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.

A Book for Elizabeth Goudge’s Birthday: The Little White Horse (1946)

‘The Little White Horse’ is one of a number of stories that Elizabeth Goudge wrote for children. It is set sometime in the 19th century, in the Devonshire countryside that the author so loved; and it is an engaging and old-fashioned tale, underpinned by both magic and faith.

Maria Merryweather was born and raised in London, but when was thirteen she was orphaned and sent to live with her  last living relative – Sir Benjamin of Moonacre Manor – in the heart of the country. She travelled with her governess, Miss Heliotrope, and her beloved spaniel, Wiggins. Night was falling when arrived, and they were all enchanted by the sight of a moonlit castle set in a beautiful and expansive grounds.

The travellers are made wonderfully welcome, and immediately feel completely at home. Everything that they might want has been thought of and every detail is right. Maria is particularly taken with her tower bedroom, its ceiling covered in moons and stars, its silvery furniture, its little tin of sugar biscuits ….

8826252_origThere are no servants to be seen, and Sir Benjamin declares that no woman has set foot on the house for twenty years!

Maria finds that her imaginary friend from London is a real boy living in the nearby village of Silverdew.

Yes, there is magic in the air.

There is also something darker. Maria learns of her sadness and wrong-going in her family’s history, and she realises that it has fallen to her to set things right.

Elizabeth tells her story beautifully; she really was a mistress of the art of story-telling. Every sentence is beautifully wrought; every character is clearly and distinctively drawn; every place, every meal, every setting is perfectly explained; and there is a wealth of lovely detail.

I think that this  is a book that would work best read in childhood – and I do wish I had discovered it as a child – but it still has a great deal to offer to the grown-up reader who is still in touch with her inner child who loved books.

I say ‘her’ because this is a very girly book.

My inner child loved this book.

But as a grown-up reader I have to point out a few failings.

It has a little too much squeezed into its pages, and as a result sometimes things feel rather rushed and there isn’t quite as much suspense and intrigue as there could have been.

And in the end everything was tied up rather too neatly, with happy-ever-afters for all.

I think I might understand why. I think that just after the war Elizabeth Goudge wanted to say – wanted to believe – that the world could be a better and happier place, that everything could be alright again.

The Little White Horse won the Carnegie Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature in 1946, when it was described as ‘not merely the best children’s book of this year, but the best which has appeared for the past ten years.

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I’m very pleased that I chose this book to read for Elizabeth Goudge Day .

Thank you Lory, for steering me back towards her work again.

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I inherited a love of Elizabeth Goudge’s  writing from my mother. She has been seriously ill, she is probably near the end of her life, and that is why I have been quite elusive over that last few weeks.

She recommended 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.

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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.