When Lory first announced that today would be Elizabeth Goudge Day, I thought what a splendid idea it was and wondered what I might read to join in. I have had my grandmother’s copy of Green Dolphin Country sitting unread on my shelves for a while. But then I just happened to be fiddling around on the internet as one does and just happened to see that Miss Goudge (I can’t imagine she’d have cared to be referred to as ‘Goudge’ or ‘Elizabeth’) had written a children’s book I’d never heard of before, The Valley of Song. It seems it ran to only one edition (in 1951) and copies of it are rather expensive. However, this review by Lory intrigued me, so I sold my first-born and purchased the cheapest copy I could find. The stakes were fairly high: was this book worth selling my child for?
The story is set in about the 1830s or 1840s in the Hard, a small town on the river which makes its living building ships. Tabitha Silver, fat, cheerful and kind but often naughty, jumps out of the classroom window when Dame Threadgold’s back is turned and runs off to the yard to visit her friend Job, an elderly wood-carver. But Job is depressed, for work has stalled on the tea clipper which was being built for for the East India Company, since the money for it has run out. At dawn the next morning, Tabitha takes him off, accompanied by the Master Builder’s dog and some snails, out of the town and into a secret, quarry ‘all overgrown with travellers’ joy, honeysuckle, sweetbrier, rowan trees and hawthorn [...] the perfect children’s playground’, where a tiny door leads to the Valley of Song. There they find the Workshop, where all the world is made, and they ask for wood to finish building the ship. In subsequent visits, Tabitha and other characters explore some of the wonderful parts of the Valley of Song and request more materials so that they can complete the ship. Of course, things from this magical world are finer than anything in ours and what they are given is very special: silken cloud for the sails, Vulcan’s gold for the hull’s casing. The workers of the Hard are delighted to be able to use them. They create the most beautiful ship ever seen.
That is the plot: there isn’t any real conflict or tension, the delight of the book lies in its marvellous descriptions of the world of the Valley of Song. It’s a place where nothing hunts or kills anything else, and encompasses woods and meadows, beautiful gardens, the sea and the mountains. It’s watched over by the creatures of the Zodiac, and inhabited by the Good People, who are fairies, gnomes, dwarves, etc., and the Great Ones, who seem most like angels. Children can enter this world, and so can animals and birds and fishes, but grown-ups can only do so if they are children at heart and usually even then only in their dreams. However, children can bring such grown-ups with them. There are many ways in and out of the Valley of Song, through dreams but also through forge fires, wells, stables and even kennels.
The Valle of Song is not, however, Heaven. There is, at its highest point, a Crystal Door which is the entrance to Heaven and the Dead pass through it:
Below them the slopes of ice and snow fell away so steeply upon either side that the great gorges and crevices beneath were filled with shadow, like a purple sea from which the ice peaks rose like islands. Gliding over the sea, in and out between these islands, were wonderful sailing-ships with billowing sails, pearl-coloured and filled with light. [...] They were great ships, yet they sped forward as airily as though their sails were made of thistledown. The wind that carried them was still soundless, and the shadowy waves they rode made no whisper. The silence was vast and deep. [...] She ran after [Simon], turning by a tower of ice and finding herself running uphill upon a path that was narrower and more dangerous than ever. But she was not conscious of the precipices because the great cloud-ships had risen up from the depths below and were sailing upon either side of her. If she could have stopped, she believed she could almost have touched their lovely shining sails. She could not stop, but as she ran she was gloriously aware of the beauty close beside her, and aware too of hidden decks below the sails thronged with people. Shiploads of people were sailing along beside her, people who out in the world were called dead [...]
An important link between the Hard and the Valley of Song is the value of work, specifically, of crafting. The whole of the Valley of Song is dedicated to making things that for our world, while life in the Hard revolves around building ships:
‘It is hard work to build a ship,’ said Anthony. ‘It is hard work to plant a garden. It is hard work to make a world. But only in workshops are men happy.’
The love and joy that people have in making things is transmitted to the objects they make and they acquire a sort of life. This happens most clearly with the ship. Tabitha and Job are standing on her skeleton when they feel her come alive: ‘It seemed to Tabitha that a sudden shiver passed through the planks benath her feet, a tremor like the rising of sap.’ The work ethic is a very Protestant value, but here Elizabeth Goudge is I think taking it further to say that what we create takes on a part of our selves and our lives and makes them something more than just inanimate objects. I suppose it’s a sort of animism. I think I wrote before about a generous pantheistic quality to her spirituality, and that is evident here in her feeling for the life of things but also for the importance of the Zodiac in the Valley of Song and the existence of fairies alongside angels. I think she has a kinship with C.S. Lewis and Narnia, as well as with George MacDonald (as Lory has rightly pointed out); she certainly has a talent for creating amazing worlds you long to visit.
For the Valley of Song is just so wonderfully beautiful and so perfectly described, with a sensitivity to inner as well as outer beauty. I would like to quote chunks of it at you all day. For instance, there is this exquisite and poignant passage about the experiences in the Valley of Julie, the wife of the Master Builder, whose children all died in infancy:
Never in her life had she longed for anything so much as she longed to come to that country. She could see it clearly now, violet-shadowed golden hills and deep blue valleys, fields of rosy flowers and orchards of silver-leaved trees with golden fruit, and above them the shining snows with the stars among their domes an peaks, and long gleaming slopes of white where surely angels paced. [...] The globe of light about her was dissolving, but the starry children were holding her hands and she was running with them down the blue slope of the sky. And then their cool hands loosed hers and she was running alone down the golden slope of a hill to a deep blue misty valley filled with singing. The hill-side beneath her feet was soft as a cloud yet firm with unconquerable joy, and in case the joy of this country should at first be more than she could bear, the merciful air below her hid the treasure of the valley while she ran to it.
It took her and held her for a moment, as her mother might have done, and then set her down upon a path of silvery moss that led through a long aisle of those silver-leaved trees, long and narrow like a silver lance of joy, and at the far end of the aisle she saw as through a doorway a meadow of rosy flowers and children playing there. She ran and ran, and she blessed the length of the aisle, because at every step she took the piercing of this silver lance of joy grew easier to bear. She ran on [...]
(I love ‘a silver lance of joy’.)
Was The Valley of Song worth the price of a child? Oh definitely. (Actually I didn’t sell my child. I love books but not quite that much. Not quite.) I can see that its appeal to children, even in 1951, might be limited because of the lack of a compelling plot and the lengthy descriptions; but I do hope that it will be reprinted because I am sure that a lot of older readers would enjoy this enchanting and very special book.
Thank you Lory, for hosting this Elizabeth Goudge Day and prompting me to discover The Valley of Song!