Rambling about a minor character

I have actually come to realise that I have a very soft spot, fondness even, for George Eliot. From the Damerosehay books, I mean. It’s funny, it came up to me when I thought about literary characters I personally fancy (yes, what a deep and important topic) and when I thought about how brilliant all the positive romantic relationships (as in, the ones that actually make it work together) in Elizabeth Goudge’s books are all absolutely wonderful and I love them very much, I came to think of how I feel for the men outside their wonderful relationships in the books, and despite my great love for Jocelyn and David in particular, I actually realised that, long story made short, I am very fond of George Eliot.

I mean, I often said that all of Elizabeth Goudge’s characters are real people, very real and very much alive, and I still say so, but George is, despite his real-ness, a character whose place is mostly in the background of the narrative, and of whose own story, out of Nadine’s personal character arc, we don’t see very much. And you see, I like Nadine actually a lot. She’s a very complex and interesting character, and I love her growth, and I love how she worked her way against her own disposition in a way that actually makes me like her much more than, to name someone in a similar position as her, mentally, Lucilla herself, whom I actually view rather (very) critically, even though of course she’s important in her way.

And I see what her feelings for George, and the way she handled them, and… grew them, worked on them, mean in that context, and I understand George as the technically for a long time unwanted and unloved, generally oblivious and uncomplicated, old and boring husband. I understand how coming to build her new relationship means a lot to Nadine’s story, and I love the way she found her own true happiness in the way she did (without going into much detail here).

But most of what we see of him is either from the eyes of his children, who love him, but also see him mostly as a comforting and kind and otherwise not too interesting, well, father, and his mother and wife who both often look down on him in a sort of loving way, and he is mostly described as a man without much depth (e.g. his religious and political views). George doesn’t have that sort of romantic storyline some of the others have, in fact, all there is is just happening on Nadine’s side of the story.

So, he’s not the obvious character to even care about much. But I noticed I do, much more in retrospect than while reading. It’s funny how he is technically the stereotypically “desirable match” (wealthy, good military rank, one of the “beautiful” Eliots, etc.) his position is more or less that of an undesirable man—boring, bland, conventional, and of little emotional depth.

But he is so kind. There is such a certain air of warmth and safety about him. In the scenes he appears in there is always a certain calmness. The twins, despite not really caring for anyone, are extremely attached to him simply because of that specific aura. Lucilla made very clear that he was a very sensitive child. Nadine once really felt attracted to him, and despite all that made her lose interest in him, she always felt drawn near to him again, and despite not really wanting him for a long time, she never seemed to feel one bit uncomfortable with him, it was just that he couldn’t give her specifically what she wanted, but that’s an entirely different thing. Caroline practically shaped her world around him. Every relation and friend and acquaintance trusted him unconditionally, even if they didn’t really like him or take him seriously.

And there’s another thing—many parts are from the point of view of Hilary and Margaret, and so we know how deeply they think and feel. Even though most other characters seem not to expect that of them. I’m actually sure that it’s similar with George, it’s just that the reader sees little more of his inner life than the other characters.

But I got extremely off topic here, I didn’t actually want to write so much about him. All I wanted to say is that I think is that he, as himself, taking the specific storyline of his and Nadine’s marriage all aside, a very lovely husband. Not only as a nice and rather convenient, boring man. No, it’d be actually lovely to have him as a husband, just as he is. As himself I mean. Simply from the perspective of the reader (in this case, me) and not in the specific context of the books.

On Jill

I have to say something about Jill.

I think there’s two very precise reasons for her unpopularity.

The first is, how real and relatable she is. She behaves very natural, very much like a child in her situation would, and she feels very, very real. I’ve seen many posts by people who don’t like her who actually admit they relate to her, and I am sure there are far, far more who wouldn’t realise it. Not all the things Jill says or does are good, but all of them are absolutely plausible things for her to do, given her situation and background and age.

Jill’s nine years old in The Silver Chair. She went to the same school as Eustace and appears to have been raised by parents with a similar mindset as the Scrubbs, though while Eustace was pampered, Jill was encouraged to be more tough and active. She was raised without any religion or definitive moral compass (no, I do not mean that being brought up secularly meant being raised without morals; I am only talking about the context of Jill’s life)—her premise was, in short, pretty much the same as Eustace’s. And definitely different to the Pevensies’.

