Since no one else has submitted anything for this week, I'm assembling this from several blog posts on Elizabeth Goudge that I did over a period of a couple of years beginning in 2009, when Janet Cupo introduced me to her, for which I am very grateful.
Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) should have been an Inkling. At least from the literary point of view she fits perfectly with those gentlemen who gathered in Oxford at the Eagle and Child, and I’d like to think they would have enjoyed her company, and she theirs. But in any case her work is like theirs on a very deep level, though very different from them all on the surface. As the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams, all vastly different from each other, are connected at the deepest level, so Goudge’s work resembles none of theirs, but shares with theirs a 20th century English Christian sensibility which is, to my mind, one of the great flowerings of Christian culture, and to me personally the most attractive of all....
...Goudge is what seems to me a very rare religious bird: an Anglo-Catholic who is genuinely Catholic. Perhaps real Anglo-Catholics are, or at least were, not so rare in England as they seem to be here; in this country Anglicanism seems mostly divided between those who lean toward the combination of doctrinal skepticism and social activism characteristic of liberal Protestantism generally, and evangelicals, who are more orthodox in fundamental doctrine but very definitely Protestant. Had she been an Inkling, Goudge would be known as the most Catholic of the group, notwithstanding Tolkien’s position as the only Roman Catholic. The Catholic spirit of his work lies so deep that it escapes the notice of those who don’t know the faith, but not so with Goudge: she deals with it explicitly, and with an obvious deep and real understanding, an understanding which I think would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without the actual practice of it.
...one of the most admirable characters in [Pilgrim's Inn] is a clergyman, affiliation unstated but presumably Church of England. It is the sort of Anglicanism that could hold C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, despite their Catholic leanings, and which I suppose is now approaching extinction....
On Pilgrim's Inn
Superficially this novel seems a domestic drama of the sort that I would not ordinarily find very interesting. To summarize the bare facts of the narrative would make it sound as if nothing much happens: a family buys a house, and various troubled relationships in and around the family and its new home arrive at some degree of resolution. Normally that sort of novel is not my cup of tea—not at all. But a narrative summary does not begin to do justice to the richness of the novel’s vision.
I could begin to describe the difference between this and the typical naturalistic novel of manners by saying that this is a thoroughly Christian work, but even that does not do it justice. In fact such a description is an injustice, because it suggests that “Christianity” is present in the novel in the form of an idea, as a more or less abstract answer to various moral and philosophical questions posed by the narrative.
It would be better to say that everything in it is suffused with and transfigured by the presence of God, and that the plot is a working-out of God’s providence. Not all the characters are conscious of this, but all are caught up in it.
Two comparisons occur to me, and both seem superficially unlikely, but both illuminate the way Pilgrim’s Inn transcends the limits of what appears at first to be its genre. First, some of the films of Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries, for instance, or Autumn Sonata. The work of the atheist Bergman may seem an odd comparison to that of the Christian Goudge, but it presents itself to me because I’ve often thought that by my usual tastes I shouldn’t like certain of Bergman’s films, because they are exactly the sort of nothing-much-happens study of family relationships that usually makes me impatient, and maybe downright uncomfortable. But the work of both Bergman and Goudge is distinguished from these, and made fascinating, by the way they reach down into the depths. The human relationships are not only that; they have powerful spiritual and philosophical implications. A story like Wild Strawberries, for instance, deals not only with the problem of an old man’s relationships with his son, his daughter-in-law, and his dead wife, but with the question Is there mercy?
The other comparison is to Charles Williams. At first glance the two, Goudge and Williams, could hardly seem more different. Williams is often dark in both the literal and symbolic senses in a way that Goudge is not, and he is often obscure in every sense, while Goudge is lucid. It is, for instance, not always easy, and sometimes not even possible, to see what Williams is describing—I mean at the fundamental level of forming a mental picture of a scene or an action. Goudge, in contrast, presents a skillful and detailed visual rendering of everything....
The similarity to Williams lies on a deeper level. Principally it’s the sense, first, that the natural and the supernatural are not really separated from each other and are in constant interaction. And second, that the universe, in both its physical and material aspects, is what Christian thought conceives it to be. This is another way of approaching what I said earlier about the presence of God in the work. The operations of the individual soul and of the world and of God’s providence are represented as Christian in as natural a way as physical events are Newtonian in any novel; in both cases laws, spiritual in the one case and physical in the other, govern implicitly, and need not be much remarked upon. It is hard to see how anyone could enjoy this book without at least grasping the idea of the Christian God. (I am sure it is possible, and is in fact done, just as people frequently miss the essence of Flannery O’Connor’s work; I just can’t quite understand how.)
...in both authors, love is a real thing, a sort of force or substance comparable to a physical force or substance. It is not an emotion—it produces emotion, but is not identical with it. It is the essential element of the world of the spirit and has its own laws of action and reaction just as the physical world does. A love which is not returned is not, as we might think of it, a useless fit of passion something like what happens when one stubs a toe on a rock and breaks out in useless curses. When someone loves, something has happened, an event, which, like a rock thrown into a pool, will have an effect. And this is true no matter how the love is received, or even if it is kept completely secret and leads to no external action. Love is God’s word, and it does not return to him in vain.
