Monday, February 14, 2011

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

This was the first of Elizabeth Goudge's books for grown-ups that I've read. Previously I'd read Smoky-House and The Little White Horse, and thanks to Mrs Sonnemann's kind loan I've now been able to read The Rosemary Tree.
The story revolves around some of the inhabitants of a small West Country town. The vicar of Belmaray, John Wentworth, is a man nearly crippled by a sense of his own failure. An intensely conscientious man, he persists in his duty to his flock despite this, spurred on by a love for his people's souls that surmounts his natural timidity of themselves. His wife Daphne, who was once an actress with a smart set in London, is dogged by discontent; their children are miserable in the local private school, Oaklands. His old nanny, who originally came to live with them to keep house, is now crippled by arthritis and in constant pain.
John is also by right the local squire, though his great-aunt Miss Maria Wentworth is the only one still living in the family's ancient home Belmaray. Maria has lived at and loved Belmaray all her life; now that she's getting old and losing everything else she loves, she wonders how she will bear to part with Belmaray itself when the Wentworth family's finances force them to sell.
At Oaklands, the two schoolteachers, pretty young Mary O'Hara and ugly, embittered old Miss Giles both struggle against the poisonous and slovenly atmosphere induced by the school's self-centred headmistress, Mrs Belling.
And finally, there's the mysterious man who wanders, penniless and hungry, into town one day. Michael Stone, newly released from prison, is running away from the ghosts in his past, but it's going to take more than running away to get rid of them.
You would be correct in thinking this is not a cheerful set-up. Sadness—gentle and a little hopeful—rises out of this book like a scent. Add in the deeply introspective passages, the slow and detailed character development, and detailed descriptions of the world of the story, and you have one of those books that I normally avoid. I have a weakness for explosions. Or fencing duels—I'm not picky. I could tell at once that there would be no explosions in The Rosemary Tree, and I feared at first that there would not be much else to grasp my attention either.
Dear reader, I stayed up late every night for a week absolutely gripped by this book. I didn't rush through it—it's far too good for that—but I read it every spare moment. Following are some of my few observations about this extremely rich and satisfying story:
First of all, I did fear a little that it was going to go on being sad all the way through; and in fact the ending, though happy, is a little tinged by regret. One character, for instance, loses the thing she treasured most; the happy ending part of it has to do with the fact that she is strengthened to bear it. I deeply appreciated that.
The genre of The Rosemary Tree is extremely difficult to pick. In some respects it's a little like a mystery story, in the sense that Michael's past comes to light slowly, including his past with one or two of the other characters. More than a mystery, however, it's like a fantasy. Now Elizabeth Goudge is a Christian, and this book is more about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit than anything else; but she writes it like a fantasy story, not like Christian fiction. It's hard to explain, but CS Lewis had a similar gift...and yet, he always wrote fantasy, and this is emphatically not fantasy. I mean that Goudge depicts the world as it is, with that deep undercurrent of the supernatural and poetry that this world has.
When Michael hears about Miss Wentworth, for instance, he imagines her, not as she appears on the outside, but more the way that she truly is inside:
In what country did a river of mother-of-pearl slip to the sea between banks flaming wih rhododendrons, while up above them an old woman with great rubies in her ears lived with her peacocks and spiders in the splendid dust of a ruined house, and walked the tangled paths of a mad garden full of roses that had known no pruning knife in a hundred years?

Then, we have Mary O'Hara, who senses the deep evil in Mrs Belling, and imagines something out of a horror story:
She hardly knew what she expected; almost that Aunt Rose would rise up in bed like the evil specter in that awful ghost story of MR James', and clothed in her sheets arch over her like a breaking wave; and she would be found later dead beneath the soiled linen, an expression of terror graven upon her dead face.

There is a poem at the front of the book, The Old Knight by George Peele, which ends with the words-- “Goddess, allow this aged man his right/To be your beadsman now, that was your knight.” These words pervade the book, describing many different relationships, but Goudge perhaps comes closest to dropping her true meaning when she has a character say,
And there is another lady whom we honor, and for whom we pray ceaselessly; the soul. … The soul, you know, like a ship, is always 'she'. That fact turns any man of prayer who battles for her into a knight.”

