Elizabeth Goudge: Gentian Hill
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.
If we think of pre-pubescent childhood crushes many of us probably had, then we can see how there can be a boy-girl attraction which prefigures Holy Matrimony. It is holy and pure, I think, and I'm reminded of the story of Emma, in which Mr Knightly discovers that he is madly in love with the much younger Emma who is 21 by this time, but also realises he has loved her since she was at least 13 and I have never considered that to be perverse. But there is nothing sexually perverse in Jane Austen - except the mention of a "natural child." Oh, and mention of Willoughby's seduction of a young woman, who is Col. Brandon's ward.
Posted by: Louise | 03/07/2011 at 05:04 PM
I've just worked out the difference. People sometime use the adjective "sexy" of their small child, which I find repellent in the extreme. They talk about "romance" when their little ones form a friendship with a child of the opposite sex, but it's somehow more crass than the way my friends and I do.
I like to see my little children form close friendships with children of both sexes and in the case of their opposite sex friends, I will often speak humourously of arranged marriages and such. But there's the difference - the ultimate goal of the sexual faculty for the Christian is Holy Matrimony, not perpetual adolescence and pre-adulthood boyfriends and girlfriends and "sexiness."
Posted by: Louise | 03/07/2011 at 05:10 PM
A woman who would use the word "sexy" about a pre-pubescent child, except *possibly* in a thoroughly joking way, is probably stupid. A man who would do it is probably evil.
Puberty is the line of demarcation, surely. In the little country school I attended through 9th grade, I remember somewhere around 8th grade or so hearing very poor girls talk about dropping out of school to get married when they turned...what was the age? 16 at the most, I'm sure.
What's striking about the situation in Gentian Hill is that it isn't a childhood crush, it's the real thing, and the boy is post-pubescent. And yet there is no carnality. Such a thing is pretty unlikely, I think, although I'm sure not impossible.
Posted by: Mac | 03/07/2011 at 09:29 PM
I read "Pilgrim's Inn" a year or so ago and liked it, but not enough to move me to read more Goudge. However this one sounds like it might be more up my alley.
For folks that like Goudge I'd highly recommend Ronald Blythe as another English writer with a similar theological/aesthetic sensibility. He too would have made a good Inkling! I've not read any of his fiction, but the three volumes of non-fiction that I've read are wonderful. He's got Lewis' literary sense (he was editor of the Penguin Classics for 20 years) and Englishness, and Wendell Berry's rural sensibility, and he writes as a believing Anglican clergyman.
The books I've read are best described as "journals" -- not exactly memoirs, but not a diary either. They include his observations of people, nature, faith and literature, and they are quite poetic and well-tuned to the turnings of both the natural seasons and the Church year. If you're at all interested, I'd start with 'Word From Wormingford,' which is the first book of a trilogy, being followed by 'Out of the Valley' and 'Borderlands.'
His most famous book is 'Akenfield,' which is quite different from the Wormingford books. It's more of an informal journalistic study of the changes in rural England in the 20th century, based largely on interviews with residents.
By the way, he's 89 and still writing!
Posted by: Rob G | 03/08/2011 at 07:58 AM
I don't know whether you'd like Gentian Hill better or not. It's...how to say it? a more active, external drama--I mean, more things *happen* than in the Eliot family books. The virtue of courage is very important in Goudge's work, or so it seems on the basis of the three I've read, and it's maybe more so in this one.
Posted by: Mac | 03/08/2011 at 10:18 AM
Well, I've checked our library and we have a copy, so maybe I'll give it a go in the near future. I'm currently reading 'Barnaby Rudge' but am only about half-way through, so it may be a little while!
Posted by: Rob G | 03/08/2011 at 10:26 AM
Your mention of Ronald Blythe rang a bell. I thought you might have mentioned him before in relation to Goudge, and you did, in the comments on my post about Pilgrim's Inn: http://lightondarkwater.typepad.com/lodw/2009/08/pilgrims-inn-by-elizabeth-goudge.html
I was about to repeat here my comment from that thread, that I had heard of Blythe in the old Common Reader catalog. I definitely need to read him.
