Elizabeth Goudge, Towers in the Mist (1937)
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Oxford has changed much in the eighty years since Elizabeth Goudge lived there, and even more since the sixteenth century. Yet it still bears within it the weight of its long history, and it is fascinating to imagine all the people and events that have passed through its walls and buildings and churches and quadrangles. That is the task Goudge has set for herself with Towers in the Mist: to imagine a well-known place of the present as it might have been in the past. For anyone who loves the university or even just the idea of it, it’s a wonderful if somewhat unwieldy hodgepodge of a book, an imaginative journey that touches us with the author’s own affection and enthusiasm.
Her Elizabethan tale introduces us to several well-known personages of the time (such as Thomas Bodley, the Earl of Leicester, and the young Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney), but is mainly centered around the fictional Canon Leigh of Christ Church, whose motherless brood is growing up in a time when children were expected to become adults very early. As the older children are occupied with finding their place in the world, with balancing love and duty, the younger ones experience the universal joys and sorrows of childhood that Goudge always portrays so delightfully. Around them swirls the pageantry of city and university in glorious confusion, with bursts of rowdiness as well as moments of transcendent beauty.
I found it particularly interesting to see how Goudge deals with religion here; she’s writing about a time in which doubt was nearly non-existent, almost everyone lived and breathed within the embrace of the church, and the wars between Catholics and Protestants meant that many died for their beliefs. It is extremely difficult for people of our materialistic age to imagine the mindset of such an era, and Goudge doesn’t try to enter into it very deeply. Rather, she lightly suggests that even in a time when religion ruled daily life there could be many different modes of experience and ways of encountering God. Her Elizabethans express a wide variety of approaches to faith, from simple, heartfelt devotion to worldly-wise practicality, and all seem convincingly possible.
In the latter category, I love the story of how the Christ Church undergraduates appointed just one of each of their groups to listen to the Sunday sermon on which they would later be tested; the others were then free to “think great thoughts” during the hour-long discourse. Meanwhile, their teachers marveled at the burst of earnest conversation taking place later that day among the scholars (during which they filled each other in on the sermon’s contents). It’s just one example of how Goudge pokes fun at a revered institution, while fully appreciating its gifts to our culture.
Nor is faith depicted as a fixed, immutable quality, but as something that can move and grow and change, depending on how each character meets and takes up the challenges of life. For example, we see young Nicolas, initially one of the most flippant and worldly of the scholars, becoming more serious and courageous under the influence of love. Meanwhile, upright Canon Leigh, when approached by Nicolas for the hand of his beloved daughter in marriage, must reconfigure his expectations and admit that the young man he would previously have dismissed as an indifferent scholar may actually perceive something in his child that he does not, and which is necessary to her happiness. Both must adjust their view of the world, must humble themselves in some ways and strengthen themselves in others, in order to move forward into the future.
Such characters and relationships are the most interesting thing to me about Goudge’s work in general; they show her willingness to embrace all kinds of human thoughts and experiences with compassion rather than with a critical, judgmental eye. This helps me in turn to look at my own life with the possibility that if there is a divine world, it may regard me in the same way, holding my foibles and errors within a greater perspective of love — and it also inspires me to try to look at other people in the same spirit. To me this is the most important function of all fiction, whether it be overtly “religious” or not.
This is not to say that Towers in the Mist might not have benefited from some judicious pruning. In her wish to create as comprehensive a view as possible, Goudge has wedged in a number of awkward side stories and historical characters, while the overall plot is rambling and often improbable, and certain “patriotic” passages are marred by an excess of sentimentality. The descriptions are elaborate, the pace leisurely, the digressions many. But for those who are willing to take a roundabout journey, there is still much pleasure to be found on the way.
Goudge herself makes no claim to have achieved historical accuracy, only to having made an attempt at reconstruction that no doubt fails in many points. Yet she does somehow manage to convey the lively, vivacious spirit of the early Elizabethan period, of a people who have endured much trouble and suffering without losing their zest for life. It makes sense that this period produced a great flowering of English poetry, examples of which are given at the beginning of each chapter. Love of learning, of words and of the Word, are in abundant evidence in Goudge’s Oxford, and in that she seems to have gotten to the heart of things.
This post was written to celebrate Elizabeth Goudge’s birthday, tomorrow, April 24. I’ll be checking in then to see who else has written posts in honor of this beloved author, and sharing them with you. Please join us!