Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge (1944)

A long time ago, when I made the transition from junior to senior member of the library, my mother steered me towards a number of authors whose books she loved and that she thought I might love too. I read some of them then, I read some of them later, but it was years before I began to read Elizabeth Goudge, who I knew was a particular favourite.

Her books didn’t appeal to me at all back in the day, and when their author fell out of fashion and her books disappeared from the library shelves I forgot all about her. I can’t remember how or where I found her again, but I’m very pleased that I did.

I’m also pleased that I didn’t read her all those years ago, because I think that the qualities that make her an interesting writer are better appreciated with a little age and experience, with an awareness that life is short and may take unexpected and difficult turns.

I always liked the look of ‘Green Dolphin Country’, but because it was such a very big book I picked up others first. This year though, when I was looking for a book to read on Elizabeth Gouge’s birthday, I decided that its time had come; and I had a lovely few days caught up with the story, the characters, the world, through nearly half a century.

The story opens on one of the Channel Islands – the author has given the fictional name of St. Pierre – in the middle of the 19th century. Two very different sisters were growing up there. Marianne was sixteen, she was dark and lacking in beauty, she had a passionate temper and she was bright and curious about everything the world had to offer. Too bright and too curious for the age and the place where she lived. Eleven year-old Marguerite was fair and pretty, she was vivacious, she loved her life, her home and her family, and she wanted nothing more than happiness for the people she loved and the world around her.

The courses of both their lives begin to change when a newly widowed doctor and his thirteen year-old son, William, come home to the island. Marianne is quick to see something happening, to investigate and to make friends; Marguerite follows a little more cautiously, and makes an equally good but quite different impression.

Marianne plans to win William as her own; but it is clear to everyone except her that he sees her as a friend – maybe the sibling he never had – and that  Marguerite is the girl he loves – and will always love – above all others. She isn’t a fool by any means. Knowing that she wasn’t a beauty and that she couldn’t match the feminine ideal of her time Marianne set about becoming the most chic, the most witty of her social circle and she succeeded; she just couldn’t understand that there were some things that she could never change, that never could be changed.

William joined that Royal Navy, and he tried to secure his future with Marguerite before he sailed away, but circumstances – and a little manipulation from Marianne – resulted in him leaving before he had said many of the things he had intended to say. When he was ashore in the  Far East William was tricked and robbed and couldn’t reach his ship before it sailed. That meant that he was AWOL from the Navy, and that he would be arrested if he travelled back home. He was extremely lucky to meet someone he knew, and to be offered the chance travel to a small colony in New Zealand to build a new life.

Over the course of the next few years William established himself, and then he was able to write home to ask the girl he loved to sail across the world to be his bride. He was tired, he had been drinking, he had a great deal to say, and somehow he wrote the name Marianne when he had written to write Marguerite ….

It sounds improbable, but this twist in the tale was inspired by a real-life story in which exactly the same thing happened!

Marianne travelled to New Zealand with no idea at all that she was not expected; Marguerite was left at home struggling to understand what had happened; and William waited with no idea at all he had sent for the wrong girl.

That is just the beginning of a wonderfully rich tale of love and adventure in times and places where the world was undergoing great change. I had worried that it would be a tale of a great love lost, but of course in Elizabeth Goudge’s hands it was much more than that: it was a story that illustrated that the journey to grace so often begins by accepting that we may not be able to have what we want most and by finding strength to do what we must.

There are lessons about loyalty and friendship, about the depth and complexity of marriage, about the human spirit  in the darkest and happiest of times, and the emotional and spiritual lives of the characters at the centre of the story were illuminated so very well.

Marianne is at the centre of the story, and she a very difficult character to like. Her spirit is wonderful, but she was manipulative, she could see no point of view but her own, and there were some lessons that it seemed she could never quite learn. I couldn’t ever say that I liked her, but I could understand who she was and why she spoke and acted as she did, and I believed in her; as I did in William and Marguerite.

There is a wonderful supporting cast whose stories are woven around the stories of those three, and that did much to make the world in this book live and breathe.

Elizabeth Goudge wrote that she never travelled to New Zealand, and that she researched as much as she could and imagined the rest. I suspect that she  imagined too much, that many of the pictures she has drawn were not true to life, but for the purposes of her story I think that they work.