Wendell Berry came to mind several times when I was reading the farm-life parts of GH. It's a little frustrating to write about a book like that the way I do, spending only a few hours on the job. There are all sorts of threads I'd like to follow but I have to pass up a lot of them. It crossed my mind after doing this one that I would actually like to read all her work and write a substantial study of it. This was somewhat shocking--I haven't had any desire to do anything of the sort for many years.
Posted by: Mac | 03/08/2011 at 10:35 AM
The point of my last comment, which I think I managed not to make, was that the Wendell-Berry-ish aspect of the book, the whole depiction of the farm and farm life and farm people, is actually worthy of a good bit of attention, and I made a conscious decision to slight it, for lack of time.
Posted by: Mac | 03/08/2011 at 11:00 AM
The Goudge project sounds like a good one for retirement. ;-)
I see that at the time I posted those comments on the other thread I was reading 'Wormingford.' I've since read two more. I'm glad I checked those old comments -- one of Janet's posts reminded me of that 'Amish Farm' book by Kline, which had slipped my mind.
On Amazon.co.uk the other day I noticed that a big Blythe anthology, 'Aftermath,' has come out in England. I was looking up some books on the English "back to the land" movement of the 1930's and saw that Blythe had written the intro to a new edition of one of them, Adrian Bell's "Men and the Fields." I clicked on his name and the listing for 'Aftermath' came up.
Posted by: Rob G | 03/08/2011 at 11:34 AM
This book appeals even more to me than the previous one you recommended, Mac. She definitely sounds like an author I should get to know.
Rob G, I'm also reading 'Barnaby Rudge' right now! I know that it is not one of his most popular books, but I am finding it quite good, and easier to follow than some of his books. The second half is unusually violent (for Dickens).
Posted by: Craig | 03/08/2011 at 12:23 PM
I don't like all of EG's books equally well. The Eliot trilogy and GH and the Scent of Water are, I think, by far the best. After those, I like The Rosemary Tree and Island Magic the best.
There's one about Charles II and Lucy Walter called The Child from the Sea that I don't like much and another called The Middle Window that's more like a typical romance only a little better.
Castle on the Hill was written during WWII and while it has glimpses of the light, it is almost unbearably sad.
Green Dolphin Street, which is the best known because there is a movie (which differs quite a bit from the book) isn't, I think, one of her best but there is a description in there of a little hidden sea cave with beautiful shells that is almost worth the price of the book and which has made me yearn for that cave ever after.
Posted by: Janet | 03/08/2011 at 12:35 PM
I'm enjoying Barnaby quite a bit, Craig. Funny that we're reading it at the same time. I'm just past the point where Hugh has joined the No-Popery group. I imagine it does get violent, with the riots and all. Dickens is truly one of a kind!
Posted by: Rob G | 03/08/2011 at 01:12 PM
Yes, you would think that one would study Dickens in two semester of B. Lit, but you would be wrong.
Posted by: Janet | 03/08/2011 at 01:17 PM
Come to think of it, I didn't get Dickens in college either. I started off as an Eng. Lit. major then switched to religious studies. Even in a course called "The Development of the English Novel" we skipped from Austen to Hardy. Didn't think of it at the time, but yes, that was odd!
Posted by: Rob G | 03/08/2011 at 01:36 PM
Oh, well we don't get Austen either, and only poems from Hardy. No Bronte. No Eliot. Lots of William Blake and race, class and gender.
Posted by: Janet | 03/08/2011 at 01:46 PM
To skip Dickens in a course on the English novel, or in a 2-semester British Lit course, is pretty much a travesty. Though I can't say I'm altogether surprised.
And the race-class-gender obsession...sigh...fulmination is appropriate but then you think "why bother?"
Posted by: Mac | 03/08/2011 at 03:11 PM
When I think about your image of the higher worlds, I have the impression of EG using some kind of strainer and the small unimportant things fall out while the bigger, more real things are lifted up.
