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.

There’s rue for you: and here’s some for me

I am re-reading The 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.

The Man under the Umbrella

I am well aware of Friedrich Bhaer’s unpopularity, but I don’t understand it. I am aware of it, because it has been so often stated and explained; I don’t understand it because nothing of it makes sense—personal preferences aside, everyone has a right to like (or dislike) whoever they want, after all.

“Me wants me Bhaer!”—Tina, the daughter of Mrs Kirke’s French maid, said as she flung herself into the arms of this controversial character, and her words express my own feelings perfectly.

The accusations are numerous: Bhaer was merely an afterthought, to screw the readers, he is unattractive and boring, suppresses Jos own freedom as a writer and forces her to express herself in a posh manner, and of course, he isn’t Laurie.

But we’ll start in the beginning. Little Women has originally been published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives. Later editions often put them together, but the distinction between the two books is an important point in the discussion of Friedrich Bhaer.

After Little Women first came out, Louisa May Alcott received several letters from readers who asked about the further lives of the March sisters, and especially about whom the little women would marry. Ms Alcott was not delighted by this question, and of her character’s being reduced to the subject of matrimony, as was rather usual back then, and which, in return, brought many modern readers to the conclusion that marriage by itself were a sign of a lack of liberation in the heroines and could therefore not correspond with Ms Alcott’s own intentions.

In particular the still popular wish, that Jo and Laurie should become a couple and marry displeased the authoress. But that does not make the insinuation that Friedrich’s part was caused by mere spite true.

Criticism of Friedrich Bhaer comes from those who would have liked to see Jo with Laurie, as well as those would have preferred her to remain unmarried. An argument for the latter is that Louisa May Alcott herself has never been married, and that Jo was based on her in many respects. But Little Women is no direct autobiography and contains many elements that didn’t happen as described in the lives of the author and her sisters. The common attempt to equate Jo and Louisa cannot succeed. The Marchs are obviously based on the Alcotts, but they are not them. But this awkward mingling of real person and fictional character is applied nearly exclusively to Jo.

The desire for an unmarried role model is common and understandable, especially as many readers identify with Jo and often think differently about these things than the 19th century audience—although it cannot be denied that the marital status of a novel’s heroine continues to receive a great deal of attention.

But to say “For this reason I would have preferred Jo to stay unmarried,” would be a better choice than, “Jo was never really supposed to marry, it’s only in the book because Louisa May Alcott has been pushed to do so. Jo is in truth single!” But in truth Jo doesn’t exist, only Louisa, and in the book, Jo married, and she did so because the author wanted her to.

The question, whether a marriage of Jo and Laurie would have received as much rejection, nowadays, I mean, because even those would prefer Jo to be single, seem to rather tolerate Laurie than Friedrich. But this is not supposed to be a comparison of both men—I like Laurie a lot, and I would not have had any issue had he and Jo become a couple. But they didn’t: Jo didn’t want it, Louisa didn’t want it, and in the end it turned out that Jo and Laurie could continue their wonderful friendship, though in a matured way, and still find a different sort of love each.

The notion that it was a sign of conformation or even submission, shows a completely incorrect understanding of the societal context of the story’s time. It may come from the cliché of the young woman who has to marry a boring old man, and who liberates herself by eloping with a brooding young rake; or from the good social standing of Germans, especially German academics, in contemporary America.

But Friedrich is, according to all economical and societal standards of that time, no reasonable, let a lone conforming choice—not within the story, and not from the point of view of the then audience. To claim that his character had been created because of societal pressure is completely incorrect.

Friedrich is poor; the idea that older men used to be preferred was based on the fact that they usually had build an existence (or increased it) and this promised financial security. To prefer a poor, older man over a young, very rich man, who still had the prospect of becoming even richer, was no decision made of reason, and not at all understandable for onlookers.

Beyond that, Friedrich had a very bad position as a German. German immigrants were a fairly large minority in America back then; most of them were poor, and even more so very unpopular. One must not forget that the Hummels, from whom Beth contracted the scarlet fever that later led to her death, were Germans, too. But the Alcotts liked Germans—and so did, apparently, the Marchs. Louisa May Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists and felt very drawn to German culture, in particular literature. Louisa May Alcott was born in the same year that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died. She loved Goethe and visited his house in Frankfurt—thought she didn’t have time to go inside. It is obvious that Friedrich is a character whom she liked to write and who came very close to her personal literary ideal.

But what is much more important: Friedrich supports, respects, and values Jo.

It brings me nearly physical discomfort to read what’s claimed about Friedrich and his attitude towards Jo and her writing. That he would belittle her, keep her from writing, push her to betray herself and lose her way. Yes, even the fact that Jo writes in later years, is read as a rebellion and secret disobedience towards Friedrich.

It’s a mystery to me, how one could read a book and interpret it in such a twisted manner. It seems that, whenever Professor Bhaer appears, some readers throw all reading comprehension overboard. To think Friedrich had condemned Jos own stories and asked her to write what he considered “higher literature” is complete nonsense. And so is the idea that he had asked (or forced) her to stop writing altogether.

Friedrich knew that Jo wrote and was very enthusiastic about it. He also had reason to assume that she published stories in papers, but he could neither be sure about that, nor about what sort of stories they were. He saw a magazine of the sort, for which she hadn’t written anything, and criticised this sort of stories (and their title illustrations) in general, especially their accessibility for children, without referring to Jo’s own stories, as is commonly maintained.

