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.

Mock Penguin Classic Covers: Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge is one of my favourite writers. She’s frightfully underread, but much appreciated and cherished by those who are familiar with her books. Some publishing houses have, in the last few years, published very pretty new editions of her books, which fortunately introduce her to a modern audience—including me.

However, I thought it would be fun to create Penguin Classics Covers for some of her novels. They are classics to me.

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.