It also makes me think, though, that in some sense the higher worlds do exists and that somehow the true things rise and the dross gets left behind. Which I think in the case of refining is the opposite of how it works, but,hey, it's my metaphor. ;-)
Posted by: Janet | 03/08/2011 at 05:51 PM
I don't think they don't exist (in spite of what I said above about not taking the idea as fact). I think our minds aren't "physically," so to speak, capable of grasping whatever actually is the case in the greater reality. Maybe this is worth something as a guess. It sort of relates to Lewis's "further up and further in," doesn't it?
Posted by: Mac | 03/08/2011 at 07:36 PM
Oh, well of course. That was the first thing I thought when I read it what you said.
Posted by: Janet | 03/08/2011 at 07:40 PM
I'm not really surprised to hear that Dickens is passed over in lit. courses, but it raises an interesting question: why?
I think that maybe Dickens is embarrassing to a certain kind of academic. He is so sincere, so pious, and so much in love with common men that I think he must be noxious to cynical, secular elites. (Not that literature professors are generally cynical, so far as I know.) There is a good deal of political incorrectness in Dickens, as there is in other novelists of his time -- unequivocal gender roles! blushing girls! -- but somehow Dickens is just so strong, so charming, and so level-headed that he makes that political incorrectness look awfully attractive. And while it would be possible to analyze his books along the lines of 'race, class, and gender', Dickens makes us feel that doing so is rather missing the point.
Those are my theories, anyway.
Posted by: Craig | 03/08/2011 at 09:20 PM
And may I take this opportunity to wish 'Adieu' and 'God bless' to Janet, whom I believe is disappearing from cyberspace for Lent?
You'll only be gone for a day at at time, Maclin, so I don't feel I need to say goodbye to you.
Posted by: Craig | 03/08/2011 at 09:23 PM
Oops: I should have put that previous comment on the Ash Wednesday post. So here I am, compounding my error.
Posted by: Craig | 03/08/2011 at 09:24 PM
Bye, Craig and everyone.
Posted by: Janet | 03/08/2011 at 09:47 PM
That's a good point about Dickens, Craig. I expect the word that would be used most against him is "sentimental," and he is that at times. But at his best he's not, so that's partly (mainly?) an excuse. "Moralistic" would be another one, but that comes unconvincingly from the r-c-g-obsessive crowd, as they are far more unbalanced in that way than he is.
Posted by: Mac | 03/08/2011 at 10:22 PM
Dickens is 'virtuous' in a way that the r-c-g crowd is not in that the virtues he extols do not self-reflect in the way that theirs often do. You seldom get the sense in Dickens that he's patting himself on the back for his correct views.
Posted by: Rob G | 03/09/2011 at 09:25 AM
True, and his virtues tend not to be those most in favor today.
I sometimes think self-congratulation is the mainspring of r-c-g thinking. That would be overstating it, but it sure is a strong presence.
Posted by: Mac | 03/10/2011 at 10:45 AM
"his virtues tend not to be those most in favor today"
The self-congratulating nature of today's progressivism carries over, I'd say, from its earlier manifestations in such things as radical Abolitionism and Wilsonian Progressivism. Basically, it's the heir of meddlesome Yankee Puritan do-gooding, but divested of its religious content.
Posted by: Rob G | 03/10/2011 at 11:23 AM
Self-righteousness has a pretty lengthy history. But there is something different about progressive self-righteousness. I guess it's the oft-noted characteristic that it doesn't necessarily have much to do with self per se--it's a matter of having the right opinions more than actually doing or being anything. As in giving yourself points for generosity to the poor because you're a Democrat.
Posted by: Mac | 03/10/2011 at 01:10 PM
oh my goodness...i just discovered an old book of Gentian Hill at book sale...in our library...i read a few pages and fell in love with its gentle sweet poetic words...i shall begin reading this evening...and let you know how it goes!
Posted by: EdenClare | 02/03/2012 at 06:31 PM
Hope you enjoy it.
