Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Street (1944)
Elizabeth Goudge, The Child from the Sea (1970)
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I’m a longtime fan of Elizabeth Goudge, whose books have accompanied me from childhood into middle age with unabated pleasure. I realize she’s not to everyone’s taste, with her strong religious themes and sometimes swoopily romantic prose, and I’m sure she’d be the first to admit she’s not a perfect writer. What I appreciate about her is the honesty of her writing; I never have the feeling that she’s playing for effect or trying to bamboozle her readers. When her characters are people of faith, it is because it is an inseparable part of their being, one that is explored in complex and sensitive ways. When they are rogues and villains, they receive the same treatment. In fact, it is the depth and richness of human moral experience that Goudge attempts to bring to us in her stories — sometimes more successfully than others, colored by her own preferences and predilections, but always, I believe, with pure intent. And when she succeeds, she can make fictional places and people real for us in an unforgettable way.
The two most recent reissues of Goudge’s novels from Hendrickson Publishers give ample opportunity to experience these qualities: Green Dolphin Street, the breakthrough book of her early writing career, and The Child from the Sea, her final novel. Both are chunksters, weighing in at around 600 pages each, and will appeal primarily to readers who like to settle into a lengthy historical saga, with characters who grow up from childhood to old age and plenty of scenic description. For me, they proved to be just what I wanted to curl up with during some long winter evenings, and gave me many hours of enjoyment.
Having read Island Magic last year for Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week, I was eager for more about the magical Channel Islands, and Green Dolphin Street did not disappoint. Though the beginning is a bit slow, once I got past the description of the girls confined to their backboards I was swiftly caught up in the story of a 19th century family with two very different daughters in love with the same man. When the story departs for New Zealand, Goudge is not on such firm ground (never having actually been there), but her embarrassingly dated depiction of the Maori aside, she still creates a compelling and vivid narrative that is convincing in its essence if not in every detail.
With plentiful earthquakes, shipwrecks, fortunes won and lost, and other outer tempests to complement the stormy inner lives of its characters, one can see why this book was chosen as the winner in an MGM film contest — the event that gave Goudge a much-needed boost in name recognition, even if most of the prize money was eaten up by taxes. I find it a pity, though, that the film and the American edition of the book changed the original British title, Green Dolphin Country, which is a more appropriate and evocative name than the prosaic “Street.” The novel is largely about our search for our true spiritual home, and “Green Dolphin Country” is the phrase some of the characters use to describe and tell stories about that elusive land. “Green Dolphin Street,” in comparison, is just a place to be found in their real island home — a lovely and charming place, to be sure, but the book wants to give us something more.
I’ve purposely said little about the plot here, which turns on a strange-but-true incident from Goudge’s own family history, because it’s well documented elsewhere, and also because I’d like you to have the pleasure of discovering it for yourself. Do see if you can get through the first chapter or two, and if you fall in love with the Patourel family as I did, you won’t want to stop reading.
When I turned to The Child from the Sea, the pull of the story was not quite so strong, and I read it in a more leisurely, on-and-off way. Here, rather than taking a thread of fact and spinning a story out of her imagination, Goudge works with known historical events and tries to cast them in a different light than is usually given them. The central character is Lucy Walter, mistress to Charles II during his exile, later claimed by some to be his wife, and thus mother to a legitimate firstborn son. Lucy’s reputation as it has come down to us is quite dreadful, but after Goudge visited Lucy’s birthplace, Roch Castle in Pembrokeshire, and read a book that suggested she might have been maligned unfairly by her enemies, she became fascinated by the subject and wrote this lengthy novel in defense of Lucy.
The first section, which is basically pure invention — almost nothing is known about Lucy’s childhood — gives a wonderfully vivid picture of seventeenth-century life and of Lucy as a half-wild, fiercely independent but warm-hearted child. She is torn by the separation of her parents, who are engaged in a bitter divorce and custody battle, and in dire need of love and security amidst the first rumblings of the English Civil War. It’s during this time that she meets the young Charles, who is nearly of an age with her, and forms an instant semi-mystical bond that leads to the fateful secret marriage.
The later sections of the novel, dealing with this event and its aftermath, were not so convincing to me. The bond forged in childhood (for which there is no historical evidence) must have been powerful indeed for Charles to travel across the country in the middle of a civil war and marry a girl with absolutely nothing to bring him in terms of political advantage. In maintaining her romantic picture of Lucy, Goudge increasingly has to strain for explanations to fit with the facts, such as why she was known as “Mrs. Barlow,” and how she could have a child with another man while still considering herself a devoted and faithful wife. (Yes, I know the double standard that allowed Charles to have as many mistresses as he wanted was terribly unfair, but such were the mores of the time.)
Putting these objections to one side, though, there is much that is moving and true in the tragic story. I was left with sadness for the fate of Lucy-who-might-have-been, and for the young king whose radiance was dimmed by conflict and betrayal. But as Goudge herself describes it, the theme of this final novel is forgiveness, that power which transforms our errors in the light of love — and so its sadness still bears something of beauty within it.
If either of these titles sounds like something you might enjoy, the perfect occasion would be Elizabeth Goudge’s birthday, which I plan to celebrate on April 24. I hope you will join us to share your thoughts on these, or any others of this wonderful author’s books that you care to sample; you can find a list here along with links to posts from last year’s EG Reading Week. Thanks again to Hendrickson for bringing these back into print, and for giving me the opportunity to share them with you. Others to look forward to in the coming months are Island Magic (Goudge’s first novel, set in the Channel Islands) and The White Witch (her other novel set during the Civil War).