Which brings me to the second reason (these two blend in each other). Jill didn’t behaved perfectly, and she better—but she never behaved bad enough to undergo a significant change/redemption, nor did she behave well enough to be liked for just who she is.

When all Pevensies went to Narnia they already were, in a way, rooted there. Lucy had met Tumnus, Edmund had been enchanted by the witch, and Tumnus had been caught. The Pevensies met the Beavers, and they learnt of Aslan. They all were raised with a strong sense of duty, and Lucy was naturally faithful and open. Edmund behaved badly lately, and was then enchanted, but he received the same upbringing as his siblings. Peter and Susan were significantly older and more mature than any of the other children who went to Narnia.

Eustace was also only nine years old, and he behaved horridly, but he had his cousins, at least, and he grew immensely through his experiences in Narnia, while being led by others, and finally meeting Aslan.

But Jill? Jill had and knew nothing. A nine year old girl, bullied in a boarding school. Coming, most likely, from a similar background as Eustace, but still behaving much friendlier and nicer than him. (Actually, really friendly. Jill was a nice girl. People like to claim she wasn’t but that’s not true.) A boy she vaguely knew to be rather nasty all of a sudden told her of a magical world. They suddenly went there. She showed off, he fell down. She met a lion and couldn’t know who He was, yet after a while trusted him. She had to.

And later on? She trusted those who were nice to her, she was arrogant, she forgot things she ought to remember. She did all the little bad things that all the other children did, but they were not so dramatically bad and then redeemed as they were with Eustace and Edmund, nor were they simply accepted as every person’s right to not be perfect all the time, as with the other three Pevensies.

(I am not going to bring up Caspian, Shasta/Cor, and Aravis—children who were brought up in Narnia have an entire different set of things to their advantage or disadvantage.)

Jill is kind and courageous and plucky, but she has to navigate through Narnia with very little help—because Eustace can’t really help her, and all the Narnians who do (or don’t) are complete strangers to her, and she has to decide whether to trust them or not, and whether to agree with them or not, and she often decides wrong.

Lucy has a natural gut feeling about that, which isn’t unrealistic, because some children really have that. But I am sure that Lucy knew just as well who to trust back in England. Jill never really learned how and who to trust, and knew that people could be horribly cruel. But she was also a very small child with the natural desire and ability to trust. So, yes, she trusted the wrong people for the very shallow reasons that a child with no proper guidance has for trusting people. She also disagreed with people she deservedly trusted (like Puddleglum) for the natural shallow reasons that most children just can’t bear negativity or restraint too long.

She had no spiritual love for Narnia, not at first (though it developed greatly later on) and simply had to make her way through a strange landscape, without being granted the sense of magic and hope and special-ness that the Pevensies and even Eustace, had he accepted it from the beginning, were granted.

Jill was also whiny and, though never unfriendly or rude, odd-mannered and impatient. She was always supposed to be tough, and she was physically tough, but she was also emotionally sensitive, and very lonely. She had no friends, and she had a lot of fear, and absolutely no sense of home or safety. She cried several times in the book, which is an absolutely normal thing, even when one isn’t a child, even when one isn’t in a terribly dangerous situation, even when one isn’t constantly worried about one’s own decisions. And even though Lewis went so far as to excuse her for it, which shouldn’t even be necessary, there’s many posts on the internet saying how annoying she is for crying.

And her behaviour is typical for someone who is naturally friendly, but never learned proper manners, and who has a limited self-control; combined with that very certain air of someone who is used to being picked out to be the disliked one, not bullied for a certain thing but chosen because she was, in some way, particularly suitable for being a victim. Both the original “reason” as well as the… results of such don’t leave a person so quickly. They stuck with Jill and it shows.

But there’s another thing to Jill. A constant inner struggle. Not short moments of temptation, no a shocking experience to better her. From the very moment she steps into Narnia, until the moment she leaves, she thinks about what she does wrong, what she does right, with a great deal of denial thrown in—a denial she is often conscious of, and often not. A way from good but flawed, to, well good but flawed, though better, and more aware, and very willing to learn. A gradual, seemingly insignificant development, which began very early, and never really ended, and of which she was aware, and with which she didn’t really know what to do, and which she didn’t always want—until she understood, at least a bit.

