Elizabeth Goudge is one of my favorite authors, though some of her children’s books are a bit too sweet for my taste. Of her adult books, my favorites are The Scent of Water and the Damerosehay books, with their lovely descriptions and gentle wisdom. Of her YA (young adult) books, this one is my favorite, although The Little White Horse runs a close second.
When their father departs for a new posting in India, the four Linnet children are left with their grandmother and her companion, Miss Bolt, two elderly women whose autocratic ways do not go over well with the children. Nan, Robert, Timothy, and Betsy, ranging in ages from twelve to six, are most distressed at being abandoned by their father, their mother having died five years earlier. After a particularly difficult set-to with Grandmama and the Thunderbolt, the children run away, scrambling over the garden wall and trudging toward the setting sun.
Tiring, they spy a pony and cart outside of a pub and hop in. The pony sets off for home, fetching up at a dark house in a mysterious village. Investigating, they find a tall man with an owl on his shoulder, who turns out to be their Uncle Ambrose, a retired schoolteacher-turned-parson who professes to loathe children and all their ways. Yet he allows them to stay with him. Also resident is Ezra, who has pointed ears and cooks delightful meals for the children, despite having been left to walk home from the pub when the children “borrowed” the pony and cart. Adventures ensue, as the children get caught up in the tensions and tragedies of the village and its surroundings.
Part of why I love this story is simply the immersion in another world. Set in 1912, the way of life described in this story has a nostalgic tint, but it is far from the Merrie England stereotype. There’s a bit of The Fatal Englishman as Sebastian Faulks called it: amateur explorers and archeologists wandering off on adventures and getting lost. There’s the darkness that comes from village isolation, set against the power of intelligence, learning and the ability to love. And, of course, everything is lit by the lovely glow of that “long afternoon” of the pre-war years.
Another part is the children themselves. Goudge does children very well. They are neither sarcastic nor smarmy, neither too good nor too bad, simply real children. I can’t imagine how Goudge knows or remembers so well how children think and what they care about, but she does so brilliantly. I also like the way she describes the food at meals with such relish, whether it’s the tiny cakes for tea or the great fry-ups for breakfast. Goudge’s descriptions of places, especially gardens and houses, are quite wonderful. Something about the description of Nan’s little parlor, furnished for her by Ambrose, has stayed with me over the years.
Finally, I like the way the magic bits are handled: lightly, deftly. You can chalk them up to a child’s imagination or, if you like, believe that a cat can concertina into a huge monster and a handful of bees lead you to safety. I love the gentle allusions to legends about bees and fairy folk. This book is charming, not in an empty soap-bubble way like Brideshead’s Sebastian, but in the old sense of casting a spell on the reader, enchanting me again every time I read it.