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.
I am partial to historical romance novels, and particularly fond of the traditional Regency romance. They are not a so-called “guilty pleasure” for me, as I hold them in high esteem, and delight in them openly. But I do admit that I am rather picky about the books of this genre I read—or of any genre, for I am a picky reader—and always pleased to find a particularly good specimen. Some of those are famous, classics of the genre, others are hardly known.
One of those hidden gems is The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South.
I found it browsing a goodreads list, and added it spontaneously to the little collection of used paperbacks I bought with a valentine’s gift code from my favourite online book store. It arrived soon afterwards, and I immediately, actually rather randomly, picked it up and read it. And I loved every line on every page!
I expected it to be a pleasant read, nice and just generally good fun. It turned out to be brilliant. The little black volume itself looks good enough, though unassuming, if not a bit off, perhaps, as the type-setting is pretty but at times looks unfinished. As I found out, it was independently published in 1999, when indie and self-publishing was not quite as common as it is now, and the style in Regency romances differed from the older classics and the current revival of the genre.
The story itself is gorgeous. It is written in a far more traditional style, reminiscent of Heyer, yet not at all imitating her. Only a tad old-fashioned, fit to the period and without being stuffy, very funny and full of sparkling dialogue. The supporting cast is great, featuring everything a traditional Regency romance needs, such as a no-good but darling younger brother; a set of caring friends; loyal servants, prone to gossip; and a quite despicable villain. Unlike other books of its type, it also features a delightful group of cotton mill workers.
The hero, Mr Ethan Brundy, is simply amazing, and very unusual for the genre: an illegitimate workhouse brat turned super-rich cotton mill owner, who drops his aitches and dresses expensively, with little taste. He is genuinely kind and caring, responsible and confident. His accent and his earnesty, not to mention his appearance, cause people of the ton to underestimate his intelligence and quick grasp. Nor do they understand that he cares not in the least about their opinion of him—he stands by his background, his class, and his convictions, and he does so with a disarming friendliness. His unwavering strength of character, combined with his exceptional candour, and his controversial opinions, expressed so kindly, are a joy to behold. And so is his love for his reluctant bride.
Lady Helen, or ‘elen, as her husband calls her, is very much unlike him: cold, haughty, and supercilious. She hasn’t a kind word for anyone, except perhaps her brother, and she delights in shoving her numerous suitors away by mere force of rudeness. Though very beautiful, she makes her way through more seasons than her father could afford, because she is still waiting for a man who might not exist. Mr Brundy is, for her, a mere laughing-stock, hardly a real person.
“Mr. Brundy,” she said with a nod, making the most perfunctory of curtsies to her father’s guest.
He made no move to take her hand, but merely bowed and responded in kind. “Lady ‘elen.”
“My name is Helen, Mr. Brundy,” she said coldly.
“Very well– ‘elen,” said Mr. Brundy, surprised and gratified at being given permission, and on such short acquaintance, to dispense with the use of her courtesy title.
Now why does she marry him? Because Mr Brundy, as I have said before, is more than confident, and certain he to reach every goal he sets himself. The moment he sets eye on his ‘elen, he decides to marry her, and her father, a dept-ridden duke, pressures her to accept his offer of her hand. She gives in:
“Mr. Brundy, you are no doubt as well acquainted with my circumstances as I am with yours, so let us not beat about the bush. I have a fondness for the finer things in life, and I suppose I always will. As a result, I am frightfully expensive to maintain. I have already bankrupted my father, and have no doubt I should do the same to you, should you be so foolhardy as to persist in the desire for such a union. Furthermore, I have a shrewish disposition and a sharp tongue. My father, having despaired of seeing me wed to a gentleman of my own class, has ordered me to either accept your suit or seek employment. If I married you, it would be only for your wealth, and only because I find the prospect of marriage to you preferable –but only slightly!- to the life of a governess or a paid companion. If, knowing this, you still wish to marry me, why, you have only to name the day.”
Having delivered herself of this speech, Lady Helen waited expectantly for Mr. Brundy’s stammering retraction. Her suitor pondered her words for a long moment, then made his response.
“’ow about Thursday?”
