An undervalued gift

by
18 March 2016

The literary and theological quality of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels deserve greater recognition, argues Terence Handley MacMath

An ordered life: Elizabeth Goudge at home

An ordered life: Elizabeth Goudge at home

ELIZABETH GOUDGE may have shared Anglican Oxfordshire connections with her fellow novelists Dorothy Sayers, Rose Macaulay, and H. F. M. Prescott, but she is the only one whose stories were also published in Woman’s Journal from the 1930s to the 1960s. For that reason, and perhaps because she was, for some time, president of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the theological depth of her novels has escaped the attention of many critics.

Even her father, Henry Leighton Goudge, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, remarked on her success with evident puzzlement. With her characteristic humility, she recalled his comment after he had read her fourth novel, Towers in the Mist: “You have such a wonderful gift. You can make a little knowledge go a long way.”

She was born on 24 April 1900, in Wells. The family moved to Ely, and later to Oxford for her father’s work. Goudge studied art and design at University College, Reading, but was not a success as a teacher. Her first book, The Fairies’ Baby and Other Stories (1919) failed, but her first novel inspired by her mother’s Channel Island family, Island Magic (1934) was well received.

Indeed, Goudge developed her gift for writing over time, despite many rejections. She applied herself to the task with tremendous dedication, spurred in part by a pressing need to earn money; after her father’s death, she and her invalid mother were left homeless and in financially straitened circumstances. The pair moved to Hampshire, and then to Devon, where she remained carer, companion, and breadwinner until her mother’s death in 1951.

By 1959, Goudge had produced 25 titles, and sold nearly ten million copies. She is perhaps best known for her novel The Little White Horse (1946), which won the Carnegie Medal, and inspired the British TV series Moonacre. J. K. Rowling named it as one of her favourite books and the inspiration for her Harry Potter series. Goudge was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1945.

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IT IS less well known that Goudge was also an able theologian, appreciated by critics such as William Barclay, Alan Walton, Kenneth Allsop, and Fr Louis Bouyer. A review of her work by the poet Muriel Grainger describes her achievement: “She is unique in being a writer of extremely popular romances which are at the same time fundamentally religious. Not that Miss Goudge sets out to ‘put Christianity across’. The love of God; the power of prayer, the reality of the Kingdom of the Spirit — these things are woven into the fabric of her plots with a naturalness and inevitability that come from Miss Goudge’s own convictions and experience, and it is this factor that make them so acceptable and so telling.”

Goudge’s autobiography The Joy of the Snow is a self-deprecating assessment of her own life, and shows deep Christian joy and gratitude. But, in a new biography of Goudge by Christine Rawlins, Beyond the Snow, we learn that, beneath the joy, there was considerable suffering: mental and physical illness, lost love, the burden of caring for her mother. She had been an intensely withdrawn only child, with a stammer, and suffered from muscular-skeletal pain throughout her life. She even experienced a nervous breakdown after an operation in 1937.

Rawlins writes that Goudge always felt in the shadow of her father’s scholarship and ascetic life, and yet “she went on thinking for herself, and drawing conclusions that seemed to her to point to the truth. At her most despairing, the things she could believe in as evidence of God were love and faith, the world’s beauty, great music, ‘our own small intuition’, and the ‘saints and mystics of all religions’.”

And yet, with others of her generation, she shared a theological acceptance of the inevitable interweaving of pain and joy, evil and goodness. Like Prescott and Macaulay, she handled the Protestant and Roman Catholic conflicts of the Reformation or Civil War with a precision that was more than simply academic detachment. It is evident that Goudge earnestly pursued a personal spiritual quest, principally inspired by her adored father. She also grew up in the company of many priests and scholars: her cousin Sybil was married to F. P. Harton, the author of the work of ascetical theology Elements of the Spiritual Life.

 

GOUDGE also developed a profound knowledge of English literature, despite her own mediocre education. Rawlins traces the influence of many seminal writers through the novels: Julian of Norwich, John Donne, Thomas Traherne, Thomas Hardy, Evelyn Underhill, and T. S. Eliot. In later life, Goudge even wrote an acclaimed biography of St Francis of Assisi, published several anthologies of spiritual writing, wrote religious broadcasts for the BBC, and became a Companion of the contemplative Augustinian order at Burnham Abbey, the Society of the Precious Blood.

