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.