And now, the (supposed) marriage of convenience slowly evolves into a love-match of misunderstandings. Only Mr Brundy’s friends are truly aware of his sincere feelings for his wife, and only one of them of her feelings for him. Because Lady Helen enters marriage not only thinking her groom a cit, but certain that he’s only after her social standing. He, in turn, takes all her insults to heart and believes that she only married him for money even as her feelings for him grow to fondness, and love.
All this is tricky to write, for has it been done with less grace and skill, both characters and their romance would have been insufferable. But Mr Brundy’s love for his wife and his way with her are wonderful, as lovely as could be, and her growth as a person, and the development of her feelings are plausible and well-written, gradually, yet with sudden, clear reason.
There are sudden, tender moments of a shy, reluctant couple; adorable scenes of the Pygmalion kind; dinners and balls and dress fittings and the refreshing contrast of trade and ton—and a significant trip to the industrial North.
And in the end, there’s a great, rather Heyer-esque adventure, which causes first more secrets and misunderstandings, and brings our couple to defeat the villain, and finally admit their mutual love to each other.
It is truly a gem, I promise. It is a Regency romance in the most traditional sense, and yet thoroughly original. It’s funny, but never silly. Sensual, but restrained. Romantic and sweet, but never saccharine. All in all, a true delight.
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.
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.
Who is Bombadil? He is. According to his wife, Goldberry, and his creator, J. R. R. Tolkien, we are to be content with this. I, for one, am, because I trust the author about his own intentions and take his words as the final word about them.
But that doesn’t mean that I cannot have my own thoughts regarding such a particularly mysterious, and intriguing figure. And, as it is, I like Bombadil. Though most readers of Tolkien’s work will agree that he is a mystery, he is often found to be annoying, disruptive and, even, incongruous with the story’s style.
[…] and even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #144
Tom Bombadil is an enigma, and that is just right as it is. There is no need to explain.
I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’ […] and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely […] Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #153
Bombadil is a comment, a symbol of what is good and ought to be preserved, and a thing for itself, outside the story. Yet, despite his apparent immunity to major powers, such as the Ring itself, he would not be left unaffected by the actual destruction of his environment. This is of consequence, but I will come to it later on.
A common theory about Tom Bombadil’s true identity is that he is supposed to be Eru Ilúvatar himself—or at least, his incarnation in Middle-earth. Tolkien denied this, and I don’t see why I or anyone should dispute this. It is an understandable theory, as Tom Bombadil is ancient, of incomparable power and nature, and inexplicable. But he is a being for himself and his surroundings, not involved or interested in the dealings the rest of the world and its peoples.
And I, personally, don’t think it would suit Tolkien to portray his creator of Arda in such a manner—though I don’t want to make assumptions about him in that regard, just as I don’t agree with those who argue that Bombadil would not fit Tolkien’s style and narrate, because what an author includes in his work suits his style and narrative. But, aside from Tolkien’s own denial of this particular theory, I have another reason for my own thoughts regarding it: Tom Bombadil is, though older than all of Arda, not necessarily older than anyone or anything else.
“Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”
The Fellowship of the Ring
Tom Bombadil lived before the world was created, or, at least, before it was as one knew it. He knew a time before “the Dark Lord came from the Outside”, which might refer to Sauron or Morgoth, although it isn’t clear whether or not he lived before their rebellion, or even before their creation.
All this does not mean that Bombadil is the great creator himself. Nor does it mean that he is one of the Ainur, as is another popular theory. As the Maiar are not immune to the One Ring’s influence, and all Valar are named and known, I consider this unlikely. Nor would it be in accordance with his singularity, and his deep connection to the place his is in.
Now, there’s a few who like the idea of Tom being evil. But it doesn’t appear to be in his nature, it doesn’t agree with Tolkien’s own comments, and wouldn’t explain what made him so different from all other life in Middle-earth. A special evil being or spirit, of greater power than is otherwise known—yes, that might be an appealing idea if one finds a jolly old man to be too boring without a sinister background, but it would still leave us where we are. Who is he? What is he? Why is he—like that?—so other?
But one of those evil theories, that he is indeed the evil spirit of the forest, comes remarkably close to my own thoughts about him.
