One of my favorite fictional places to visit is Torminster, Elizabeth Goudge’s version of her birthplace, Wells in Somerset. It’s like Barchester without the cynicism, or Cranford with a poetic and mystical touch. Centered around the Close that surrounds its beautiful cathedral, populated by an enchanting set of characters young and old, saintly and not-so, and most importantly possessing a really good bookshop, it’s a place I’m almost afraid to visit in real life lest it lose some of its charm.
Though she wrote them just before and during the Second World War, Goudge set these books in the early years of the twentieth century, the time of her own childhood. It was a placid, sleepy town at the time, removed from the worst ravages of industrialization. As such it offered her contemporary readers a welcome respite from the devastation of war, and for us provides a nostalgic trip back into a vanished world.
That’s not to say that there is no struggle or conflict to be found in Torminster, only that it’s more of an inner rather than an outer nature. In the first book, A City of Bells, young Henrietta has been taken in by Canon Fordyce and his wife as a companion to their irrepressible grandson Hugh Anthony. She loves her new home, but she is haunted by the memory of a mysterious poet who briefly lived nearby. As she and her adopted family search for answers to his disappearance and possible death, their lives are transformed in unexpected ways.
Seemingly responding to requests for more about Henrietta, Goudge wrote two more lovely books about Torminster for a younger audience: Henrietta’s House and Sister of the Angels. Both have been out of print and hard to find for years, but now the wonderful folks at Girls Gone By have reprinted them for us to enjoy. And I’m delighted to announce that they are offering a giveaway for EGRW readers: a copy of each book will go to one lucky winner. Please be sure to enter using the Rafflecopter widget below.
In Henrietta’s House, our Torminster friends set out on a picnic in honor of Hugh Anthony’s birthday, and each finds an adventure suitable to his or her nature. (Diana Wynne Jones fans may recall that this is one of the books Polly read and loved in Fire and Hemlock, which alone should recommend it to you.) It’s a charming modern-day fairy tale with something for everyone: humor, beauty, romance, danger, and even the appearance (and disappearance) of an early motor car.
Sister of the Angels, written first but concerning a slightly older Henrietta, is a shorter tale in which we get to spend more time in the Cathedral and its environs. Subtitled “A Christmas Story,” it gives us a glimpse into Henrietta’s future as an artist, and explores again the intersection of art, faith, and love that is so characteristic of Goudge’s writing.
The paperbacks from Girls Gone By are a quality production, printed in the UK and incorporating the original illustrations. Each book includes a different introduction by publisher Clarissa Cridland, which provide photos of some of the relevant sites in Wells, along with an excellent bibliography, a biography of Elizabeth Goudge, and (in Henrietta’s House) a synopsis of A City of Bells. All these extras make them even more tempting, and the care that has gone into their production speaks of how cherished they are by Goudge fans.
I’m so glad that the way to Torminster is open once more, and hope that you will want to make a journey there soon.
Review and giveaway copy source: Personal collection (A City of Bells); Paperbacks from publisher (Henrietta’s House and Sister of the Angels). No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.