Book recommendations for autumn: Elizabeth Goudge

The Eliots of Damerosehay

A beautiful trilogy about a family in Hampshire in the 30s-70s, with very beautiful autumn sequences, and the first book starting in autumn. The second, The Herb of Grace (in the US called Pilgrim’s Inn), is my personal favourite out of all her books, and can be read as a stand-alone.

A City of Bells

Set in Torminster, which is very much Wells, in the early 20th century, the place of Goudge’s own childhood, this book portrays all the seasons beautifully, but with the beautiful book shop and the microcosm of the Cathedral Close, its focus on literature and the artistic temperament, and the warmth of the (found) family, it’s very much an autumn read. (You might also like to revisit Torminster in Henrietta’s House and Sister of the Angels, both sequels being children’s books and focusing on the delightful Henrietta!)

The Dean’s Watch

Set in an unnamed city in the fens that very much resembles Ely, in the 1870s, with its grand Cathedral, quaint merchant streets and dirty slums, this is a story of hope, kindness, and a very unlikely friendship. The misty atmosphere of autumn and winter is nearly tangible and very, very beautiful.

Towers in the Mist

After Wells and Ely, the Goudge family moved to Oxford, another city with another Cathedral. In many ways less happy there, she could still not help musing about the way it must have been a long time ago. Set during the reign of Elizabeth I. this tale of love of family and learning beautifully captures the spirit of this old and well-beloved city.

The White Witch

Oxfordshire in the 17th century, a wise woman torn between her loyalty to the different sides of her family and her dearest friends, and an interesting set of different characters on various sides of the English Civil War. This is a very atmospheric book, full of mists and herbs and smells.

The Little White Horse

I wasn’t sure whether to include this book, as it is very much a spring book, her most famous work, and in some ways untypical for her style. But it is also in many ways a Gothic romance, in some ways its opposite, and so cosy, and so rich in descriptions of places and foods and comforts, with a dark forest and lovely manor house, that it just suits autumn so well.

A rare find

Many people know the 2008 movie The Secret of Moonacre, which is very loosely based on The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and, though a popular film, a less than adequate adaptation. But there has been another one: the series Moonacre from 1994, starring Camilla Power as Maria Merryweather, who is known to Friends of Narnia as Jill Pole in the BBC adaptation of The Silver Chair.

I have been looking for episodes of this series, but, until yesterday, never found one. Now I have found the first episode, uploaded on YouTube just a few weeks ago, and while it is far from perfect, it does have its own charm.

There is no Wiggins, which is a pity, and Maria has a cute but somehow misplaced little brother. Sir Benjamin is too gloomy and serious, and the parson shows up much too soon. Wrolf is a lovely wolfhound, though in all fairness it would have been quite a challenge for a television production from the 90s to include a lion, no matter if real or animated. We all know the wonderful animatronic Aslan from the BBC version of Narnia, but that worked so well because it is made quite clear that he is a lion—it would be odd indeed to call a visibly false lion a dog.

All those flaws aside, this first episode has really captured the mood of the story, the gothic novel turned fairy tale, through a curious orphan girl called Maria who grows as she helps others grow, just like Mary in The Secret Garden. The brightness and warmth, and the blue and the night, of the Sun Merryweathers and the Moon Merryweathers, is captured surprisingly well, and Maria’s room is gorgeous. But most of all, I am delighted by the inclusion of the parson and the village and its people, and by the way all characters, at least those seen so far, are treated with respect.

As it is, my suspicions that there is no truly adequate adaptation of The Little White Horse have now been confirmed, but I am glad to have learned that one is close enough in its beauty and charm.

Of course, you can watch it for yourself. 🌙

On a random note

I used to think it a pity that while The Little White Horse got two adaptations, Elizabeth Goudge’s other novels (safe for Green Dolphin Country) got none, and technically I still think so, but now I also think we really need another adaptation of The Little White Horse.

One that doesn’t suddenly disappear, and one that actually gets the book right.

I want a Christian (or in this respect very tolerant and sensible) director and screenwriter. No, seriously, I want it to be a piece of Christian media in the same way that The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are. In a good way. And I mean in a really good and sensible way, not a sort of low budget production from a vaguely cult-ish American production firm nobody ever heard about and that also includes “Christian” things that were never intended by the author (that is, sadly, the downside of a certain kind of Christian media).

