Elizabeth Goudge Day: The Rosemary Tree


Elizabeth Goudge was born on this day in 1900, and went on to write many beloved novels that are still read today. In her honor I’ve invited anyone who is so inclined to read and post about one of her books. You’ll find my review below, and I’ll be posting a round-up in a few days. Drop me a line in the comments if you’d like to be included.

In the meantime, be sure to enter the Elizabeth Goudge giveaway, generously sponsored by Hendrickson Publishers — a chance to win your choice of one of their new paperback Goudge reprints. Just click on the link for details.

Elizabeth Goudge, The Rosemary Tree (1956)

RosemaryTreeIt was odd how they had been drawn together like this, their lives intertwined to their immense happiness and advantage, all in a few weeks of this unusually lovely spring. Did rhythmic times of fresh growth come in the lives of men and women, as in the world of nature? And did one growth help another, as birds build their nests where the new leaves will hide them? What was the motive power behind it all?

As this passage from near the end of The Rosemary Tree suggests, you’ll find in its pages a warm, hopeful story about how a group of people are brought together, seemingly by chance, for a brief but intense period of transformation, change, learning, and growth. The story takes place in Devon, in the postwar world of the middle of the last century, in one of those lovely villages complete with church and manor house that are so marvelous to visit through Goudge’s work. It centers around the vicar, John Wentworth, his wife Daphne, and their three young daughters.

John is by rights the lord of the manor, but in typical self-effacing fashion he’s relinquished it to the great-aunt who has lived there all her life and loves it more than life itself. Daphne, impatient with John’s clumsy goodness, wishes he would take it back and sell it to improve their finances; too fastidious to send their children to the village school, she’s chosen a private school for them that is in fact much worse. John and Daphne are sadly unaware that one of the teachers is bullying their most vulnerable child, and remain caught in patterns of misunderstanding and blame within their marriage, until a stranger comes to town and things begin to move…

Old wrongs are brought to light and their pain dispelled, relationships are created and strengthened, and new resolutions for reconciliation and healing are made. Some might find such a tale lacking in bite and conflict, and the solutions Goudge offers too simplistic — but they have hidden depths. Is it really possible just to decide to love someone instead of hating them? If so, it’s not as easy as it may sound, and might be the most important thing we are able to do as human beings. As we come to know and sympathize with Goudge’s characters, we take on their struggles as our own, and we have the chance to learn along with them. Maybe we do have the choice to be the good we want to see in the world. The rosemary tree, symbol of memory, stands at the center of a story that’s about remembering who we really are.

Rosemary for remembrance. Source

“What was the motive power behind it all?” is a question that resounds throughout the book, and Goudge clearly believes in a divine power: the creative Word that mysteriously manifests itself in our human struggles and sufferings. This is one of her more overtly religious books, with much musing and discussion on themes of prayer, sin, and repentance, and if you find such language and ideas bothersome, this book may not be for you. But as usual with Goudge’s writing, I don’t find that she’s espousing a rigid system of morality and passing judgment on those who fall short. Rather, she wants to tell about how people experience the brokenness and emptiness of life without love, and how they move toward healing, the wholeness that is the real meaning of “holiness.”

Goudge does provide a rather startling example of the refusal of such healing in the character of Mrs. Belling, the owner of that dreadful school. Frozen by fear, unable to turn aside from her own inward selfishness and cruelty, she comes to a horrible end that is really only witnessed by us, the readers — for she has deliberately cut herself off from all other people, and thus from the divine mercy. If we have the choice to move toward good, we also have the choice to fall into evil, and Mrs. Belling is a chilling portrait of the fruits of that choice.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the endearingly fallible, imperfect characters who learn that loving one another, though not always simple or easy, really is the only way to wholeness. Chief among these for me was the vicar, John, a chronic bumbler who considers himself a failure, but whose humility and kindness shine more brightly than he himself realizes. I also especially enjoyed his housekeeper Harriet and his great-aunt Maria, two of those wonderful elder women full of life’s wisdom that Goudge draws so well. And of course there is the house, Belmaray, a character in its own right and a lovely place to spend some reading time.