Some would say that Pilgrim’s Inn is sentimental, that all the difficulties work out too neatly. And on the naturalistic level there is some justification for that complaint. But it misses the essence, which is the promise that this is, in the end, how the world works. Just as the strands of troubled lives are gathered together for the good, though temporarily and incompletely, in the novel, so they will be gathered for the good permanently and completely in God’s reality—will be, and are being.
...Pilgrim’s Inn may indeed be the novel of manners it first appears to be, but it is not a realistic or naturalistic one. It might be called a novel of supernatural manners.
On Gentian Hill
One way of looking at this book is to say that Goudge does here for the historical romance novel something akin to what Lewis did for science fiction. “Romance” can be applied in two senses: conventionally, to denote a love story, or in the older sense, referring to a long story of marvel and dangers, generally with a reasonably happy ending. I can imagine someone considering Gentian Hill to be romantic in a bad sense, sentimental and unreal. But that would be a great misjudgment. It is not naturalistic, but it is spiritually realistic.
Anyone who has read science fiction has come across the idea of parallel realities or alternative histories which resemble our own in many ways but in which some major event—World War II, for instance—turned out differently and brought us to a present very different from the one we know. (Presumably ours is the only one there is in fact, although some scientists maintain that the alternates really exist, thus explaining why ours is so well suited to producing and maintaining life.) I have sometimes entertained a similar idea, but with the separation existing on the vertical and spiritual axis rather than the horizontal and temporal one: I’ve toyed with the idea that the world we know also exists at spiritual levels above ours. (It seems almost universally impossible to speak of spiritual things without using words like “above,” “below,” “higher,” and “lower.”) At these higher levels—I’ve preferred not to dwell on the lower possibilities—the earth and the life and history we know are recognizable, but cleaner and clearer. They are not devoid of evil, but good and evil are more plainly recognizable, and good is stronger and more pure, less thoroughly tainted with the petty moral and physical squalor that seems to define so much of everyday life. The earth itself has a freshness less touched by decay, and a more direct correlation with the spiritual. In short, these worlds are fallen, but not as far fallen, as ours. I imagine these levels ascending, each one more pure and beautiful than the one below, and having less of evil in it. This progress breaks down at some point; it cannot be thought of as having at its summit an unfallen world, because an unfallen world could not resemble ours in its history, because the Fall is our history.
I don’t take this idea seriously as fact. It’s really only a way of thinking about the Fall, and of what might have been lost, as we don’t really have the means of imagining an entirely unfallen world.
It seems to me that Elizabeth Goudge does something like this in her novels. This book appears at first glance to be intended as a normal naturalistic modern novel, and one who expects it to be such might dismiss it as sentimental. The world of the book is better than ours, and most of the people are better than we are. But this better is achieved not so much by eliminating evil and pain as by drawing out truth and goodness, showing us what the real relationship between good and evil is—that is, that goodness is overflowing richness and joy, while evil is paltry, empty, and dull. And as for pain: there is much pain inflicted by evil in the story, but there is just as much caused by good—I don’t mean pain inflicted by a misunderstanding or misdirection of good, but pain as the direct and necessary action of good, the natural effect of the perfect on the imperfect.
I don’t actually want to say very much about the specifics of the story, because I assume the book will be new to most people who read this, and I think it’s better to come to it fresh. But, to sketch out the basic situation: Goudge tells us in a brief preface that it is “a retelling of the legend of St. Michael’s chapel at Torquay[, b]uilt in the thirteenth century....” The legend begins with a sailor rescued by monks from a shipwreck, who, with their help, builds the chapel and lives out the rest of his life as a hermit there. He has a particular concern for young lovers separated by wars and oceans, a concern that continues beyond his physical death. Goudge’s story is set in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic Wars. One of the principals is a teenaged midshipman in the English Navy. He is one half of the couple who make the word “romance” in the conventional sense applicable to the book. The other is a ten-year-old girl. It may be hard to imagine, in our debased cultural atmosphere, that such a situation could be portrayed as sexual but not as perverse. I assure you that it is not only not perverse, but holy and beautiful. It is not carnal, there is no question of physical sexual contact, and yet it is an extraordinarily rich depiction of the masculine-feminine duality at the heart of things.
The girl, Stella, is the adopted daughter of a farming couple, Father and Mother Sprigg. Among the pleasures of the book is the portrayal of their life, which forces one to consider how necessary a part of a healthy culture is life on a well-run farm. How Stella came to Weakaborough Farm, the mystery of her parentage, and especially the love between her and the boy Zachary, are the principal strands of the narrative. It ranges back and forth in time, encompassing another pair of lovers and another hermit, not long after Henry VIII made the monastery and the chapel desolate, and a French couple who had escaped the Revolution’s terror ten years earlier.
If the ways in which these strands are woven together sometimes seems a little too dependent on coincidence, remember what I said about naturalism above, and remember, too, that it is generally not possible to distinguish with certainty coincidence from providence.
...I’ll close with a passage that can serve as a brief exemplar of the novel’s theological and aesthetic sensibility:
At that moment he believed it was worth it. This moment of supreme beauty was worth all the wretchedness of the journey. It was always worth it. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” It was the central truth of existence, and all men knew it, though they might not know that they knew it. Each man followed his own star through so much pain because he knew it, and at journey’s end all the innumerable lights would glow into one.