Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

Published 1956

I've been reading Elizabeth Goudge since I was small. The first I read was The Little White Horse: I still have my original copy, have acquired and given away spares, and now downloaded it to my Kindle so that I always have it with me. Last week I read the opening chapters again while I was in London - it has one of the most magical beginnings I can think of, with a journey to a new home and life and the opening up of such possibilities... In my early teens I found her adult novels in the library and they've been part of my life ever since. She introduced me to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and to Devon before I ever went there, and shaped my notions of what families ought to be. I know that I will still be re-reading her books, for adults and for children, in old age. She loved dogs, and her animal characters are every bit as important as her human ones, all equal under heaven. She makes me feel, when I read her, a better person than I am.

I don't know that I can choose a favourite, but The Rosemary Tree is special to me, nonetheless. It's the story of the Wentworth family: John and Daphne, their three daughters Pat, Margary and Winkle, and also Great Aunt Maria, who lives in the family home, Belmaray Manor, which really belongs to John. The rest of the family live in the vicarage - Maria Wentworth doesn't really approve of her nephew being a vicar, nor did she approve of his marriage to his cousin Daphne, rightly perhaps, as it's not a huge success. John is much scarred psychologically by the war and regards himself as inadequate at everything he attempts, so he blames himself for the failure, and it's true that his chronic forgetfulness is a constant irritant, as is his refusal to sell the Manor. Goudge draws a very clear picture of the sort of genteel poverty which we don't really see today (that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, but we notice it less), both in the Wentworth family themselves and, even more poignantly, in the character of the teacher, Miss Giles, who makes Margary's schooldays a misery. Miss Giles is of a generation where the education of girls was deemed unnecessary and, now in the 50s, she faces an uncertain future as retirement looms.

My first school was a small private one not so very unlike that of the ghastly Mrs Belling, in an ordinary house not very well adapted to the needs of small children, but with a large garden. Mrs Belling's garden had a weeping willow tree, where Winkle retreats at every opportunity, so that she can escape to her dream country. Her own teacher, Mrs Bellings' niece Mary, is more indulgent than Miss Giles, so Winkle isn't as unhappy as Margary is. Pat, the eldest, is soon to go to boarding school, and has a harder shell than the others anyway, so she survives better, but not completely without effect. John isn't convinced that the school is very good for the children, but Mrs Belling seems such a sweet old lady, and Daphne won't have them sent to the village school. In one of the passages I love best, John, having learnt from Mary just how cruel Miss Giles can be, asks Margary if she would like to leave. The outcome is not what anyone would have expected.

There are two other important people in the story: Michael Stone, who has come to Devon on an impulse, driven out of London by his shame at having just left prison, and Harriet, John's bedridden old nanny, who is forced into the role of observer and, most importantly, intercessor. She's learnt through illness that only patience and prayer are left and she's the still centre at the heart of the book, keeping vigil so that others may be healed.

Goudge was the daughter of a clergyman, and Christian imagery, and the Christian literary tradition, are vital to all her writing, which is always about conquering weaknesses. Not just "any man's death diminishes me" but any man's pain or weakness, too. And if weakness can't be conquered head on, then it must itself be offered up. Although Maria Wentworth says she has no truck with the monastic life, and John, a natural mystic if ever there was one, has chosen to marry and rescue his unhappy cousin rather than let her suffer, for Goudge the ultimate life is that of the contemplative and the task of those in everyday life is to create the monastic cell within.

Now, I can imagine lots of people hating this, it really doesn't fit in with the pace of modern existence. But there are also many people who are conscious of the lack of a spiritual element in their lives. Some of my earliest memories are of time spent at the convent where my great aunt lived, and I've always felt drawn to that life myself. It's a bit of a problem therefore that I'm an agnostic, if not an outright atheist, but living in the country answers many of my needs, and I think Goudge is equally clear that there's a spiritual balm in nature. Indeed, she recognises a spiritual element in beauty of any form, whether manmade or natural, and looks for it in her characters. If there's the tiniest grain, she will find it, and so her books are imbued with joy.


