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)
It 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.
“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.