Elizabeth Goudge is a novelist I wish to recommend without exaggerating in either direction. While her novels vary widely, almost wildly, in literary quality, I have found several of them to be not only enjoyable but also spiritually valuable. They are no longer in print, but I stumbled upon her on the shelves of my local public library and was able to get the rest of her books through interlibrary loan. Of course, now I own my favorites as well as Goudge's autobiography.
Goudge’s three best novels, in my opinion, are The Dean’s Watch, The White Witch, and The Scent of Water.
The first is a leisurely story about the cathedral city of Ely in England’s fen country; it is set in the late 19th century, and its two main characters are the Dean of the cathedral and an old clock-maker who is that rare thing at that time and place--an avowed atheist. The White Witch is a fairly rousing historical novel about the English Civil War; it contains a number of historical characters, including Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Goudge is a passionate Royalist partisan, but she is enough of a novelist to portray her Puritan characters with a surprising degree of depth and insight. The Scent of Water was contemporary with its writing in the early 1960's, though through the use of diary entries it includes a character (dead at the beginning of the novel) of the previous generation. Its living protagonist is a highly competent career woman who takes early retirement to go and live in a semi-neglected small country house unexpectedly left to her by a cousin.
If you are allergic to sentiment in a novel, you will probably not like Goudge even at her best. She was regarded in her lifetime as a "women's novelist" and to some extent justly so. But her fault of sentimentalism (greater in some books than in others) does not preclude a strong moral sense. Goudge obviously regarded her own novels as a corrective to the morally squishy women's magazine stories of her time, a genre she lifts up to scorn in The Scent of Water. One might almost say that another of her faults is that marriages in her stories tend to be unhappy. I sometimes get a little tired of all the unhappy or at least ill-assorted marriages, but they provide good story-fodder, for the job of the characters is often to make, with great labor and some genuine suffering, the best of an unhappy marriage.
For my Chestertonian distributist readers I should mention that Goudge is strongly anti-capitalist, frequently speaks of the evils of "the rich," and called herself a socialist. She loves the English countryside and the premodern period almost to the point of romanticism and is very High Church. Given my personal economic and low-church leanings, you may consider her a surprising novelist for me to like and in many ways "on your side" imaginatively in these matters; I mention them in the hopes that they may influence readers to give her books a try.
Goudge is nothing if not a Christian novelist, and unabashed in it. Some of the books of hers that I enjoy but cannot say are artistically her best are her novels about the Eliot family (such as The Heart of the Family), which contain some excellent preaching--the only problem being that perhaps a novel is not enhanced by quite that much outright preaching. But in the three I have named above Christianity is woven into the fabric of the story to good effect.
One of Goudge's constant themes is suffering, evil, and the response of the ordinary Christian to it. I would not want to give the impression by faulting her for sentiment that Goudge's books are all sweetness and light. While they are never dark in the modern sense of that word, all of her best novels take place against a constant awareness of the darkness of human evil and human pain.
Goudge is particularly good at describing elderly people in their vicissitudes of mind and body. While her gentleness may make her characterizations seem like small beer to our jaded age, the specficity of her perception shows love and also teaches those of us who are not yet old something of how we can ourselves accept the humiliations of aging.
Mental illness is another repeated theme, especially noticeable in The Scent of Water. The cousin whose diaries form part of the book begins suffering severe mental illness with vivid hallucinations and deep depression when she is in her late teens or early twenties. Unable to marry as a result, she moves to the country and dedicates herself to prayer and to making her small house into a place of spiritual and physical beauty and strength. The woman who comes to the house later is somehow able to inherit the spirit of the place as built by the older woman who has just died.
One other theme of Goudge's that has been on my mind lately is the concept of "offering up" or substitution. In a case like the one Steve brought to our attention, the sense of horrified impotence can be very strong. One wants to feel that one can "do something" for the other person. There, of course, the event is already past. But during Terri Schiavo's slow dehydration, I was struck by the action of several young conservatives who determined to fast (from food) in protest until Terri either died or received help. (This was mentioned on NRO.) I don't know how many of them actually did fast for the fourteen days it took her to die, but during that ordeal I could not help wondering if it was possible in any way to "offer up" suffering on her behalf.
Goudge implies that it is possible for Christians to engage in a sort of exchange with God whereby they offer up their own difficulties--ranging from minor annoyances to severe suffering and deprivation--on behalf of other people. It is not an idea that is new with Goudge, but she contrives to make it vivid and plausible. And even if one does not believe that God will literally help someone else because one has accepted one's own suffering on the other person's behalf, Goudge does push into prominence the thoroughly Christian and well-supported notion that it is a valuable part of one's service to God that one accepts whatever He chooses to send one's way.