This is much too grand a house for Belmaray, and too modern, but it is Devon (Lukesland), and Maria Wentworth is very proud of her rhododendrons - so I think we'll have some more, just to please her.


14 comments:

  1. I am quite sure that, as a child, I read some of Elizabeth Goudge's books (translated in German), and liked them very much, but I can not remember much about them, I'm afraid.
    What you mention of the genteel poverty of the family in the manor, that reminds me of "The Little Stranger", a book I have read and reviewed on my blog in 2011.

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  2. I was 'sold' after reading your first paragraph - a lovely tribute to a writer.

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  3. Delightful post. My one and only Elizabeth Goudge was Green Dolphin Country. I loved the section set in NZ but found the bit where the sister joined the nunnery dragged a bit. I had no idea the author was that way inclined so now I understand what that bit was doing there. Like you I'm borderline agnostic/athiest but am mellowing a lot with age and consider myself to be quite a spiritual person. Unlike some athiests I've no objection to religion based books as I feel it's always a good thing to hear the opposite point of view. I have one more EG book on my shelves and I'm sure will read more at some stage.

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  4. You describe Goudge's approach to life and fiction so well. I've also been reading her since I was young. My favourites are probably Henrietta's House and The Herb of Grace.

    Notice I appear to be on Blogger! I'm not but pretending to be is now the only way I can comment.

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  5. I read some of Elizabeth Goudge's books when I was younger - The Herb of Grace, for one, The Dean's Watch for another and one or two more, a City of Bells etc. At the time I was quite 'religious' and read them for that element as much as anything else, but now I'd describe myself like you do.

    I don't think I've read this one. Your post has encouraged me to look out for her books and to re-read those I have.

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  6. It's great to read a post about Elizabeth Goudge. I've read all her books, and even have the poetry anthologies (which were a big disappointment as I expected them to be new novels)... on re-reading the Eliots of Damerosehay series, I'm struck by how little event there is per book. The plots are minimal, compared to much of what I now read, and she puts most of her effort into establishing place and atmosphere.

    She also is tremendously sympathetic to characters who in real life, I would not like at all. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Tommy, for instance, and Lucilla, and all those other characters who feel they must have what they want or it will interfere with their digestions. Is Gould's attitude to them grounded in personal preference, principles, or the roles they play in the plots? Or did she perhaps suffer from such a failing herself?

    I bought a copy of City of Bells in an irish bookstore years ago, and reading it on the plane I found the sweetest descriptions of the heroine underlined and annotated with notes like 'I think of you.' And at the end, the annotater had written his wish to propose to the unknown, if 'the father would allow it'.

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    1. That is an utterly adorable story about the City of Bells.

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    2. I absolutely cannot stomach the Eliots; they are far too self-satisfied. I came across the Eliot trilogy last, after loving The Dean's Watch and others, and was astonished to read later in her autobiography that these were her favorites of her characters, so perhaps there is truth is what you say, that these were her own failings as well.

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  7. Anonymous above was me. For some reason blogger didn't let me enter my name and url.

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  8. Aargh - and apparently when blogger did let me enter my name and address, it then deleted my earlier posted comment! Maybe you can retrieve it?

    I like your blog a lot, but I have very bad luck trying to post to it.

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  9. Not my favorite Goudge (I felt too sorry for Margary), but still one I've reread lots!

    It was my first introduction to embezzling....

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  10. I have never even heard of this author before that I can recall. Maybe a different book and I just don't remember...

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  11. Just found your blog...I love Goudge too, and like you, have been reading her since I was small; The Rosemary Tree is one of my favorites. My own spiritual life has evolved (as is true, I suppose, of most people); but wherever I have been on that journey, Goudge's characters, especially the fragile yet courageous ones, always have something to say to me. Also, I have to say, I loved the extremely wicked Mrs. Bellamy and was delighted with her ultimate fate.

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  12. But I absolutely love The Rosemary Tree and am missing some of these sweet characters this morning. Sensitively written, lovely review. Love John and his quirks, Daphne finding refuge in the Rock of the Church, Harriet and her powerful, quiet prayers, Mary with her cheerful ways and Irish temper. Utterly delightful.

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