A Book for Elizabeth Goudge Day: The Rosemary Tree (1956)

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.

61Lr5t1OhQL__SX344_BO1,204,203,200_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.

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956)

‘The Fountain Overflows’ was Rebecca West’s first book in twenty years; and it was to have been the first volume of a trilogy that would tell the story of her century. She didn’t live quite long enough to complete that story, but after reading this book I am eager to read the next book and to read the final, unfinished work.

This is a story that draws on the authors own life, without being entirely autobiographical; and it tells of growing up in a creative, musical family, from the perspective of one of the children of that family; a girl named Rose.

The father of the family, Piers Aubrey, was charming but he was thoughtless. He was the editor of a minor newspaper, he was a man who was ready to stand by and act on his convictions, but he was also a man who gambled away any money he earned on the Stock Exchange. He loved his wife, he loved his children, but he seemed unwilling – or unable – to accept the responsibilities that laid upon him.

The Fountain OverflowsHis wife and his children might have resented the choices he made, they might have been disappointed in him; but they weren’t. They loved him, they appreciated his strengths, and they accepted his weaknesses as inevitable in someone who had to venture outside the musical family circle to do battle for them in a world that didn’t appreciate the things that they loved. And so they did their level best to adapt themselves to his absences, to the loss of their good furniture, to frequent changes of address, and to love the copies of family portraits that hung in the children’s bedrooms.

And, of course, it is the mother of the family who holds things together; so clearly adoring her children, her family unit, and her role as mother. She had been a concert pianist, but everything that she had put into achieving that goal was put into family life. She loved finding the right instrument for each child – the violin for Cordelia, her eldest daughter, the piano for each of her twin girls, Rose and Mary; and the flute would – some time into the story – prove to be the instrument for her young son, Richard Quinn.

The author understood – and she made me understand and appreciate – the complex ties that bound that family together.

The story opens with the family on the cusp of moving to a new home in South London, where they will be settled for quite some time. It took me a little while to get my bearings, but I was enchanted with Rose’s voice; with the mixture of the descriptive, the fanciful, and the matter-of-fact; with the intelligence and the insight; and intensity, the love and the gorgeous, child-like attentiveness to detail of it all.

I was just a little sorry that Mary seemed often to disappear; or to be a mere adjunct to Rose, who was sometimes a little too conveniently always at the centre of things.

A picture emerged, and then I was truly captivated, and drawn right into family life.

The story is peppered with incident – most notably the ridding of a cousin’s home from a poltergeist, and the case of a neighbour who has been unjustly accused of murder – but those are not the things that make this story sing.

What does make the story sing?

Well, there’s wonderful insight into the condition of childhood, and the way that, despite its genteel poverty, the family’s lives are rich and full. There’s the drawing close together of a family that is a little isolated, because it is different, because there seems to be no one close to them who understands the very special magic of the creative, artistic life.

The children’s love for each other, that endures even when Cordelia’s wish for a more conventional life maddens them, is caught perfectly. They all adore their little brother, Richard Quinn, who is bright, idiosyncratic, and utterly irresistible. They happily draw their cousin Rosamunde, who is not musical but who they recognise has other wonderful gifts, into their circle. They accept Nancy, daughter of the neighbour accused of murder, too, they are terribly sorry that she seems ungifted, but that is no obstacle to them taking to her hearts. Her difference fascinates them, and they determine that they will help her, as they will help their mother and all of those they love, when their musical gifts rescue them from poverty. They have such wonderful, unwavering faith that they will succeed.

The darkness of the material world, where their father must do battle, is set against the warmth and love of the home that their mother creates. That is why he can always be forgiven. But as the children grow things change. Cordelia could play, but she could not truly understand her music, and so, of course, she could never be a professional musician. Her mother understood that but Cordelia couldn’t, and her pretensions were fostered by an a teacher who had just the same weaknesses. The playing out of this strand is particularly well judged; the contrast between the mother who saw and the teacher who didn’t, and judged the mother harshly, is striking; and I was devastated for Cordelia when she finally came to understand.

That final drama led this novel to its own conclusion.

Taken as a whole it feel idiosyncratic, but that feels right because it is catching all of the twists and turns of lives lived. There were times when it made my heart sing, and there were times when I thought it might break. The writing is so lovely, and it speaks so profoundly of family and musicality, that I was lost when I reached the final page and my life and those lives moved apart.