I inherited a love of Elizabeth Goudge’s writing from my mother. I remember her recommending a few authors when I progressed from the junior to the adult library, and others over the years since them; but now, as I look back, I think that it is her recommendation of Elizabeth Goudge that says much about the woman she was and is.
The two of them shared a faith; a love of home, family, and the world around them; a belief that lives could be changed for the better through compassion, understanding and friendship; an appreciation of literature and all of the wonderful things that can be found in books …..
All of these things are to be found in ‘The Rosemary Tree’.
It tells a story of the Wentworth family: John, Daphne and their three daughters: Pat, Margary and Winkle. John is vicar of Silverbridge, a small town set deep in a valley in Devon, and the family live in a vicarage with a lovely garden, together with Harriet, John’s formers nanny, who is bedridden but will have a home with them for life. Her room becomes a sanctuary for different members of the family, and she has the wisdom to advise and guide them when they are troubled.
John had inherited his family home, Belmaray Manor, but he chose to not live there and to leave it in the care of his Great Aunt Maria, who had lived there all her life. The property was a burden, the whole family lived in genteel poverty; Maria Wentworth knew that, she wanted to do something to change that, but she didn’t know what she could do.
She didn’t really approve of her nephew being a vicar, and she hadn’t approved of his marriage to his cousin Daphne. It was true that the marriage was not as happy as it might be. John had been scarred psychologically by the war and he was often vague and forgetful; that was frustrating for the capable Daphne, who always had a great deal to do, and who worried that she was not the right woman to play the role of vicar’s wife.
Elizabeth Goudge draws a lovely pictures of the family, their home and their loves. They are a happy family; but they aren’t as happy as they might be.
School is a problem for the three girls. They attend a very small private school in a town house with a big garden; my mother went to the same type of school, in a house that I pass quite often on the way to the library.
The school that Mrs Belling, the widow of a solicitor, presided over looked wonderful to parents but was anything but for the children. Mrs Belling could be charming but she was a spoilt selfish woman who put her own wishes ahead of the needs of her pupils. She wasn’t interested in them, in her two teaching staff or in what happened in her school at all.
The elder of those two teachers, Miss Giles, was an unhappy woman. She was plagued by headaches, she was aware that she was growing older and that her future, when the time came to retire, was horribly uncertain; she knew that she shouldn’t take her unhappiness out on her pupils, but she couldn’t help it, and their dislike of her made things even worse
It was fortunate the new, second teacher was younger and brighter. Mary O’Hara hated the school, hated what it was doing to her, but she cared about her pupils and their families. She couldn’t do much, because Miss Belling was her aunt, but she was sure that she could do something.
Meanwhile, Michael Stone, who has come to Devon to make a fresh start. He has been in prison and he is ashamed to go home and to face people he had known. When he sees the beauty of Silverbridge; and when John, quite instinctively, offers help and friendship, he believes that he has come to the right place. But he finds that finding a new home, a new place in the world, is not enough to shake off his demons. And he crosses paths with someone he had known and loved before the war.
This is a story full of the lovely details that Elizabeth Goudge did so well. Winkle escapes class whenever she can, to dream under the weeping willow in Mrs Belling’s garden; and her father has a similar relationship with an old apple tree in the vicarage garden. Miss Giles is profoundly moved by a simple kind gesture. Harriet appreciates watching gulls from her window. Michael is confounded by Miss Wentworth’s love of pigs, but he is captivated by the books in her library. And there are so many other things I could mention, but I’m in danger of spoiling the story for othhers.
Her understanding of her characters is so deep; her descriptions of them and of the world they live in are glorious.
‘The Rosemary Tree’ is a quiet, slow book, but it speaks profoundly. The spirituality threaded through it may feel old-fashioned or odd to some, but I think that Elizabeth Goudge is simply addressing the same concerns that might today be addressed in the language of psychology or social concern in a very different language.
I have to say that I don’t think this is her best book. It is a wonderfully engaging story but I couldn’t help seeing weaknesses; changes happen a little too quickly, some of them aren’t explained as well as they might have been, and there was a little too much contrivance.
I simply wish that this could have been a longer book, because I am sure that with a little more time and space Elizabeth Goudge could have done such wonderful justice to these characters, this story, this world.
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This is the book I chose to read for Elizabeth Goudge Day .
Thank you Lory, for steering me back towards her work.