Tom Bombadil, as Goldberry said, “is”. He represents himself, and his right to be in the story does not need an explanation, nor an apology, as it was only up to the author to make this decision. He existed, in a way, before many a part of the Legendarium, and in that sense, his own explanation of himself and his great age might be even a nod to the reader. The Lord of the Rings is, after all, a fictional translation, and many a thing just a means for the reader from our world to understand the going-ons in another. Who knows what his counterpart in the “original” Red Book of Westmarch would be, with no Dutch doll to inspire the “translator”? But I should not dive too deep into a story which, in this sense, doesn’t exist.
Shoving the art of writing and the science of stories aside for a moment, and look at the story from within, as if it were real. What could explain Tom’s nature?
I assume my idea is not better than most. But it does appeal more to me. It has so for a while, though I just now got around to writing it down.
He is older than all that is known and seen in Middle-earth, though not likely older than anything else. He is not affected by the One Ring as any mortal (or even immortal) man or otherwise sentient being would be, yet “there would be nothing left for him” under Sauron’s rule. His wife is “the River-woman’s daughter” and likely a spirit. He claims the land does not belong to him, but to itself, yet it seems also inseparable from him. He is not evil, it does not appeal to him or have immediate power over him, yet it does also not agree with him. He is not precisely good, nor does he care much about the dealings and doings of other people and beings.
His demeanour and nature are lively, earthly, and robust. And thoroughly physical—although apparently a spirit or spiritual being, he is exceedingly bodily and alive, concerned first and foremost with his wife, his land, and his food and drink. So physical, indeed, that no supernatural power seems to appeal to him so much as to fall for it, so different is his own interest, his own nature incompatible with a thing such as the One Ring.
Now I get to the tricky part—because I don’t want to make any sort of assumption about J. R. R. Tolkien’s own ideas, nor would I claim my theory to be in accordance with his intentions. But I want to say what my own idea is anyway, and I like it, because, even though I don’t think that that’s what’s supposed to be true in the book, at least not directly so—not clearly, specifically, though possibly, just possibly, at the edge of it—it is beautifully fit, compatible so to speak, not really wrong.
Tom Bombadil is Middle-earth. In one way, or another. Its spirit, perhaps, or its man-like form, its protective soul, or a representative, for the reader only, or even for its inhabitants. He, as Verlyn Flieger said, does not desire to dominate, and hence cannot be dominated. I think that is, perhaps, because he dominates all that is in his nature to dominate, and is dominated by all that his in his nature to be dominated by. Not more, nor less.
He came to Middle-earth with its creation, and he is Middle-earth in all its states and stages. He does not want more than Middle-earth, but he cannot have less than Middle-earth, because it is he and he is it. He is. Mind you—not Arda, not Eä, only Middle-earth. But Middle-earth, in its entirety.
Made and sent by Eru, but not as a person, but as a place, he cannot exist in accordance with pure evil—there would be nothing left for him—but not intervening in the doings of and dealings of his own inhabitants. At least, not going further than nature itself, in the shape of a jolly old man, could or would do.
So much for my theory.
But in truth and canon and fact, Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow, bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow. None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster. That, I suppose, is all we ought to know.
“I you liked this, you’ll love that!” is not usually a concept of book recommendation that I agree with. I might be very picky, or I just have a different idea of which books are similar to each other, but very often I find that these recommended books simply share some superficial traits, yet otherwise don’t real suit each other, nor appeal to the same readers.
But there are some cases that I personally find to just fit. Incredibly well, in fact. Those books often have a similar air about them, evoke a similar feeling, or simply and plainly suit the same taste.
As for these three books, I recommend them individually, but I also have to say that, if you liked one or two of these, you’re very likely to also enjoy the others. Or the other, respectively. These three certainly have a similar appeal, they are cosy and gentle, and very funny and witty. But they also have very similar themes: gentle, intelligent romance and a beautiful blend of fiction-within-fiction.
There’s Northanger Abbeyby Jane Austen. Though one of her less famous novels, it is certainly a classic, and in my opinion frightfully underrated. It is a splendid satire, but it also stands well on its own as a story, and while different from her later novels, it already has the wit and spark that makes Jane Austen so well-beloved. Catherine is a reader, rather than a writer, but her imagination is very active and independent, and sometimes takes a bit too far. Unlike the heroines of the other two novels, it’s not her own writing that gets her into trouble. Her ideas are more than sufficient. The romance is as splendid as any other Austen romance, in fact it’s particularly good. And it’s very, very funny.
