Elizabeth Goudge, I Saw Three Ships (1969)
Just in time for Christmas, the wonderful folks at David R. Godine, Publisher have reprinted their edition of Elizabeth Goudge’s story I Saw Three Ships. In this brief tale set in the West Country of England a couple of centuries ago, we are introduced to the irrepressible orphan Polly, who knows she has heard angels climb the stairs on Christmas Eve; her very proper maiden aunts, Dorcas and Constantia, who yet harbor secret dreams and longings; and three wise men of a rather unexpected sort. How they all come together is Christmas magic of the very best kind.
As fans of Elizabeth Goudge may expect, there is a marvelously evoked historical setting, with a lovably mischievous child character, adults of varying degrees of eccentricity, and a contented cat. There is charm and mystery and humor, and a hint of something beyond the everyday world. At appropriate moments, the old English carol named in the title enlivens the text with its jaunty tune — a different one than most Americans may be familiar with, so it’s good that words and music are included at the end. The numerous pen-and-ink drawings by Margot Tomes capture the early-nineteenth-century atmosphere perfectly, and Godine’s usual fine production values enhance the book’s appeal even further. A small paperback (about 5 by 7 inches large and 60 pages long), with a heavy, durable matte cover and French flaps, it would slip nicely into a large stocking. If you’re looking for a gift for an older child — or adult! — who enjoys historical fiction by the likes of Joan Aiken or Leon Garfield, this would be a fine choice.
For those who already know and love the books of Elizabeth Goudge, or would like to discover a splendid but often sadly underrated author, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week from April 24 to 30. Keep your eye on these pages for further details in the New Year, and enjoy whatever you choose for your holiday reading.