Elizabeth Goudge is an author whose work I have been planning to read for at least a decade. I have no idea why it has taken me such a long time to get around to picking up one of her novels; perhaps it is merely because she seems to have been very underrepresented in the majority of the physical bookshops which I have visited over the years. I am thrilled to say though that my local library had a copy of the first novel in the Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy, and that I fell in love with its story immediately.
The Bird in the Tree, first published in 1940, is also known as the first part of the Eliot Chronicles series. The Eliot family decided to relocate to a rather decrepit house named Damerosehay, close to the Hampshire coast, following the First World War. When discovering the neglected house whilst on a walk with her young grandson David, Goudge writes: ‘They opened doors into queer rooms lit only by the long fingers of bright sunlight that smote through the chinks in the shutters… They pursued long twisting passages to their strange conclusions in unexpected flights of steps and small closets throughout whose broken windows creepers had grown, trailing their tendrils on the floor… They explored attics under the roof where the plaster had fallen and the slates had slipped, so that patches of blue sky smiled in upon them, and exciting cellars where toadstools like orange flowers were growing in the must and damp.’ Lucilla decides, immediately, that this is the house for them, and sets about buying it.
Matriarch Lucilla Eliot then spends ‘a lifetime’ making this house ‘a tranquil haven for her family’, and it is here that we watch them grow. There are several rather endearing young grandchildren – Ben, Tommy, and Caroline – who flit in and out of the action, and two dogs named ‘Pooh-Bah and Bastard’ complete the ensemble.
Far from being a peaceful novel, though, The Bird in the Tree is filled with scandal. Lucilla’s beloved grandson, David, deigns to fall in love with ‘an unsuitable woman’ – his aunt by marriage, now divorced. Of course, Lucilla takes this news terribly, feeling that it threatens her ‘most cherished ambitions’. At a point just before she learns of David’s transgressions, ‘… she looked what she was, a leisured and lovely old lady securely enthroned in a home where there was enough money for the creation of dignity and beauty but not enough for luxury or ostentation.’
Much understanding is given by Goudge to her characters. Nine-year-old Ben, who has grown up in Egypt and India, is finally settling in to life at Damerosehay. Goudge writes: ‘The first seven years of his life were now just a confused and painful memory of heat and flies, bands playing, riots when people got shot, a burning fever in his body, a pain in his head, a choking feeling in his chest that they told him was asthma, and his father and mother quarrelling.’ His divorced parents are largely absent from the lives of himself, Tommy, and Caroline, with their father moving back to India, and their mother residing in London – until she and David fall in love and she returns, much to the chagrin of her sons, of course.
Goudge’s descriptions are nothing short of superb. When writing about Ben, one of the grandchildren, for instance, she says: ‘In his mind’s eye, as he ran on, he could see the green grass paths between the lavender hedges, the purple masses of the Michaelmas daisies with the butterflies sunning their wings upon them, the glowing spires of the golden rod and the flowers of the dahlias and petunias, the frail late autumn roses and the ilex tree by the house where the blackbird sang. He could see the colour of it, and smell the damp sweet scent of it, and feel how it lived and breathed within its old brick walls just to give sanctuary to those who needed it.’ The garden particularly came to life for me; it is presented in so much precise detail that was a real joy to read. Goudge’s descriptions are made up of many layers, and are as rich and visceral as anything written by the likes of Dorothy Whipple or Elizabeth Taylor. I must say – merely on the strength of one novel – that if you enjoy either of the aforementioned authors, you are sure to love Goudge’s work.
I loved Goudge’s wry humour, too. She comments, for example, that Tommy ‘looked like one of Raphael’s cherubs but unfortunately his character was most distressingly at variance with his outward appearance’. Caroline, who is almost six, ‘seldom spoke and it was impossible to say at her age whether her silence was due to the presence of great thoughts in her mind or to the abundance of any thoughts at all.’ Such offhand phrases effortlessly capture her characters. Much humour surrounds Lucilla and her maid, Ellen, two years her senior. The women have a well-drawn and believable relationship, which I appreciated. Ellen has very pronounced opinions, which she sometimes tries to keep to herself. Goudge writes: ‘Ellen sniffed. The extravagance of Lucilla’s love for her grandson David, as for his father before him, always slightly irritated her. It was out of proportion. It was not quite the correct reaction of maternity. It was almost more the love of a girl for her lover… And Lucilla was seventy-eight.’
In part, The Bird in the Tree is old-fashioned and perhaps a little melodramatic, but it so appealed to me as a reader, and I am eager to continue with the rest of the trilogy. The novel put me in mind throughout of the perfect Virago or Persephone title; it features sharp character portraits, excellent writing, and a compelling story. There are some beautifully observed scenes throughout, and Goudge writes with such a deft touch. Watching the relationship between Lucilla and her various children and grandchildren unfold was a delight, and I very much look forward to meeting the Eliots, and Damerosehay, again in the near future.