I want all the things included that don’t fit the mainstream Hollywood taste—the “middle aged love” as a Guardian article once called it, the blend of history and faith, the creative approach to magic, the way the backstory really works. I want all the characters to really look the way they were described in the book, I want a fat and jolly Benjamin, and a Puck- or Peter Pan-like Robin, I want the parson and the villagers, and Miss Heliotrope as a serious character, and Marmaduke Scarlet as a mysterious character, and all the little animals. I want the writers to understand that the characters are not separated into the categories “dark and mysterious” and “comic relief”. And I want Maria to be flawed and grow as a character.

I want all the odd and strange and silly aspects played straight. Wrolf is not a black dog who magically turns into a lion, he is a big golden lion that is somehow accepted by everyone to be a dog. The pink geraniums are a very, very important plot point. Maria’s spiritual connection to the very real boy Robin is an important part of their relationship.

I want the movie, from an aesthetic point of view, to be the ultimate dream fantasy of your average little girl. Pretty dresses, pony riding, lots of glorious food, flowers, enchanted rooms, the whole of it all. But I want the spiritual and emotional themes to be addressed in a very mature, serious manner, and with all the depth of the book. No toning down. None of that terrible business of children’s book adaptations making the tone darker and more mature, and the themes and values sillier and easier.

We need that. I think, in some ways this really might work better nowadays than just a few years ago: the cottagecore trend could help with the style, and older romantic couples are slowly and steadily becoming more acceptable again. A mini series might work better than a movie-they usually do—but I think a movie could capture it neatly, too.

Sally Eliot, née Adair of Damerosehay

Like all only children, she was in some ways too old for her age, and in other ways too young; she still fell over material things as though she were fifteen, but immaterial things, such as friendships, the griefs of little children, the desires of men and the jealousies of women, she handled with an instinctive sensitiveness that a woman fo thirty-five could not have bettered.

What to read in Spring

Reading by the Window by Charles James Lewis

Of course, it is not quite spring yet, but the smell in the air and the hustle and bustle of the birds and bees, the blooming snowdrops and crocuses, assure us that the season of freshness and renewal is near. Spring is a lovely time for strolling about the countryside and working in the garden, but it’s also a sweet and peaceful time to read a good book. 💐

🌸 The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge is a book of renewal and second chances, of crisp clean air, and the cold sweet spring.

🌸 Linnets & Valerians, also by Elizabeth Goudge, is as sweet as honey and strawberry jam, as colourful as a bluebell wood in morning sunshine.

🌸 All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot evokes the wonderful, sweet, yet harsh reality of the beginning of the year, of the freshness of the lambs, and the icy winds.

🌸 The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is a book of many seasons, but especially of springtime. Just messing about in boats,  there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

🌸 Thrush Green by Miss Read is just one lovely day—and May Day, indeed!—in a sweet English village, with blossoming trees and cottages with thatched roofs.

🌸 Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne (or was it ther-Pooh?) is ever-delightful. Who would not want to spend a lovely spring day in the Hundred Acre Wood?

🌸 April Lady by Georgette Heyer does not only have a springlike name, it’s sweet and funny and romantic, and a quick and gentle read.

🌸 The Mystery of the Clockword Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine is a sweet and charming mystery for young girls as much as everyone else, set in Edwardian London.

🌸 The Nature of Spring by Jim Crumley is not a novel, but a beautiful and real account of the ways and workings of nature in the beginning of the year.

🌸 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is a book of Christmas and winter, but even more so of Easter and spring. And of course, it is simply wonderful.

Mary O’Hara Appreciation

I just thought of how much I love Mary O’Hara from The Rosemary Tree. Down below are some excerpts showing her red-hot brilliance! ☘️

Mary O’Hara had a face like an advertisement for toothpowder and a name like a glamorous film star […]

Winkle adored honey and she adored the owner of that voice. She literally fell off the housemaid’s box in her haste, picked herself up and bundled across to the door where she was picked up in two plump arms and held against the softness of the angora jumper that clothed the warm breast of a very angry girl. But the anger was not directed against Winkle, of which fact Winkle was well aware as she burrowed in. Miss O’Hara was so soft and warm that she might have been the dove, had it not been for the agitation of her very un-dovelike fury.

“No, I won’t, Miss Giles,” stormed Mary O’Hara, her cheeks like poppies, for she had a shocking temper. “Winkle is in my form, and if she has been naughty it is my business to punish her, not yours.”

