Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Elizabeth Goudge and The Dean's Watch (what I'm reading: Christian novels)

Why should we always want a light? He chose darkness for us, darkness of the womb and of the stable, darkness in the garden, darkness on the cross and in the grave. The Dean's Watch
Last week I told you about one of my favourite Christian novelists: Elizabeth Goudge, an Anglo-Catholic English writer popular during the middle part of the last century. Her father was a minister and her mother an invalid, and she grew up in the cathedral towns of Wells and Ely, to some extent cut off from the outside world - which explains the idyllic setting of many of her boooks. Her novels are mostly little known now, except for her children's book The Little White Horse.

Why do I like Elizabeth Goudge? Her books draw me into another world. They are imbued with a sense of God and the wonder of his creation, salvation and providence. They spur me on to self-denying love, courage in suffering, faithfulness in relationships, discipline in obedience, and joy in God's world. Her writing can be sentimental and theologically tenuous, but it's also lyrical and full of spiritual insight. I finish her novels with quotes and ideas I want to reflect on further - like this one - and with that little *sigh* of regret that comes at the end of a good book.

Her books aren't easy to find,* but if you do manage to track them down, here are my favourites. The Dean's Watch, which you might be able to get hold of as part of the City of Bells trilogy, is probably the closest to "classic" among her books; the cathedral dean at the heart of the book is discussed in Leland Ryken's Pastors in the Classics. I also love The Rosemary Tree, The Castle on the Hill, and the Eliot trilogy: Bird in the Tree, The Heart of the Family and Pilgrim's Inn. There are a few you might not want to bother with, like The Middle Window. If you're into novels on a more epic scale, try Green Dolphin Country. 

Here's a taste of Elizabeth Goudge: three quotes from The Dean's Watch about a man who claims not to believe in God, but who can't quite deny the reflections of God's glory in the world and people around him.
He was a convinced but hardworked rationalist, always hard at it re-convincing himself of his convictions. During his bad times this was not difficult, but during his good times the bright shards on the floor of the world had a trick of turning into shining pools that reflected something.
He was abruptly conscious of something that suddenly lit up his darkness as though a shutter had swung back, then closed again, leaving a picture illumined small and bright against the darkness of his mind. Tall silver towers lifted up against the cloudless blue sky above, old houses with crooked roofs and gables gathered about the market place that was filled to the brim with a dazzle of golden sunshine. In the gold a running child with yellow hair, glinting and gay, and an old man as gay as she was, forgetful of himself. Chimes rang out far up in the blue sky. Half-past-twelve. Other bells answered as though ringing in another world. ...The small bright picture faded from Isaac's mind but he had it somewhere. ... And others, equally imperishable, small and precious as little pictures painted within a great gold letter in an illuminated manuscript. Sometimes he would fancy that strung together they would have been a sort of speech telling him something.

That sky was enough to make a man imagine anything, it was in itself so unbelievable.

That's pages 112 then 19, 166-7 and 304 in my water-marked and dog-eared copy of The Dean's Watch.

* Try abebooks, an excellent online source for second hand books.


marmie said...

Thanks so much for this! You've expressed beautifully some of the impressions we share. There are truly moments of breathtaking insight and beauty in her writings. She is very good at describing varying emotions and even mental illness (The Scent of Water).

The Dean's Watch is my very favourite, then probably the Rosemary Tree followed by the Scent of Water :)

Interestingly, The Middle Window (I agree, do not read!!) is her second book, when she was apparently dabbling with the idea of reincarnation. I seem to remember that she said in her autobiography that she was feeling a bit rebellious in her earlier life towards her very doctrinally "correct" father.

Jean said...

Thanks, Marmie! That's really interesting about "The Middle Window". That explains its oddness!!

John Hopkins said...

May I also suggest "The Scent of Water." Simply Beautiful!

Michael Mates said...

Dear Marmie,

Elizabeth Goudge’s The Dean’s Watch is a hymn to the transformation of broken lives by the grace and, especially, the love of God. It is also a revelation of the eccentricities, if not heresies, of Anglican Christianity.

Throughout the book, the cathedral is loved and hated almost as a person, and established Anglicanism, despite its faults, stands in dignified contrast to the “tin tabernacle” where the undertaker worships. Even decrepit old St Peter’s at least has dignity.

Goudge notes with sympathy the prior who kills himself after the dissolution of the monastery; speaks of two women who “seem not to have shared in the complications of the primeval fall;” praises Miss Montague for reaching that state by willing and fighting for it; and says that the Dean fought with an evil situation “until the evil fell out of it and fastened on himself.”

As with all of love our Lord, the core is there, with perhaps a bit of oddness or two at the periphery.

Grace to you from the Pacific Northwest,

Michael Mates