Today, I’m happy to welcome Jenny from Shelf Love, who has been reading Elizabeth Goudge with appreciation for many years. Her thoughtful commentary is always a joy to read.
I have been a lover of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels since I encountered them in England at about the age of twelve. I have written reviews of eleven of her novels on my blog, most of them works I’ve read again and again: Linnets and Valerians, the Damerosehay trilogy, Green Dolphin Street, The White Witch, and more. She is one of my most beloved authors, someone I turn to when I want comfort, or inspiration, or refreshment; someone I turn to when I’m tired, or sick, or happy. I’ve given her books to more friends than I can count, and defended her against accusations of writing purple prose or against writing unearned happy endings.
I value so many things about Goudge’s writing. She is a lover of nature, both domestic (her gardens are some of the loveliest things about her books) and wild (oceans, mountains, and fens are some of the untamed things you’ll find when you read.) Her descriptions are fresh and real. Indoors, she’s also a lover of families. She knows how families really work — the way you can love someone deeply and also not be able to stand them another minute — and she is one of the best authors I know about for including every generation, the very old as well as the very young, as real living participants in her stories. She doesn’t leave out the beloved animals of families, either: dogs (usually dogs) and cats and donkeys and birds all have parts to play. This is, of course, really the way it is in our lives, but tell me the last book you read that was like it.
Goudge is a Christian, which comes out in most of her stories, but there are strong pagan overtones in many of her books — The White Witch, for instance — and she has an appreciation for other religions. Some of her best characters are atheists. Her books have a freshness to them, because they are serious and yet loving: yes, the world can wear you down, but there are springs of joy to refresh you even in deep pain. She writes about such themes as discipline, healing, and growth through suffering. But don’t let me make them sound like downers! She is often, also, quietly amusing, quick-witted, and very knowing about the way real people operate. Her novels interweave legend and myth and reflect her spirituality and her deep love of family and England.
To participate in this week’s post, I read a novel that is new to me, The Middle Window. It was the second novel she wrote, published in 1934. It’s the story of a young socialite, Judy Cameron, who has an emotional epiphany when she sees a painting of a Scottish glen: that is her place, and she must find it. Improbably, she does find it, and drags her unwilling parents and fiance with her to spend the summer there. The rest is a high-drama story involving, of all things, hints of reincarnation and a handsome laird who is spending his life trying to help the impoverished Highlanders.
This, unfortunately, is the first book by Elizabeth Goudge I have ever wished I hadn’t read. I disliked Judy Cameron heartily. What did she think she was doing, forcing her poor long-suffering parents and perfectly-nice fiance to go through her nervous breakdown with her, in an unheated Scottish house with no plumbing? What on earth does she mean by sobbing around the house and playing melancholy tunes like the wailing of the whaups? If you’re going to drag everyone to a glen in the back of beyond, at least cheer up and play bridge with them, girl! I liked the Scottish butler Angus (of course it was Angus) because he said what he thought, but of course he was a dreadful caricature. And the descriptions of nature — Skye in particular — were wonderful, but why bring in reincarnation? Ugh.
My very strong advice is to read Elizabeth Goudge for what she is: a mid-century author with a tremendous amount to offer. I think she’s marvelous. But don’t start with The Middle Window. Try The Bird in the Tree, or The Scent of Water, or one of her children’s books, and see what you’ve been missing.
Thank you, Jenny! It’s good to know that even with a most beloved author we sometimes encounter a book that is less than stellar, and this experience can help us to define what is most praiseworthy in his or her work.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the whole range of Elizabeth Goudge’s writing from a different perspective — a quiz!