I’m not sure this will become one of my favorites — the story was occasionally bogged down by the religious meditations that, while beautiful, sometimes seemed to belong to another kind of book, as well as by too much “telling” of the characters’ history and motivations. I find these elements more gracefully woven together with the narrative in some of Goudge’s other books, notably The Dean’s Watch, which she wrote just four years later. But I am certainly glad that I finally read it, and its message of hope and healing will remain with me for a long time.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

16 thoughts on “Elizabeth Goudge Day: The Rosemary Tree

  1. Thanks for hosting another Elizabeth Goudge Day, Lory. This book sounds lovely and I’m glad you liked it, even though it hasn’t become a favourite. I have just posted my review of The White Witch. I loved it!


  2. I found much to love in thus book, but I have to agree with you that it isn’t quite her best. I had to wish that that there as a little more space so that the story could have opened out more. Thank you so much for doing this again.


    1. I did enjoy it, even though it wasn’t my favorite. I always love the poetry that Goudge includes in her books too. Over to see what you thought of Green Dolphin Street…


  3. Happy Elizabeth Goudge Day! This book is one of my favorites, or perhaps I should say second favorites, among Goudge’s books. I agree that there are a few weaknesses, but there are some lovely bits that for me, more than make up for them. I’m glad you had a chance to read it, and glad you enjoyed it. I actually wanted to re-read it myself, but alas, my Goudge collection was badly water-damaged after a leak in our water pipes in 2006 (I cried buckets at the time), and this is one I hadn’t replaced yet. I keep trying to find them in used bookstores like I found most of my original collection, but no one in this area seems to carry them. So I’m going to have to break down and order the Henderson copy from Amazon.

    Instead, I reread The Blue Hills, which survived the “flood” with only a little warping in one corner. As I remembered, it is charming, a fairytale really, though not as memorable as The Little White Horse. I’m working on a review but it isn’t ready yet.

    Thank you again for remembering and honoring Elizabeth Goudge in this way each year.


    1. I was especially pleased to finally read The Blue Hills (aka Henrietta’s House) as it seems to have been a favorite of Diana Wynne Jones — she included a piece from it in an anthology and mentioned it in Fire and Hemlock. I’ll look forward to your review!


  4. Happy Elizabeth Goudge Day! 🙂 And what a lovely review; I hadn’t come across The Rosemary Tree but I’ll look out for it (generally, I prefer her children’s books but then I haven’t read that much of her adult fiction).

    I’ve also just ordered a copy of her autobiography; Terri Windling has been quoting snippets of it on her blog and it sounds fabulous. Have you read it?


    1. Yes, I also ordered The Joy of the Snow last year and it’s essential reading for fans of her books. I keep going back to it to learn about the various locations of the novels as I read them.

      And thanks for the tip about Terri Windling’s blog — I’m definitely going to follow that.


  5. Great review, Lory. I’d heard of Goudge but not really read about her; I’m putting this on my list – from what you’ve said the flaws may be outweighed.


  6. Thank you for this lovely review! I almost picked up The Rosemary Tree this month but chose Green Dolphin Street instead. It sounds like The Rosemary Tree (beautiful title) is something I’d still enjoy. From what you say of John the vicar, he reminds me a bit of the Dean in The Dean’s Watch because he considers himself a failure and yet is far from it. I find that really endearing in a character.
    I posted my review of Green Dolphin Street on my blog today: http://kelseysnotebookblog.blogspot.com/2016/04/green-dolphin-street.html


    1. John did remind me of the Dean, also in his difficult relationship with his wife — I felt that in the later novel Goudge reworked several aspects of this one, though it comes out as a very different book. I think you would definitely enjoy The Rosemary Tree! Thank you for participating in our celebration.


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