Sunday Night Journal — March 6, 2011
Elizabeth Goudge 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.
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 can’t begin to say in this short piece all that could be said about Gentian Hill, but one thing that I really can’t leave out is that Elizabeth 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.
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.
My deep thanks to Janet Cupo for introducing me to this writer, not to mention giving me two of her books.