And I think all this makes it so difficult to like her for many people. She’s incredibly human without being an obvious heroine, or even an anti-heroine, she is constantly developing, with interruptions and regressions, but with no clear redemption arc of any sort, never stops making mistakes, never stops learning from them; she behaves like a normal child would do in a difficult situation, and she has to face very specific difficulties under very specific conditions which, in that way, never happened to any of the other children.

And yet—she learned to love Narnia and Aslan so much. She spent years in England just to prepare herself for another visit to Narnia. She learnt nothing of (religious) faith in England, yet proceeded to believe in Aslan as much as she could, she kept a loyalty to Narnia and made friends with the other Friends of Narnia for years after her visit there, even though her connections to Narnia were the loosest of all the children, and she had to wait for her return much longer than any of them (not counting Digory and Polly, of course!). She never gained as much of the insight as the Pevensies and Eustace, and Digory and Polly, had, never really had a relationship to it that resembled theirs, but stuck to Narnia with all her strength.

And people hate her.

Nylons and Lipsticks and Invitations

The Problem of Susan is frequently talked about and usually boiled down to the same wrong arguments its built on, which have, by sensible and insightful readers, been disproven again and again, only for it all to be rolled up again.

I think of it myself, periodically, and often write a few words on the subject, sometimes respond to comments that bother me in particular. It still baffles me to find how many people still believe in the misconceptions, at best, and sheer lies, at worst, that have been made up on the subject.

Of course, the problem has to be tackled at the root. So many people argue about why Susan had been “kicked out” of Narnia, overlooking a simple fact that makes all these discussions completely superfluous: Susan has never been kicked out of Narnia. She has not been denied her way to the Real Narnia, she has not been sent anywhere else. Susan simply did not die. At least, not when her siblings did. Because she had dropped her faith in Narnia.

Of course this is usually equated with a general lack of religious faith, with which I cannot agree, and which is considered either a sign of her downfall or liberation. But it is altogether unclear in what religious context the Pevensies saw Narnia and Aslan—at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, at the very least, Lucy and Edmund had no definite idea of Aslan’s true identity. Unlike Eustace and Jill the Pevensies were raised Christian, not in any specially devout manner, it seems, just like normal British children of their time, and it’s difficult to say in what way they related their very tangible experiences in Narnia to more abstract religious teaching. It is not even unlikely that Susan, as the sensible, grown-up one of them, was a regular, though not particularly spiritual, church goer, while the other three might have considered, at first, nothing in our world as fulfilling as Narnia. This is just one possibility, and it could easily be entirely different, but the popular idea that Susan had all of a sudden become an atheist while her siblings were Good Little Christians is not in the least plausible, especially how one of Susan’s defining characteristics as she grew out of Narnia, was her desire to completely conform to society. Near The Last Battle, of course, the other Pevensies and Friends of Narniaknew who He was, but Susan had since then lost touch, and might even have considered the suggestion of their “old games” true nature to be blasphemous.

And then, of course, the old talk of Femininity and Sexuality. Both of these bother me dreadfully, in different ways each.

The Femininity, because it’s such an important argument used in the entirely wrong place. It’s odd how nowadays women are regularly shames for being feminine or liking feminine things, how in fiction, especially children’s’ fiction, all good examples for girls to look up to are supposed to reject all things associated with femininity—that is an extremely important problem to discuss, but in the case of Susan, it’s entirely out of place. This mindset usually employed by modern pseudo-feminists, and sadly way to common, but The Chronicles of Narnia were written in the 1950s and traditional femininity was encouraged. These books stand out today just as they did sixty years ago in the way girls of very different sorts are treated as absolute equals to each other and to the boys. That aside, Susan was shown to be very feminine and interested in beautiful things that are commonly associated with femininity in her years as a Queen of Narnia—the difference was just that she had not denied and forgotten what she knew to be true, nor had she valued these things above it.

And Sexuality—exclusively brought up by people who have misfortune of lacking all reading comprehension and common sense. The idea that nylons and lipsticks and invitations were a metaphor for sexuality is the most absurd idea imaginable. There is not the least indication, either from the books, nor from the historical context regarding the connotations of these things. They are wordly things, modern things, grown-up things, but by no means of a sexual nature. The specific use of these things are another reason why C. S. Lewis is so frequently accused of being sexist, but in the end, it was merely a rather simple collection of things that were popular at the time—were it Peter who had lost his faith in Narnia, then it might have been football and cars and wristwatches. And there was never an issue with these things to begin with—they were a symbol for the new life Susan had began, a grown-up life in the most shallow and immature way, in which there was no more room for Narnia and Aslan.