Mary was a born fighter, and it was because there was a battle raging here that she stayed, glorying in the fight, every red curl on end with the zest of it, her vitality tingling even to her finger tips whenever she was aware of an inch gained here or there, a slackening of the onslaught of evil. […] Mary adored children, and when a battle was for them there was more zest in it than ever.

“Though what do I think I am?” she would ask herself during these same wakeful nights. “A rallying point for the hosts of heaven, or what? Mary O’Hara, you are clean crazy.” But discouragement was not for long and she remained where she was, clean and fresh in her clean fresh room, teaching the children to speak the truth, keeping her temper with difficulty, passionate in sympathy with the truly afflicted, intolerant of malingerers, loyal to superiors she hated and only twenty years old.

Mary liked men only a little less than she liked children and took an entirely healthy delight in the reciprocity of the liking.

Mary, like all good schoolmistresses – and she was a good schoolmistress in spite of many derelictions of duty – had formed a poor opinion of all parents, and this was for her high praise.

“How do you do?” she said severely, for she was always severe with parents. “I am Mary O’Hara, Winkle’s form mistress.”

Then her severity abruptly vanished and she chuckled. “There are only two forms,” she said. “Miss Giles has the other, and Margary and Pat.”

“I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting either of you,” said John, standing hat in hand before her and speaking with a humble courtesy that delighted Mary. She was a red-hot radical, and gloried in plebeian birth, but she handed it to these aristocrats. They had something.

[…] You and Miss Giles are friends?”

Mary fancied sarcasm in his tone and flushed scarlet. Did he think she was one of those detestable women who delight in running down other women in the presence of a man? Well, it didn’t matter what he thought, but sudden anger made her take her eyes from the elms and face him squarely. “Yes. Until ten minutes ago I thought I hated her, but ten minutes ago we became friends.” Looking at him she saw he was not sarcastic. She had been a fool to think he could be, for sarcasm doesn’t grow on the same stalk as humility. He had really wanted to know. “That sounds odd, I expect, but you know how it happens. Someone you have known perhaps for years, perhaps for minutes, steps forward from the background and is suddenly inside with you.”

“Inside what?” demanded John.

“Inside your own little world that you carry with you,” said Mary, and looked at him with an almost despairing pleading. Didn’t he know he also had stepped inside? “Surely you know what I mean?”

“Very extraordinary. She gave me the job, though I had no reference, and when I told her I’d been in prison she never asked why.”

It seemed to Mary that the room was tipping over. The table in front of her seemed to be on a slant and she braced her shoulders. But the earthquake was in her own mind, where recent thoughts and phrases were falling headlong one over the other… . Human nature is fundamentally odd. Ruined, but so lovely. One is 10th to pass on. I always wanted to marry a hero, but I would give my life for one of the children […]

“They heard you. They’re moving away,” said Mary. To her there was no sharpness in the bright beauty, though it woke almost unbearable longing in her. All about her she was conscious only of a pure distillation of goodwill, but she could not reach it. It was odd, she thought. With her aunt this morning, that regular churchgoer and indefatigable knitter for charities, she had been conscious of such evil. With this man, of whom she knew nothing except that he had lately been in prison, of such good, his good a part of the goodwill that she could not reach. She thought of her own longing for goodness, her deep intent of love, and of her abysmal failure today.

She looked up at him, laughing. There was no change in her easy, happy manner. She might have received no letter. Perhaps she hadn’t. Perhaps it had gone astray. His face looked drawn and grey as he looked down at her, and she realised that he was not only a great deal older than she was, but also weaker both in character and body. Also that he loved her far more than she had realised. Also that he had been in doubt as to her answer, and she had kept him waiting two days, not knowing that he doubted her response; clear to her on the day she had first met him, unwavering even after the blow he had dealt her then. Also, and this last with a flash of vision, that she had it in her power through the kindness of love to make of this weakling a very fine man.

Mary defended with spirit her choice of a pink frock. To say that pink was not to be worn with red hair was merely superstition, like saying you mustn’t be married in green. Didn’t she look nice in her pink frock? And she would be married in green just to flout superstition again. Irish green, with shamrock in her button-hole. Michael could have a leek. They thanked heaven they were not English. They were Celts.