And Sylvester, or the wicked uncle by Georgette Heyer. Unlike most enemies-to-lovers stories it is far more about Phoebe and Sylvester’s determination to dislike and misunderstand each other, and also about the way they sometimes understand the other better than themselves. Phoebe is a novelist and based the characters in her book on people she met, and Sylvester’s air of arrogance and the shape of his eyebrows make him an excellent villain. But it’s the things she made up herself that cause the actual consequences of her writing—including a kidnapping to France, a great many misunderstandings, and some improvement of character.
Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson is about Miss Buncle who wrote a book. Miss Buncle had no money, which is why she decided to write a book, and she insisted on having no imagination, so she based her characters on real people she knew, and most of them didn’t like it at all. The odd thing is just that all of a sudden people began to behave differently, and things she wrote in her book—made up entirely, without any imagination!—turned out to be real. But while Miss Buncle herself changed and grew and learned, hers was the only story without a proper outcome, even in her book’s sequel. The romance is not as obvious in this book, but it’s lovely and gentle, and it does feature one of the sweetest marriage proposals I have ever read.
So, if you like books, and books about books, and romance, and women writing about women who write, and sweetness, and romance novels with actually good stories, or rather novels that do have actually good romance—these might be for you! And they are all very good autumn reads. 🍂
I am re-readingThe Herb of Grace parenthetically, one chapter a day. 🌿
It’s such a healing, lovely book, and I want to extend my friendship with it, and revisit Damerosehay and the Herb of Grace in the beginning autumn. I find that very appropriate. And it’s so pleasant and calming to read it so very slowly and evenly.
I have already read the first two chapters. Chapter One reminded me of how much I do love Sally. I love every paragraph of her description. With some parts, the overly specific ones, I identify more than I ever thought I could identify with a character in a book. The others, I simply enjoy. She is such a thoroughly enjoyable woman. And the children asking whether she’s over age for bananas is so sweet.
And I love her first meeting with David, and the way she felt. It reminds me of the first time Mary and Michael meet, in The Rosemary Tree. Elizabeth Goudge’s characters, especially in her contemporary books, are so thoroughly human, and so are their romances. There is a special quality, almost a sort of magic, but at the same time such a painful realism, that makes them so very superior. In these two scenes, it’s the sudden realisation, and the quiet acceptance. Unexpected and unsentimental, not until wanted, but valiantly taken and valued. This, and the very dedicated and laborious love, and the combination of both, are everything.
And David’s feelings! The way he hated that he couldn’t talk openly, just while Sally wondered about his mask. The way he adored Sally’s unaffectedness from the war, while she was feeling ashamed of it. The way they were both right, and thought themselves wrong.
And Chapter Two! Oh, Nadine. The reader suffers because of you and with you—and grows and rejoices, because of you and with you. The violets. I love these details. Whether one reads it as part of a trilogy or as a stand-alone, the way things are coming together reads differently depending on whether one already knows some of the characters, or doesn’t, but it reads equally well. That magic of recognition and wonder, I dare even call it a sort of suspense, the small moments of “oh, this!” are always so lovely. But Jill’s letter is such a small, sad moment…
And I love the bit about Nadine and the Little Village, and that she loved being at Damerosehay because it always changed her a little, and not in spite of it. And I love to see her and Hilary interacting. To see two characters in an ensemble story who usually don’t have much to do with each other, who are from “different ends” of the story, so to speak, appear in the same scenes is always a great joy to me.
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.
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.
It’s late July, and most of this summer was, and will—and should—be spent at home. Fortunately, reading books is a fabulous way to let one’s imagination wander a bit further, and I thought I’d like to make a list of ten lovely summer reads. That is…ten or so, since I don’t keep strictly to stand-alones.
The Eliots of Damerosehay: The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace—aka Pilgrim’s Inn—and The Heart of the Family by Elizabeth Goudge
A beautiful trilogy, although the second book can be (and often is) read as a stand-alone. The books take place over all seasons, and the second ends with a particularly glorious Christmas celebration, but there is an air of summer about them, throughout them; captivating and uplifting, they make wonderful companions for long days with misty mornings and sunny evenings.