She wrote so beautifully. I loved the descriptive prose that drew me so close to her characters and allowed me to see the places they saw and the world that they lives in so very clearly. It also served to control the pace, to allow time to absorb the human emotions that are the lifeblood of this book. It is a big book but I find myself wising that it could have been bigger, that I could have stayed longer and seen more. I would have like rather more time with Marguerite, though I do understand why New Zealand was the main focus of the story.

I couldn’t see how there could be a right ending, but there was, and it was so utterly right – emotionally and spiritually – that there was a smile on my face and there were tears in my eyes.

30 thoughts on “Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge (1944)

  1. It’s so lovely when we connect with authors and their books we had previously overlooked. It sounds like this was a perfect book for you with some wonderful settings.

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  2. I wonder… given that it was published in 1944, she must have been writing it during the worst part of the war, before the Russians had defeated the Germans at Stalingrad and before D-Day, when it must have seemed that the Germans were invincible and that the war would never end. And so she writes a story ultimately set as far away from it as it was possible to get… an Eden on the other side of the world. And so, investing this story with a mythic status, it becomes a question of whether one can get into a Paradise undeserved…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You could be right. ‘The Castle on the Hill’ – published in 1941 – was set very close to her home in Devon and expressed feelings about the was and to move onto a book like this – set in the past and in a far away land – must have been a wonderful escape.

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  3. I have never actually read a Goudge but i own SCENT OF WATER & BIRD IN THE HAND TRILOGY and
    ROSEMARY TREE.I bought them because i thought they would be the ones i would like most and not overtly religious.

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    1. I an recommend ‘The Scent of Water’ and ‘The Rosemary Tree’, which are set much closer to Elizabeth Goudge’s own world. The trilogy appeals to me less than many of her other books but I’m sure I’ll try it one day.

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  4. You seem to capture the spirit of certain mid-20th century books — looking back, they seem almost Victorian, as if Joyce and Woolfe and Kafka hadn’t existed before them. So much in the news today & yesterday about Philip Roth, who started writing a few years later and also changed the way novels read.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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  5. Elizabeth Goudge is one of my favorite authors. I haven’t read this one for a long time and maybe it needs a reread. I have to read her slowly and still have not read all of her books. My favorite is A City of Bells, which I have reread numerous times. The Dean’s Watch was my favorite book last year, mainly because a single line in it, was just what I needed to read a that moment in my life. Thank you for sharing this lovely look at one of her novels.

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  6. I only started reading Elizabeth Goudge quite recently too and although I wish I’d discovered her earlier, I agree that some of her qualities as a writer can probably be appreciated more by older readers. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read so far, particularly Towers in the Mist and The White Witch, and I’ve almost decided that this will be the next one I pick up.

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  7. I started reading this book last year and couldn’t get on with it. I can’t recall what put me off at the time; there are certainly occasions when it’s just the wrong moment for a particular book. I’m tempted to give it another go one day, and this time I’ll see more clearly whether it works for me or not.

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    1. It is the book that needs the right reading mood and plenty of reading time. Elizabeth Goudge isn’t for everyone but I’d definitely say this is worth a second try and that it gets more interesting when you spend more time with the characters.

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  8. I was given an Elizabeth Goudge book when I was about 9 I think, I never read it; but now I think I must go and dig it out. Hopefully, like you, I’ll enjoy it now with age! This looks and sounds an absolutely lovely title.

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    1. I hope that you will. The books for children are terribly old fashioned but they are a lovely escape from the trials and tribulations of the modern world, and the books for adults are a wonderful progression from that.

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  9. off topic—i just bought MARGERYSHARPS “fanfare for tin trumpets “for 40pence at a jumble sale.Just thinkit could have been RHODODENDRON PIE.Still really pleased.And they had a tatty copy of FOUR GARDENS as well which i bought as a duplicate.Neither in good condition but readable all the same.

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    1. Just compared my 40p FOUR GARDENS to a photo you posted of your possible autographed copy of TIN TRUMPETS.Mine has an inscription with a little M.S. which looks the same.Happy to provide photos if you like.I did not see the “possible autograph” when i bought it as it was very tatty and i was too busy checking out the flaws.It says MS 11.11.55 and a little message in latin.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have sent photos –one of the book spine and inner page and one of the inscription.
        No trouble at all.

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  10. Such a lovely review! I’ve always steered away from this one because it’s so long, but this does sound rather magical. I’ve only read The Middle Window, and enjoyed it, so should try more.

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