He did worry however, that Jo, due to a lack of money, protection and experience, could possibly write for exactly this sort of paper, and, rather impulsively, made an effort to dissuade her. Jo argued that one could earn money that way, and Friedrich, a poor man, mind you, remarked that one should rather sweep dirt in the streets.

One can—and should—not deny that Friedrich wanted to influence Jo in this matter. But I’ll have to remark two things: For once, I don’t see what’s wrong about that. He didn’t take the decision away from her, which he neither could nor would do, he simply stated his opinion—an opinion she valued from her own free will. Jo wouldn’t have changed anything, had she not agreed with him. Jo was stubborn and headstrong, and would not even have her nearest and dearest change her mind. She wouldn’t have read her story with Friedrich’s eyes, if she hadn’t truly agreed with what he’d said. That aside, it’s Friedrich’s right to tell his opinion, regardless whether Jo or the reader liked it or not. The idea that a “good” man in a novel always has to tell the heroine what she wants to hear, is a horrible, pseudo-feminist trend, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea that a person (especially a woman) would betray themselves (herself) through learning and growth. Anyway—to claim that Friedrich oppressed Jo, and that she would let him do so, is an insult to both of them.

Secondly: Friedrich has not once talked degradingly about Jo’s own stories. He hadn’t read them, couldn’t even be sure whether she had published any. He also never criticised that she wrote. His criticism was directed towards a specific genre, one could even say business or even milieu, which he thought would be harmful to both Jo and her work. He wanted Jo to write, but he didn’t want her to do it only to earn money, instead to write what she truly wanted. Jo’s first reaction was to write an overtly moralist, sermon-like story, but with time she balanced it out and found her way (back) to what she truly liked.

Here, too, the criticism describes the absolute opposite: Friedrich never wanted Jo to stop writing what she liked. He wanted her to start. At that time, Jo cared more about her income than her own development and expression, which did her no good, and of which Friedrich couldn’t approve.

Later on, Jo wrote neither secretly, nor in rebellion—she wrote as she liked, and Friedrich always supported her.

Friedrich also didn’t consider (commercial) writing to be unsuitable for a woman, and wanted Jo to get published and be successful as a writer. He even took her to a symposium of famous writer, which in the end disillusioned and sobered Jo, but which also helped her not to feel intimidated by the so-called Greats. Friedrich, too, would not be intimidated and, reserved as he normally was, argued ardently for his convictions, which impressed Jo persistently.

Friedrich did not make Jo more womanly. In fact, Jo and Friedrich liked and respected each other’s characteristics and peculiarities that were often seen untypical for their respective gender. Jo became, as she grew older, less boyish, but that was partly due to her increasing maturity, as she mostly left behaviours behind that would also not have suited a grown man, and on the other hand, because her appreciation of other women had grown—Jo had, after all, the tendency to take men and “manly” things more seriously.

Friedrich liked and loved Jo just as she was. But he also supported her development and growth. And it’s funny that this of all things is so often criticised, even condemned, even though it is what Little Women is largely about.

No character in Little Women is perfect. Not Friedrich, not Jo, and nobody else either. But Jo is often seen as a perfect heroine, and her development as self-betrayal. But one cannot rob a book of its own essence to modernise it. The notion that Jo could only be a good role model if she would never think or act differently than she did at the age of fifteen, because all maturity, all learning, were a sign of submission and an antiquated world-view is a dreadful way of thinking by itself. But if one happens to be of that opinion, then one should also stand by it rather than selling it as the author’s own belief.

That aside, it seems that nobody is allowed to criticise Jo. No other character, and no reader. Her sisters have all been degraded cruelly, but Jo has to be considered perfect, just as she is. She is the representative of all strong girls and completely infallible, or else valuable only through her faults. That is the common opinion—though not the writer’s, who considered her protagonists mistakes, and her development, and to acknowledge them, very important. That does not make her a lesser character or a bad role model for young girls—on the contrary, it makes her human, and gives her room to grow.

Transcendentalism was an important influence for Louisa May Alcott, although she did not at all view or take it uncritically. Growing up is the central point of this novel, and, although I am sure that Jo would have managed to do so very well on her own, Friedrich was a great help for her, to look forwards, and to become a big woman, while always staying true to herself.

And, at last, the romance. I’ll say three things:

Every person feels differently. The interaction of romantic and other feelings, and the cognition of them, is highly individual, and Jo and Friedrich have found what is just right for themselves.

The chapter Under the Umbrella can be re-read over and over again. Those who have forgotten just how romantic Jo and Friedrich are, should read it again.

Thou is often a subject of criticism—and perhaps the most painful one of all. What is presented as Friedrich’s attempt of shaping Jo to his demanding ideals, is nothing but his way of approaching her. For thou is viewed quite wrongly nowadays—it’s old-fashioned, and thus often seen as posh or dusty, and as a distanced form of address. But the English you is much rather comparable to the German Sie, which is formal and impersonal, and used by strangers and people whose connections are merely business-like. Thou on the other hand, is Du, the informal, personal and intimate form of address, used by friends and family. It is also to be noted that children are always addressed Du, while children address all adults, aside from family and friends, with Sie, which indicates the adults’ authority. This is was much stricter in the 19th century, and through initiating thou, Friedrich opened towards growing intimacy, while raising Jo on the same level as him, a grown woman and his equal. It is a loving and respectful gesture.

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.