On Sally and Mary and Love

A discussion (actually, just my rambling addition to someone else’s very wise words) about Lord Peter Wimsey’s love for Harriet Vane and Wodehouse romances, made me think of Elizabeth Goudge and of Sally Adair’s and Mary O’Hara’s approaches to falling in love, and now I have to make a post with two scenes about which I have often wanted to write something, yet somehow never did.

Here’s Sally, seeing David for the first time, or rather, for the first time in person:

Sally stood very straight and still, looking at the face that she had felt she had always known when she had seen it in her father’s drawing. Only this face was not quite like the face of the drawing. That had been an unmasked face. This was the same face, but masked. She didn’t feel anything very particular; only rather odd and tired. She wondered vaguely if this was falling in love. They said in books that one felt so wonderful when one fell in love. She wasn’t feeling wonderful at all; just odd and a bit sick. Books were very misleading.

And also, immediately afterwards:

They went back to the smoke-filled room, and there was such a noise that they could say good-bye only wordlessly. David’s gesture of farewell, in the brief moment before the crowd absorbed him, was memorable for its grace, but so mechanical that Sally felt he had pushed her straight out of his mind and slammed the door. She went at once, and all the way home, though the sun was shining, she hugged herself in her fur coat because she still felt cold. She made no plans for seeing David Eliot again, though with such a famous father that would have been easy. She did not even mean to question her father about him, or about the portrait in the studio. Sally had too much pride to batter against a door that had been shut.

And here’s Mary, when she first meets Michael:

“Is she so extraordinary?” asked Mary.

“Very extraordinary. She gave me the job, though I had no reference, and when I told her I’d been in prison she never asked why.”

It seemed to Mary that the room was tipping over. The table in front of her seemed to be on a slant and she braced her shoulders. But the earthquake was in her own mind, where recent thoughts and phrases were falling headlong one over the other… . Human nature is fundamentally odd. Ruined, but so lovely. One is 10th to pass on. I always wanted to marry a hero, but I would give my life for one of the children… . The room steadied about her again and she found that he was helping her on with her coat. She had not looked at him. Why all this melodrama in her mind? No one was asking her to give her life. Nothing was required of her at present but common politeness and not to pass on. She turned round and smiled at him. “Are you in a hurry to get back to Josephine, or shall we walk as far as Farthing Reach, where the swans are? It’s up-river a little way. Not far.”

“Yes, I’d like that,” he said. 

And… these scenes mean so much to me. They are the subversion, and yet true essence of “love at first sight” and so pure, in the sense of… of clearness, so real and even raw.

Sally falls in love with David the moment she sees him, and she accepts it. Not happy, not sad, but also not doubting or analysing or hoping for anything in particular. She realises who he is, and that she loves him, and, assuming that nothing could happen of their love (which is, of course, not right, but that’s a matter for later in the story…) she accepts it. And this… this is so much different from the usual love at first sight. It is even rather unromantic, in the usual sense. It is so quiet, and yet also so blunt, so clear and accepting. Sally loves him, and though she doesn’t really like it, or want it, or build any hopes on it, she takes it as it is. David, of course, will later on work on loving her, and even more so on allowing himself her love, on being worthy of it.

And Mary? Mary is even more clear and blunt about it. Mary always wanted to marry a hero, she always expected a rather simple and pleasant romantic life. And when she met Michael, also falling in love quite immediately, and had her first shock at learning that he was in prison, her reaction was not “Oh no, this man I fell in love with was in prison, so now I will back away” but “Oh no, I wanted to marry a hero, but now I fell in love with a man who went to prison, so I will have to marry him”. And then, of course, she got back to the ground a little, wondering why she felt such a pressure, and she, like Sally, accepted that there was probably nothing even expected of her. But she loved him. And he, like David, made up his mind to be worthy of her love.

Lovely Ideas

“I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”
“Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”
“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“Can’t I?”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

“Do you think all beauty is just the evidence of things not seen, David?” she had asked.
“If it’s anything it’s that,” he had said. “I should say that faith is the belief in something that you don’t understand yet, and beauty is the evidence that the thing is there.”

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

Mock Penguin Classic Covers: The Eliots of Damerosehay

I have previously made some other, nature-inspired Penguin Classic Covers for a selection of Elizabeth Goudge’s most-beloved novels, and decided to make another round, just for the Eliot Chronicles, which were also among the earlier set. This one is, however, inspired by art.