(And as for Elizabeth Goudge, one of her Torminster books, called Henrietta’s House, is a pure high-summer-read, a delightful little gem for all ages.)
Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, the first in The Dark is Rising Sequence
The only one that could be regarded as a beach read, being set during the summer holidays in Cornwall. But it’s an adventure, not only for children, that will make one feel instantly at home in the story, and the village of Trewissick. It’s also the first in a series of five, followed by winter in Buckinghamshire, spring in Cornwall, autumn in Wales, and finally, summer again, this time in Wales. A perfect blend of myths and nature.
Summer Lightning, a Blandings novel by P. G. Wodehouse
Wodehouse is a promise of hilarity, and his Blandings novels are particularly charming. This one in particular is pure bliss—false identities, tangled-up romances, scandalous memoirs, and prize-winning pigs are all one needs for lighter, but very intelligent reading. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read any other Blandings novel before, as it stands really well on its own, and it’s really great fun from start to finish.
Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh
In some ways an autumnal read, though of course no book is strictly bound to any seasons, and it is in its tone and theme similar to the aforementioned Eliot chronicles, which also feature the colder seasons very much, and yet draw much from summer. And Brideshead, you see, the book, and the Castle, have an air of summer about them, the first part in particular, the fruit always ripe…a warm breeze that returns with the final twitch upon the thread at the end of that glorious book.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, the third, or fifth, of The Chronicles of Narnia
If you’ve been to Narnia before, and now wondering what book to read, you might consider to return for a while, and why not on such a beautiful ship? But in case you’ve never been to Narnia before, then let me assure you that the first time has an incredibly loveliness. No matter if you’ll start with The Magician’s Nephew—a lovely summer read by itself; and my favourite book in the world, or with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—a wonderful classic, perfect for summer as much as for Christmas—you will soon enough find yourself on deck of the Dawn Treader.
Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson
A novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a woman who wrote a novel…or something of that sort. A hilarious account of small town life, whimsical characters, and an endearing woman who is convinced that she’s got no imagination, and yet writes a bestseller which causes all sort of agitation. Miss Buncle’s Book can be read as a stand-alone, but it’s actually the first of a lovely trilogy, being followed by Miss Buncle Married and The Two Mrs Abbotts—and technically also the vaguely related The Four Graces. All of them make wonderfully light-hearted, yet intelligent entertainment. And it’s got one of the loveliest proposals I’ve ever read.
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
A classic tale, beloved by readers of all ages. Perfectly appropriate for summer as much as any season, with nature seen through Anne Shirley’s large grey eyes, translated into Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beautiful prose. No matter if you’re revisiting, or taking your first glimpse at Green Gables and Avonlea, you are sure to be enchanted by an imaginative, spirited girl with red hair, and her dream world on Prince Edward Island.
The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer
A perfectly silly romance novel, and a perfectly sweet adventure. Georgette Heyer means fun, and this tale of two people—a man strongly suspected of being a dandy, and the sweetest polly oliver—who travel the country together to avoid having their upcoming and unwanted marriages. Their journey is interrupted by nuisances such as theft, murder, and annoying acquaintances, and in the end, they both find that they have fallen in love with someone unexpected—that is, unexpected to them, though not to the reader.
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
The first Chrestomanci novel, and though one might argue that The Magicians of Caprona is an even sunnier read, and just as recommended for sure, it is, in my opinion, inherently summer-y. There’s castles and gardens and berries and tea and no school (though class, of course, but it’s magical and much better than school, and Cat doesn’t have to write with his right hand) and scrumping apples, and colourful dressing gowns, and even a dragon, so you see, one’s got to read it.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Technically not a book, but one can read it very well, and it naturally belongs in the summer. Madness and magic, love and lust, a good deal of humour, and beautiful language, all in a delightfully quick read. It’s always great fun, and a good place to start for those who are curious, but reluctant about reading Shakespeare. And even if one doesn’t get to see it on stage, it does let one’s imagination wander and conjure up enchanting pictures.
And remember: drink a lot of water, eat lots of fresh fruit, stay at home if you can, and always put on a mask in public.