Friday, February 13, 2009

Green Dolphin Country

Some books hold up; others don’t.

You can still find worn-out, well-read books by Elizabeth Goudge at the library, but her old-fashioned novels appeal to a narrower constituency these days.

Elizabeth Goudge was one of my favorite authors when I was growing up: I segued eagerly from her children’s books - The Little White Horse won the Carnegie Award - to adult novels like The Dean’s Watch and Green Dolphin Country (published as Green Dolphin Street in America). I read her books again and again. And I remember being puzzled: why weren’t these classics?

Who could not adore her beautifully embellished descriptions and eccentric Dickensian characters?

Okay, these are weird, weird books. I’m rereading Green Dolphin Country in a new Capuchin Classics edition, which makes it look respectable because the design looks like a Penguin, so I don’t have to read it secretly. This is so enjoyable: it transports me into Goudge’s magical world, and her whimsical style, her liberal use of adjectives and sweeping descriptive paragraphs, really turn this into a a fantasy; it wouldn’t suit every reader. This romantic novel is set in the Channel Islands and New Zealand in the 19th century; the heroines are two sisters, the demanding, ambitious Marianne and her peaceful, lovely younger sister Marguerite. William, the generous “boy next-door” who often “screws up,” as Obama would say, is loved by both. And in their late twenties they’re still unmarried, both waiting for William, though they haven’t heard from him since he left the island. William, ever impulsive and blundering, has inadvertently deserted from the English navy in China after an encounter with a conwoman prostitute. His ship sails without him; he eventually settles in New Zealan. After ten years in the lumber business, he writes a letter proposing marriage, naming Marianne as the bride instead of Marguerite by a drunken slip of the pen. And the rest of the novel revolves around the slip of the pen and its consequences.

Such a lovely book: so passionate, absorbing, and fun.

Yet I could not recommend this to everybody. It’s not that I don’t love it; I do. I simply couldn’t guarantee that everyone would like this flowery style. It’s for a special kind of reader, someone who doesn’t mind long stylized unwindings of ideas - the first 200 pages are devoted to growing up in the Channel Islands. William doesn’t arrive in New Zealand till page 231. The novel is out of date, written for a different time. In 1944 it won the Literary Guild Award and the MGM Literary Award, but no one writes books like this anymore.

It begins: “Sophie Le Patourel was reading aloud to her two daughters from the Book of Ruth, as they lay prostrate upon their backboards, digesting their dinners and improving their deportment. This spending of the after-dinner hour upon their backboards instead of in the parlour was as a matter of fact a punishment for insubordination during the morning, but their Papa being from home Sophie was softening the punishment by reading aloud. She was an indulgent mother, adoring her children, anxious to keep them with her as long as possible, afraid of what might be done to them by the great world outside the schoolroom window, the great world that in this mid-nineteen-century horrified her with its bustle and vulgarity and noise, George Stephenson’s terrible steam engine hurtling people to destruction at twenty-five miles an hour, its dreadful balloons in which man in his profanity was daring the heavens in which it was never the intention of his Creator that he should disport himself, its restless young people with thoughts for ever straining towards new countries and new ways, and its insubordinate children like her daughter Marianne.”

There are Goudge enthusiasts out there. Check out the Elizabeth Goudge Society at:


Ellen said...

What a touching paragraph. I've felt that way about my children.


Mad Housewife said...

Some of her writing is really good. Some not so good. But she is a good storyteller.