The imagery of knights, of a battle between good and evil, and the mere idea that something stranger and more beautiful, or sometimes more sinister, is lurking beneath the visible world work together to make this in some ways unremarkable (explosionless) story a good deal more gripping than I expected it to be; it also bestowed upon it a deep poetic beauty.
Apart from the vivid imagery, there are also some very rich themes at work.
One thing that pops up in one paragraph, hardly a motif in this motif-rich work, is almost Lewisian:
Beauty awakened such intolerable longing that people often shut their eyes to it, unaware that the longing was the greatest treasure that they had, their very lifeline, uniting the country of their lost innocence with the heavenly country for which their sails were set.

Two more motifs are worth commenting: the colour red-gold appears to be very important, and the importance of birds, specifically God revealed in birds, is commented upon by the characters themselves. Birds preside over most of the important moments in the book; red-gold colours many of the landscapes. What Goudge does not spell out is, I think, that both these motifs refer to the Holy Spirit, who is symbolised by a dove and by fire. The Holy Spirit: God-as-Comforter in this book of people who so desperately need comforting. It can be easy to forget the third Person of the Trinity, and if I am right this is a beautiful work in His praise.
Another motif is the rosemary of the title. “Rosemary—that's for remembrance—I pray you, love, remember” is quoted several times in the book and this is a very memory-heavy book. The important moment of the book that is not presided over by birds is presided over by the rosemary tree itself, taking the form of the silver knight's shield offered to Michael to take up. Memory is important because through memory the characters can access their times of obedience and delight in God, as well as the truth of their sins. The Rosemary Tree is all about its characters' pasts.
Finally, if there's an overarching theme, it is human weakness as a vehicle for grace. The characters of The Rosemary Tree—more particularly the men—are deeply flawed; almost crippled by those flaws. Of one such flawed character, Goudge explains:
They all said they could not do without her. In the paradoxical nature of things if she could have believed them she would have been a much happier woman, but not the woman whom they could not do without.

These flaws impede the characters, but grace filters both through and around them in surprising ways, sometimes in saving ways.
Rich in characters and in message, The Rosemary Tree (published 1951 and not in the public domain, alas) is a wonderful book. Find it and read it.


Christina Baehr said...

Oh, I really appreciated your perspective on this book - definitely some themes I hadn't considered before! If you read more of Goudge, you'll see that some of these characters seem to resurface (under different names) in other books, but the character of Mary O'Hara is quite unique in her work. I really like the way that evil is banal and disgusting in this book, while goodness is shining and powerful and mysterious.

marmie said...

Thanks, Suzannah, for the beautifully written review ;) The three children also made a huge impression on me...

A disclaimer: Miss Goudge's writing is not completely consistent. Some are much better written than others...a few I would consider appalling. =8-D Another I thoroughly recommend is "The Dean's Watch"; she was not quite satisfied with her body of work and said, herself, that she felt "The Dean's Watch" was "the closest to what God wanted" it to be.

Rosemary said...

I've read another book by Elizabeth Gouge called "The Scent of Water." It wasn't the most well-written book I've read, but I really loved it.

This book is one of my mother's favorites--maybe part of why she named me Rosemary? ;) It's on my to-read list.

bazeblog said...

Gentian Hill is also a fabulous Goudge book which I would recommend unreservedly... it seems every time I read one of her books, it becomes a new favorite. Green Dolphin Street and The Child from the Sea (which I am currently reading and have been enchanted by) are beautiful historical fictions.

Barbara Bell said...

The only other book by Elizabeth Goudge which I really liked was Gentian Hill. It, too, is a story mostly about deeply flawed characters, yet one comes to love and sympathise with them...perhaps we like ourselves a little better (knowing our own flaws) after meeting such characters in a book.


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