One companion described her life as “an ordered life of prayer, reading, writing, rest, and charitable listening and giving.” Indeed, these sacrifices cost considerably more than she would ever admit, and depleted her physical and financial resources.

In a preface for a volume of poetry written by the Sisters of Burnham Abbey, Goudge describes the the Sisters’ vision with deep insight: “Because they see all life and creation irradiated by the love of God, they see in depth; a sunrise means more than itself and pain has purpose. Yet the unity of outlook cannot dim the individuality of each separate poem. When love is the creating power, it seems impossible for two sparrows’ feathers, or even two snowflakes, ever to be the same. The stronger the microscope, the less are they alike. This is the way God likes it.”

These words anticipate themes that few academic theologians addressed at the time: an embrace of diversity, validated by close attention to the natural world. We see these themes again in a passage in The Rosemary Tree which describes a boy’s vision: “The whole meadow, stretching from his feet to the sun, was sparkling as though it were on fire, as though every wet flower and blade of grass was carrying a tongue of flame. It was the sun. And the light of the sun. And so, thought Giovanni, all the flowers and the grasses must have the light of the Holy Spirit inside them just like I have. Perhaps everything has.”

Elsewhere, there is further evidence of her anticipation of contemporary themes when she writes about the need for a better understanding of mental illness and its connection with spiritual growth.

 

MY COPY of The Scent of Water, a 1971 edition, has a Mills & Boon-style picture of the heroine on the front cover, and faint praise from a Church Times reviewer on the back. Superficially, it is indeed “a gentle and compassionate story of country life”. Examine the plot and text critically, however, and this is no shallow romance. The quest is not for an eligible husband, but for hard-won spiritual growth. Mary, the heroine, is in her fifties, and the happy ending is the birth of a baby to a couple whose happiness is fragile; redemption is found through acceptance of “the second best”. The spiritually strong are survivors of the war, blindness, bereavement, mental illness, and even financial fraud.

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All Goudge’s novels are woven from archetypal Romantic images, and in her historical fiction they work well enough. The White Witch, set around the battle of Edgehill, is a conflict between good and evil, with gypsies, witches, folk religion, and herbal lore. The Christian themes and images fit effortlessly with the context, and Dr Jeremy Taylor even makes a brief appearance to give spiritual direction.

Yet these romantic elements are never sentimentally sketched; they are drawn from close observation, with detailed references to the eccentric, ancient clerical houses of her childhood, the beautiful artefacts known from her Arts and Crafts training, and to ruined abbeys — all images which spring from a creative receptivity to the world into which she felt privileged to have been born. Again, the heroine is a woman in her forties, and the happy ending is the “second best” — her desire for children is fulfilled in the adoption of three abandoned gypsy children.

Goudge’s real achievement is to write of these elements in her contemporary fiction. They appear in The Scent of Water, together with pensions, petrol engines, and television sets. The title is an allusion to the book of Job, for we meet the characters at an old well where they encounter the scent of water. For each, the experience throws their life into a period of reversal which is also a process of renewal.

But, instead of volumes of process theology, Goudge simply allows the diary of someone whom we might now describe as suffering from bi-polar disorder: “Were the two experiences merely the hallucinations of illness? No, for they healed me. They also illumined my mind; for they showed me something of the extraordinary reversals of God. Everything he touches is changed, death to life and emptiness to liberty, and not only changed but changed into himself since he is himself reversal.”

 

A CURIOUS incident of literary plagiarism shows how easy it is to miss ‘the bright field’ when it is in an ordinary English village. When The Rosemary Tree was first published in 1956, The New York Times Book Review called it “sentimentally ecstatic.” Writing in The Washington Post, Molly Moore describes it as “pop fiction meant to be consumed and forgotten”. But then, in 1993, Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen published the novel under a new title, Crane’s Morning, setting it in India, with the Christian faith transposed into Hinduism.

The critic Paul Kafka wrote that it was “at once achingly familiar and breathtakingly new. [The author] believes we all live in one borderless culture.” After the true origin of the book was revealed, Paul Kafka observed, “there’s a phrase ‘aesthetic affirmative action’. If something comes from exotic parts, it’s read very differently than if it’s domestically grown. Maybe Elizabeth Goudge is a writer who hasn’t gotten her due.”

 

Beyond the Snow: The Life and Faith of Elizabeth Goudge by Christine Rawlins is published by WestBow Press (2015).

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