But what should be a much greater point of discussion is Susan’s deliberate rejection of Narnia. She might have considered it an old game—but what had made her do so? Was it her way of protecting herself from grief and worry, a way to cope, or was it out of sheer disinterest? Was it much less a personal thought of Susan, and an example for the way people so often teach themselves not to believe in what they know is real and true, a symbol of Lewis’ own overcome atheism?

But taking out all literary analysis and focusing only on Susan’s inner life and the unusual workings of Narnia, I have my own theory on the matter. It is so noticeable that Susan entirely forgot about the reality of Narnia, even though she had been there when she was far too old to forget about it. If she had been ten years younger, then she might have mixed up her vague memories with imagination and play. But Susan’s rejection of the experiences of her teenage years border on an actual amnesia, which indicates a deeper reason. The aforementioned grief and sorrow aside, I think there is a rather magical reason to it.

The Pevensies had forgotten about their life in England sometime during the fifteen years in which they ruled Narnia. They remembered Narnia upon their return, perhaps, because it seemed so much nearer to them, much more real and important, so they didn’t forget—whereas Susan, after some time, began to feel about Narnia the way they all had felt about England. It mattered less, and its magic, an effect perhaps drawn from the Wood between the Worlds, made her forget as though it was only imagined.

Of true importance is only this: Susan had, by the end of The Last Battle, still a long way ahead of her, and many sorrows and difficulties to face. But it was also an open way, and I am sure it led to the Real Narnia, in the end, despite all the curves and crossroads and dead ends it contained.

Of Knights and Beadsmen

Reviews in the traditional sense will most likely remain a rarity on this blog—recommendations and personal thoughts regarding books that I am fond of or feel concerned about will appear more frequently. This post is probably somewhere between all those things—a little debut on this site, about a book that means a lot to me and that not many people know:

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (1956)

HIS golden locks Time hath to silver turn’d;
  O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!
His youth ‘gainst time and age hath ever spurn’d,
  But spurn’d in vain; youth waneth by increasing:
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.

His helmet now shall make a hive for bees;
  And, lovers’ sonnets turn’d to holy psalms,
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees,
  And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms:
But though from court to cottage he depart,
His Saint is sure of his unspotted heart.

And when he saddest sits in homely cell,
  He’ll teach his swains this carol for a song,—
‘Blest be the hearts that wish my sovereign well,
  Curst be the souls that think her any wrong.’
Goddess, allow this aged man his right
To be your beadsman now that was your knight.

— George Peele, A Farewell to Arms or The Old Knight

It is this poem that stars the book, and moves like a thread through the entire book. Knights and beadsmen, and poetry, are as ever-present as trees and rosemary. The last two lines—Goddess, allow this aged man his right // To be your beadsman now that was your knight.—are the very ground that the Manor house and village of Belmaray are built on.

First of all, I’d like to mention, that while this book is many things that I adore, it’s also many things that reviewers often tend to dislike: it values people over plot, it can be slow and quiet and very descriptive, there’s not much physical action or suspense in the traditional sense, it’s full of literary references, and imbued by Elizabeth Goudge’s very particular sort of spirituality, that’s often found to be too deeply based on nature by Christians, and too Christian by everyone else, but that’s just right for me, personally. And it doesn’t fit in a defined genre either.

It is, essentially, about people who are, over the course of the book, growing much happier than before. That is, I think, the most simple way to describe it, and the most truthful, too. I’ve seen descriptions and reviews that said it was about a particular character, but there is no true central character. It is told from many perspectives, without anyone taking the lead. It has been classified as a romance, but it is only so much a romance, as that romantic love is one of many aspects of it. It is very much a story about love—about human love, whether romantic or platonic or familial, about God’s love, of course, about the love people have for nature and animals, and for their home, and for themselves.

