I am one of the fortunate for I have never lived in a place that was not beautiful, and if at the end of my life I appreciate roses more than snow it was not the case at the beginning. Then, in company with all children and most dogs, I thought snow the wonder of the world. The snow-light filling the house with magic as the white flakes drifted down in windless silence, the splendour when the sun came out and hills and fields and trees sparkled under the arc of blue sky, the thought of the things one did in the snow, tobogganing and snow balling and building a snowman; it was all ecstasy. And somewhere tucked away at the back of one’s mind was the knowledge that every crystal in the vast whiteness, though too small for the human eye to see, was fashioned like a flower or a star. How could snow not be the wonder of the world?
It was not myself as a child but the daughter of a friend of mine who gave me the title for this book. Her mother, accompanied by the dog Coach, had ploughed her way through a deep fall of snow to fetch her youngest home from nursery school. The hard going had been a weariness, the cold a misery to the flesh. Ploughing back again, her youngest attached, a small voice sang out beside her, ‘Look, Mummy! Look at Coach and the joy of the snow!’ Coach was leaping and rolling in the snow, his yeys like stars, his tail a banner. The little girl’s eyes were as bright as his, her face pink inside her hood. She glowed like a flame. Coach glowed. The mother for a few moments looked at the snow through their eyes and the earth had not smutched it.
I hadn’t realized that Elizabeth Goudge had written an autobiography until I read some excerpts from it quoted on Terri Windling’s lovely blog, Myth and Moor. Goudge wrote it in her seventies when she had finished writing novels, and it was first published in 1974. It both is and isn’t what one might expect – as sensitive to beauty and nature as her novels, drily humorous, yet also distinctly unforthcoming about many private matters and quite oblique about her writing. It is also very self-deprecating. But she explains her purpose at the beginning:
[...] this book is hardly an autobiography, it is more an attempt to recapture happy memories and with them some of the joy in places and people that I have known, and to share them. And to share, too, some of the conclusions I have come to about life and work. Neither will be in the least exciting and so my hope for this book is that it will be a good bedside book, and keep nobody awake.
and this is a delightful memoir, glowing with the enchantment of her childhood memories, her joys and her love of the natural world.
Elizabeth (it seems a bit impolite to call her Goudge) was born in 1900. Her father was vice-principal of the Theological College at Wells; her mother had wanted to be a doctor: ‘Interested in anatomy as she naturally was she carried human bones about in her handbag and tipped them out upon the seats of railway carriages when looking for her ticket.’ Agreeing to marry Dr Goudge was difficult: ‘She did not want to give up studying to be a doctor and if she had to marry the very last man she wanted to marry was a clergyman.’ Shortly after Elizabeth’s birth she had a bicycling accident which left her an invalid for the rest of her life; despite this she lived to an advanced age and seems to have been a remarkable person.
(Watercolour of Wells Cathedral, anonymous twentieth-century artist, ca 1920; found here)
Elizabeth laments that she finds it easier to love places than people and her evocations of her childhood homes and her holidays with her grandparents on Guernsey, are wonderfully and vividly recounted. Her descriptions of St Peter’s Port, the cathedral close at Wells, the wonderful Harewood House (Damerosehay) and the lush Devon countryside will be instantly recognisable to readers of her fiction. Some of her real life found its way into her novels. Every Christmas, her father insisted that she choose some of her old toys and give them to poor children; this episode is used in Sister of the Angels (I think) – however, if, like me, you were a selfish child and chilled to the bone to read of Henrietta’s giving away her favourite doll, you may be heartened to know that the real child Elizabeth was not quite as self-sacrificing of her most beloved toys. Elizabeth’s great-uncle, William, emigrated to New Zealand and wrote back to Guernsey to ask the wrong sister to marry him, which forms a major plot point in Green Dolphin Country. It’s nice to spot these moments.
(Rose Cottage, where Elizabeth lived with her friend Jessie 1952–84; found here)
Despite her lament, it is very clear that Elizabeth loved many people in her life and she recreates those of her childhood with great vividness and affection. If she is discreet about any romance she experienced, or about people who are still alive, that is perhaps part of the greater value her generation placed upon privacy. It doesn’t prevent the memoir from being truthful in the best sense, and I derived from it a very strong sense of who she was and what had shaped her. She was clearly a very humble person, and not at all greedy. When the film rights to Green Dolphin Country were sold, it was reported in the press that Elizabeth would receive a very large payment for this – and she panicked at the horrible thought of all that wealth and was heartily relieved when taxes ate up almost all of it.
(Photograph of Elizabeth, undated, from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings)
Elizabeth mainly deals with her work as a novelist in one chapter (significantly entitled ‘Storytelling’, rather than ‘Writing’), in which she answers the questions readers most often ask her. Even then she doesn’t write a great deal about the process of writing, although later in the book she does remark of The White Witch ‘I like the book, it is one I actually enjoyed writing’, which suggests that it was not an unalloyed pleasure. She does write movingly of depression and her faith, and her attempts to reconcile suffering with her love of God. She also writes about ESP and her belief in fairies, ‘not fairies as seen in the picture book but nature spirits whose life is part of the wind and the flowers and the trees’. But it is her Edwardian childhood that she captures most vividly, in my opinion, and for which she remains nostalgic. This memoir shines with Elizabeth’s sensitivity to place, her great kindness and sympathy, her feeling for the magic of life and her joy in detail, both in nature and in people.
And now I am sure I am remembering not what was there but what I thought was there. A locked door and a key in one’s hand, and the power to unlock the door and pass from one world to another, is enough to send any child’s imagination off at the gallop. [..]
Now what I am sure was not there was the thick dense wood into which the door opened after I had turned the key. Nor do I think that a door could have been set not in a stone wall or wooden paling but in the living wall of the wood, a dense wall of twisted briers and plaited branches, thickset with crimson thorns and pointed leaves as firm and hard as onyx and chrysopase. One opened the door, went through it and beyond was the darkness of the wood. [...]
The darkness of that wood has fallen upon every memory except one of the gardens through which I ran to reach Mrs Kennion in the Long Gallery. I know that they were beautiful but I have only that one memory. It is of a mossgrown garden path arched over by nut trees in full leaf, the green moss a soft carpet under the feet, the cool green leaves making the place as secret as a shrine. There is no one to be seen but an ecstasy is alive under the trees. But did I really run along that path?
(I have written about The Joy of the Snow for Lori’s Elizabeth Goudge Day.)