Posted by: Mac | 02/03/2012 at 08:46 PM
Those who like E. Goudge should take a look at Ronald Blythe, the English writer/diarist set to turn 90 this year. He too is Inkling-esque: he's got Lewis's knowledge of literature and poetry combined with a good eye for nature, a great feel for people and personalities, and a winsome spirituality. His writing exhibits intelligence, wit, and goodheartedness in a way that's hard to come by these days. His most famous book is "Akenfield," but that's more of a journalistic work, featuring interviews with rural Englanders. Instead I'd recommend "Word From Wormingford" as a starting place.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/04/2012 at 02:34 PM
You've recommended him before, and he does sound good. Maybe I'll actually take your recommendation before too long--I'm at least getting to the point of recognizing his name.:-)
Posted by: Mac | 02/04/2012 at 05:00 PM
I am greatly indebted to EdenClare for bringing this post to my attention. Maclin, I intend to read this book when I can get hold of a copy. The themes! They are very much where I'm at right now in my meditations, particuarly the bits about farming and "masculine-feminine duality at the heart of things."
Posted by: Louise | 02/05/2012 at 04:32 AM
I think you'll like it. And btw if you scroll up to the beginning of the comments, you'll see that this is not your first reading of the post (if that's what you meant). Likewise, I see I don't have to search very far to refresh my memory about Rob's previous recommendation of Blythe.
Posted by: Mac | 02/05/2012 at 11:14 AM
"I see I don't have to search very far to refresh my memory about Rob's previous recommendation of Blythe."
Ha! And in the same words almost! Hard to believe that's only a year ago. I vaguely remember writing something like it but I had no idea when it was.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/05/2012 at 01:42 PM
I meant bringing it back to my attention, but it's just amazing to me that when I first saw this I was interested, but now I'm Really Keen!
Posted by: Louise on the iPod | 02/05/2012 at 03:38 PM
Got a fascinating book by Blythe out of the library in order to give it a look-over and see if I wanted to buy it. It's called 'Divine Landscapes,' and is a sort of pilgrimage in words to various places in England that have a strong Christian connection of one sort or another: martyrdom sites of both Catholics and Protestants, the villages of George Herbert, John Bunyan, and J.M. Neale, abodes and parishes of various medieval saints, etc. Extremely well-written, with loads of literary and historical allusions, the text is accompanied by many nicely done b&w photos of the various sites. Anyone interested in Christian England would probably find it fascinating.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/11/2012 at 03:02 PM
That does sound great. I just checked several local libraries and, alas, did not turn it up.
Posted by: Mac | 02/11/2012 at 04:32 PM
I've just ordered a copy of GH from Amazon.
Posted by: Louise | 02/11/2012 at 09:17 PM
"I just checked several local libraries and, alas, did not turn it up."
I was rather surprised that our library here had a copy. Having said that, there seem to be quite a few cheap copies on www.bookfinder.com.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/12/2012 at 12:41 PM
Hmmm, very tempting.
Posted by: Mac | 02/12/2012 at 05:11 PM
I discovered a wonderful site, http://www.worldcat.org/ , that let’s you find the libraries in your city/state/country that have a book you’re looking for. A quick way to find out if something can be gotten via an interlibrary loan.
Posted by: Marianne | 02/13/2012 at 12:36 AM
I read a good article over the weekend about Charles Causley. He was a Cornish poet. I can't put a link to the article up, because the magazine, Slightly Foxed, doesn't put any of its content online. But I looked up and found the poem it ends with - Eden Rock. I tried to put that here, but both times I posted, nothing happened. So here is a link to the poem being read aloud by Causley - the last two lines, as written on the page, are his comment, not part of the poem.
Posted by: ex pat | 02/13/2012 at 08:48 AM
That's a great poem--thank you. I'm not sure that I've ever even heard Causley's name. At most it's very vaguely familiar. I see there are some other poems of his at that site, which I will check out.
On the other hand I'm very sure I've heard the name "Eden Rock" before, although I can't think where. I want to say it's some commercial context....
Posted by: Mac | 02/13/2012 at 09:44 AM
Thanks, Marianne. I had heard of WorldCat, from my wife, who's in library school. But somehow I'd gotten the idea that one had to be a Professional Librarian (tm) to understand it.
Posted by: Mac | 02/13/2012 at 09:46 AM
I'm pretty sure that Sally has mentioned him here before. I know that she's written about him on her blog.
Posted by: Janet | 02/13/2012 at 10:03 AM