, said “Hick,” and a pellet shaped like a plum stone shot out of it and hit Absalom on the nose. Glancing off onto the carpet, the pellet broke into a collection of small beaks and claws and a threepenny bit. “Do not do that again,” said the elderly gentleman to Absalom. “If Hector is annoyed he shoots out undigested matter in this unpleasant fashion. You, boy, what’s your name? Speak up. What? Timothy? Shovel up the beaks and claws and put them in the fire. You may keep the threepenny bit. Sit down. Do not touch my books or my papers. In twenty minutes I shall for my sins be with you again. Merciful heavens, here’s a pretty kettle of fish!

In the other Goudge books I’ve read (all but one of which I’ve reviewed), I’ve found the children a bit irritating. These are thus far the least annoying, but as in the other books they exist in a gentler world of adults who have time for them and take them seriously, even when they do trying things. This is part of the appeal of Elizabeth Goudge for me. It’s a rather nostalgic vision, but one that I find inspiring — one of the pleasantest fictional “elsewheres” I know. The vocabulary and lifestyle are a few steps removed from us, but this book is just one more example of what a non-issue these things are when the basic sympathy between author and audience is strong enough. It’s a real treat to be experiencing this story with my children.

Pilgrim’s Inn

“Who did that?” he demanded.“Ben, my oldest boy,” said Nadine…

“It’s damn good,” said John Adair, almost with violence.

“But the drawing –”

“Faulty, of course, he’s had no teaching. But he’s got it — the light.”

It’s a conversation between artist John Adair and Nadine Eliot, returning in this second book of the trilogy Elizabeth Goudge began with The Bird In the Tree. They are discussing a painting of her son Ben Eliot’s, but they could just as accurately be discussing Pilgrim’s Inn, for in some ways it’s a flawed book.

The characters are way too smart and perceptive to be at all “realistic.” Instead of taking place in the world I live in, where people misunderstand a look, a gesture, even an overt statement, this tale takes place in a superhuman dimension of highly aware and well-read people, well-versed in classic paintings and acting and literature, quoting Shakespeare to one another. Worse, it seems obvious that Goudge couldn’t figure out how to get her story across without intruding her narrative on her characters. At times, they seem like mere puppets voicing beautiful but implausible speeches to one another.

Yet as John Adair says of Ben, “She’s got it — the light.” Despite its technical weaknesses, it develops an imaginative and spiritual vision that’s deeply nourishing. Goudge tells a story in her autobiography of a similar experience in an art class where she had painted a flawed picture, but one the teacher held up as an example of sure inspiration; it captured the feel of faerie, he explained. This book captures the feel of a corner of the world rich in history and redemptive power. I loved it.

At the center of the tale is George and Nadine Eliot’s purchase of the Herb of Grace, an ancient pilgrim’s inn (or maison dieu) in which people used to stay when they came on pilgrimages to the nearby monastery. It’s a story about getting to the heart of things, be they marital failures or nervous breakdowns or artistic technique or traumatic pasts. Everyone in this novel is broken or wounded and in need of healing in some way, and they find it while at the Herb of Grace.

Like other Goudge stories, in this one getting to the heart of human problems is intertwined with getting to the heart of architecture. The richness of the past flowing through to the present as a redemptive force is made most literal in the uncovering of the Herb of Grace’s history, where we learn the source of the mysterious but unmistakable spirit of graciousness, safety, and welcome it extends to all who come there. The 16th-century origin of the building, and the tales about its original Cistercian host, are traced in various physical artifacts and places rich in meaning that the Eliots discover in their first months there. At the heart of the house is a chapel, a symbol of consecration and love, that renders in architecture what must happen in the hearts of those who come there if they are to find new life.

Elizabeth Goudge hasn’t yet failed to evoke places I desperately wish I could visit. Her descriptions seem to hit a nerve in me, perhaps because they awaken a certain nostalgia and yearning, and perhaps because they are unabashedly spiritual. There are no places that are merely physical, no times consisting merely of the present, and no people who exist without reference or connection to others. Goudge acknowledges the dark aspects of this fallen world, but reinforces the hope that there is more in it than meets the eye — enough to satisfy the deepest longings of the heart.

The White Witch

The White Witch is a historical novel about the English Civil War(s) of the 17th century. It is surely one of Elizabeth Goudge’s best works, capturing not only the political conflict of Puritan against Royalist, but the many smaller-scale conflicts that characterize human existence. Some of these conflicts are antagonized by the war, but others are ever-present realities, whether personal, political, or spiritual: citizen vs. gypsy, Protestant vs. Catholic, trust in God vs. trust in magic, love for security vs. love for God. The all encompassing contrast is between God’s mercy and man’s rebellious, often misguided search for redemption.

The white witch of the title is Froniga Haslewood, half gypsy and half gentlewoman, an herbalist and healer whose strength and wisdom she learns ultimately to wield without dependence on the spells and spirits common to her trade. Hers is the anchoring consciousness through which we experience the broad scope of the story and its numerous personalities. Woven of Goudge’s usual poetic and deeply comforting narrative, this is a story I found very satisfying and free of the Gothic trappings of some of her other books.

Some themes will be familiar to those who have read The Dean’s Watch or The Scent of Water, the two books that, with this one, comprise my favorites so far. The idea of substitution, of laying down one’s life for a friend, comes into the tale more than once as characters willingly offer themselves for those too far gone spiritually to be able to find their own way back to God. All the characters are flawed, yet all grow as a holy and glorious God is clearly depicted as working his often mysterious but always redemptive purposes. A recusant priest with shame in his past, turned spy for the Royalists; a black witch who has long ago sold her soul for power over her others; a gypsy matron grown almost to sainthood who retains a single grudge against her niece; these are just a few of the cast of characters in this richly populated book who need to be lifted into a fuller experience of divine love and power.

I was struck again by the compassion Goudge displays for all her characters. One of the contrasts in the story is between Catholic and Protestant, and one scene comes to mind in particular in which Robert Haslewood comes home from war having been won over more fervently to the Puritan cause, and he takes all the homespun decorations in the little church — carvings made by the parson, flowers, even the cross — and sets them on fire as relics of popery. It is Christmas morning, and the people watch in horror — as certainly Goudge does too, yet she manages to portray even Robert sympathetically.

This is a long, multifaceted novel impossible to do justice to in a review. As a Christian, I find Goudge’s fictional world deeply encouraging. It’s a world where God’s spirit, and his unfailing delight, are immanent in his creation — its scents, its sights, its often tragic events and its fallen and struggling people. I have lingered between the covers of this book not only because of its beauty as art, but because of its savor as food for the soul.