Mary Stewart, Thornyhold (Morrow, 1988)
Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch (Coward-McCann, 1952)
Thornyhold is pure wish fulfillment: an 18th century house, full of benign magical influences, and complete with amenities including a modern bathroom, a fabulous garden, a handsome and available neighbor, and convenient proximity to Stonehenge? Yes, please! The mild suspense provided by the plot, which mostly involves a nosy cleaning lady who may or may not have occult leanings, seemed only an excuse to spend time in this lovely setting, and if it also sounds attractive to you, you probably will also enjoy Thornyhold as a pleasant, light read.
Coincidentally, just as I was starting this book, Mary Stewart’s death on May 9 prompted an outpouring of appreciation from many quarters. I’ll definitely be looking into more of her writing. The romance in this one was somewhat boring, and I wonder if any of her other novels are more developed in this regard.
The “white magic” theme reminded me of another book I read a few weeks ago, Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch. It has similar warm-hearted, comforting undertones, with lush descriptions of English homes and countryside, while being much more ambitious and wide-ranging in scope: a historical romance set during the English Civil War. The White Witch of the title is Fronica, a half-gypsy herbalist with ties both to the family of the local Puritan squire and to Royalist/Catholic sympathizers. Several different intertwined stories of these individuals, representing many different points of view, combine to give a rich and rewarding picture of a turbulent time in history.
Without knowing much about the era, I thought that Goudge excelled at sympathetically presenting characters on both sides of the conflict, bringing out the human struggles behind the “Puritan” and “Royalist” labels. The glimpses of Gypsy life and lore were fascinating, and seemed less sentimentalized or idealized than is often the case. As in Thornyhold there’s a “black” witch as counterpart to the “white,” and this story thread is also explored with depth and complexity, giving a multi-layered look into the workings of evil and the mysterious powers of good.
As is usual in Goudge’s writing, Christianity is explicitly invoked, which might irritate some non-believers, but which seems to me to be necessary in portraying an age of faith, and is generally sensitively done. Though Goudge is clearly a believer, even her most saintly characters (in this case, the wonderful old Parson Hawthyn) are portrayed as rounded human beings, rather than proselytizing tools to hit readers over the head with; and she also does an outstanding job of getting into the head of a religious fanatic in a way that causes us to pity rather than loathe him. While the story might seem slow to those used to the current trend toward sexy whiz-bang historicals, the varied cast of characters is the strength of The White Witch, and if you’re like me, will live on in your mind long after you put the book down.