But what’s truly the core of the story is that a really small event can have the greatest effects on many people’s lives, and that it’s often the seemingly small things that truly matter. It’s that people can be sad without anything obviously being wrong about their lives, because they don’t understand each other, or themselves, and sometimes because they cannot really bring up the courage and decide to be happer than before. It’s about the great change a kind word can make, about the immense effect of pure determination to be good to others and to onself, the power of attitude. The gentle and monumental butterfly effect of human kindness.

And I love what a conscious thing kindness is in this book, and goodness and niceness is. I love how being friendly and nice is not portayed as a sort of natural talent or gift, but a deliberate skill that is worth exercising—and never too late to learn. And I like the distinction she makes—because in this book (and others of her’s) there’s two sorts of, let’s call it performative goodness—one that is false and dishonest, almost sinister, and one that is actually a sign of a longing to be and act good, and a way to achieve it. Being kind to people, even if you don’t exactly feel like it, is not akin to fake friendliness, it is as good and true as anything. Actual dishonest friendliness is not having an unfriendy word and then saying something nice—it’s saying something nice to a person’s face and then betraying them in some way. Being nasty does not necessarily make a person more authentic, it’s not a sign of one’s honesty. But on the other hand—even the kindest person is mean or unfriendly or nasty at times, and that’s alright too.

The reasons for unhappiness are often small—or they appear small—but all the more realistic, heartfelt, genuine. These characters are very much people, and their worries at times silly and yet having a frightful effect on their lives, often through years of growing inside their minds. On the other hand, deeper issues are very much a matter, mental illness and trauma never being glossed over, or ridiculed. It’s written and set in the 50s, so the horrors of the war have not yet grown distant, not to mention other difficulties of this, and the previous decades.

I’ve said it is a character driven book, and must add that I love these characters. I love that they are people, each and every one of them so delightfully human. And I love the way Elizabeth Goudge wrote children. Children, in adult novels, are so often reduced to props or plot devices, and her children are people, as characters in all ways equal to her adult characters. The oldest point of view characters in this book are in their eighties, the youngest is five years old, with others of all age groups in between them, and all of them are written with equal care and dedication. The characters’ ages do however, greatly affect the way they are written, and how they think and what they do, in good and bad—although Goudge fortunately refrained from assigning a particular age group a particular view or way of life.

It is also of note that all characters are beautifully flawed, and steadily grow over the course of the book, though not with leaving every flaw or fault behind. One character, sadly, chooses not to grow, and though there is no villain in this book (just as there is no hero) this particular character is an unconventional choice for the only truly negative character, although a very good and convincing one.

There is, it seems, a book for almost everything. That is, of course, a good thing. But it often seems to me, that although all sorts of great ideas and experiences, all big and visible and obvious things can be found in literature rather easily, it’s the quiet and small things that are truly hard to find, and even harder to look for. I certainly did not look for the things I found in this book, but I found them and I am glad I did. I often found that some emotions, some little human interactions, fragments of something that lies halway between feeling and thought, are in a way omitted from the majority of literature and other sorts of stories, that the larger things—even the unusual and controversial things—are not. I often wondered whether these things were so normal that nobody thought them worth mentioning, or so strange that nobody else felt them or, if they felt them, dared to write them down. It was a sort of relief to read, all of a sudden, of such little, yet significant things that were so familiar to me, and so unusual to read on a page. It went further even—at times I found myself reading what I had felt myself, but never knew how to put into words. I’ve had this sort of experience with other books—and it’s one of the most beautiful things that can happen while reading a book—but throughout this one in particular, and it was at times rather confusing, even unsettling for a moment, but in the end always comforting.

“A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.”

— C. S. Lewis

It’s that sort of book for me.

The Rosemary Tree is a Spring book. The air of the cold, sweet Spring, the sunlight and the morning dew, and smell of all things green and growing are what carries the story. The birdsong, most of all. It is a book about change, change for the better, even though not always in the originally desired way. Goudge’s gorgeous descriptions of nature and the changes it goes through in the Spring months work perfectly well with the developments in the characters lives. Birds, and trees, and flowers—everywhere, so vivid and colourful that the book could nearly burst, yet so gentle and elegant that, in the end, it won’t. Her prose is gorgeous, but never purple, though maybe a slight shade of lavender. That’s because her writing can be sweet, but never in a sticky, draining way. It’s fresh, full of cold morning air and the smell of herbs.

And of course, there’s one thing you can always rely on with Ms Goudge—there are always dogs.