One more note, if you've read this far: Goudge's children's book The Little White Horse is still in print. It's one of her only books that is still in print--perhaps the only one. I recommend it for girls ages 8-10 who are good readers and who will enjoy a Victorian atmosphere plus magic and a unicorn. Try not to be negatively influenced by the (to my mind) unfortunate fact that J. K. Rowling said it was her favorite as a girl. I haven't read Rowling's books and don't intend to discuss them, but my strong impression at second hand is that Rowling's books could not be more different from any of Goudge's, including Goudge's children's books.
The rest of this post is just a series of sample quotations from Goudge. My own typing laziness and fear of wearing out readers forced me to keep it to no more, but this will give you an idea of what the books are like.
Quotations from The Scent of Water:
I shall live and die here. Perhaps I shall never be well but this place will give me periods of respite that I would not have found in any other, and though I am able to do nothing else in this life, except only seek, my life seeming to others a vie manquee, yet it will not be so, because what I seek is the goodness of God that waters the dry places. And water overflows from one dry patch to another, and so you cannot be selfish in digging for it.
Her brother said it was childish to pray about the weather because it obeyed the immutable laws of nature. God did not go messing about with His own laws and she was only wasting her time. But it confused her to try to think what she could pray about and what she couldn't. She had to pray about everything or she couldn't live, and it was surprising how the fine days came, and the cat had her kittens safely and she was able at all times to obey.
He would never, afterward, attempt to describe what he saw. He could not. But he did say that he believed the fair Lord of life had accepted a death so shameful by deliberate intent of love, so that nothing that can happen to the body should cause any man to feel himself separated from God.
Quotations from The Dean's Watch:
There was one who was dearer than all the rest, her brother Clive who had pushed her down the tower stairs. He, alone among her brothers and sisters, grew to be more perceptive even than the children, because he never forgot what he had done. He intuitively knew that she endured constant pain and slept badly, though no one else knew becasue her strong will had enabled her not only never to speak of it but also for all practical purposes to overcome it; and he knew also, because she made him understand this, that she set some sort of value on her pain and thanked him for it. Just what its value was to her he could not understand, becasue explanation of the inexplicable was never Mary's strong point. It deepened love, she said, and sharpened prayer by making them as piercing as itself if drawn into them. But this was beyond him.
Above this shimmering cloud rose a small dreamlike city, as delicate as though carved out of aquamarine or opal, roof rising above roof to cluster about the church....It looked far away, not close at hand as it had appeared before the storm. It had looked then attainable by living man, but not now. They would not get there now. Not until they were as utterly changed as the city. He took the bemused Mr. Penny gently by the arm and turned him around to face the other way, toward the mortal city where they must finish it out.
"You are needed at home," he reminded Mr. Penny.
"I don't remember," murmured Mr. Penny. "Who is it? Did I tell you anyone wanted me at home? Generally I'm not much needed, you know. Not now. Are you?"
"No," said the Dean, and the thought of Elaine was a hard pain at his heart. "No, not much needed. But we have to finish it out."
Quotations from The White Witch:
"It has come upon us," he said.
"I know," she said impatiently. "Is it only today you realize we are at war?"
"I don't mean the war," he said. "I mean our time of judgment, yours and mine....Men choose one side or the other, making the best choice that they can with the knowledge that they have. Yet they know little and the turns and twists of war are incalculable....And so the one war becomes each man's private war, fought out within his own nature. In the last resort that's what matters to him, Froniga. In the testing of the times did he win or lose his woul? That's his judgment."...
"One life knows many judgments," she said. "They are like the chapters in a book. What if every chapter but the last is one of defeat? The last can redeem it all. And God knows the heart....Patient still, He adds another chapter, and then another, and in the hour of victory closes the book."
I'll add only the following, which is actually a quotation from John Donne, included in a sermon in The White Witch. (An old parson preaches part of a Donne sermon from memory when his sermon notes are destroyed in a fire.) And I'll say that the quotation is put to good use in the story.
God...brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light. He can bring thy summer out of winter, though thou have no spring. Though...thou have been benighted till now, swintered and frozen...now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon, to banish all shadows; as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries. All occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons....Whom God loves He loves to the end; and not only to their own end, to their death, but to his end; and His end is, that He might love them still.