Lucilla Eliot purchased the run-down house called Damerosehay, despite her adult children’s protests, because she knew that it would one day be the retreat from the world that they would need—and indeed it became exactly that. When The Bird in the Tree, the first of Elizabeth Goudge’s trilogy about the Eliots opens, Damerosehay is the home of Lucilla, her daughter Margaret, and her three grandchildren, who have been living with Lucilla since their parents’ divorce. (And we mustn’t forget Ellen, the long-time servant who knows Lucilla better than she knows herself.) The family is awaiting the arrival of David, Lucilla’s adult grandson, who is facing some sort of crisis whose nature he hasn’t yet revealed to Lucilla.
It turns out the David’s trouble revolves around Nadine, the mother of his nieces and nephews at Damerosehay. David and Nadine have fallen in love and want to get married, but they know that Lucilla will probably not approve, and she does not. But, knowing that they are adults who must choose for themselves, she asks them simply to come spend a few weeks at Damerosehay:
Damerosehay would, she thought, in some mysterious way fight its own battle, bring its own pressure to bear upon David; the place was alive in every stick and stone, rich with unknown history that was moulding both the present and future. She was in sympathetic touch with that history; she felt its touch very often; it would be on her side.
Damerosehay is itself a character in the story; it is a living force that first captured Lucilla and David’s hearts when they came upon it years ago and that continues to teach them who they are and who they ought to be. I think, for Goudge, Damerosehay is meant to provide a foretaste of heaven, and preserving it is part of the family duty. When Lucilla first came to the house, she seemed to consider this possibility:
Yet how happy she was. One part of her mind was telling her that her dream was just a mix-up of the dawn and the flowers in the garden and the singing blackbird, but another part of it was saying that one world interpenetrates another; we live in them both, but of the greater we know only that which the lesser tells us of it; and the language of the lesser is the language of dreams and birdsong, sunshine and the kindliness of man.
The house and its gardens seem like a sort of this place, where past and present, this world and the next, merge. The novel itself is firmly grounded in reality—it’s not a fantasy at all—but it’s a realistic novel that offers glimpses of a world beyond what we can see, in which children dream of the very people who lived in their home years ago without realizing who they’re dreaming of. The delights of Damerosehay are sometimes ethereal, involving a mysterious blue bird or a child’s vision that brushes up against the house’s history. But they’re also earthy, involving the antics of the family dogs, Pooh Bah and the Bastard, or hunting spiders for the children’s pet chameleon.
This is a lovely book, largely because of its sense of place and the mixing of hard-headed practicality and good sense with a recognition that some things are beyond our understanding. The characters are good, decent people with faults that keep them from seeing things clearly. Even Lucilla, usually presented as the person who always knows the right thing to do, has prejudices that keep her from recognizing people’s virtues when those virtues are not the precise ones she values.
As for the crisis that drives the narrative, the love affair between David and Nadine, the book seems to take it for granted that their choice is wrong, but I had to be convinced. We know so little about Nadine’s failed marriage, and Lucilla’s admitted dislike of Nadine makes her feelings about it untrustworthy. I had to continually remind myself that this was a book published in 1950 and set in the 1930s, both times when David and Nadine’s relationship would have been a much bigger problem that it would be now. (And, given that there are children involved, it would not be without serious complications today, although those complications might be more easily surmounted.)
It helps that Lucilla acknowledges that David and Nadine truly do love each other; it’s not infatuation or an idle whim. It is real, and giving in to Lucilla and ending the relationship will cause them real pain. Even Lucilla recognizes this. There’s no patronizing talk about how they’ll get over it once they do the right thing. There’s also genuine acknowledgement of how few women in that day marry for love and how, as a result, marriage itself can be painful. The book looks those challenges right in the face. There’s no pretense about it.
But there’s also recognition that love can be a choice, that sometimes acting as if we feel something is the first step toward actually feeling something. Behaving in the way we know to be right, even if we don’t feel like it, can eventually alter our hearts. Lucilla talks about the idea of truth being perfection, closeness to the likeness of God:
If truth is the creation of perfection then it is action and has nothing to do with feeling. And the nearest we can get to creating perfection in this world is to create good for the greatest number, for the community or the family, not just for ourselves; to create for ourselves only means misery and confusion for everybody. That made me see that acting a part is not always synonymous with lying, it is far more often the best way of serving the truth. It is more truthful to act what we should feel if the community is to be well served rather than behave as we actually do feel in our selfish private feelings.
There’s a lot of wisdom in this, I think, although it is an idea that can be taken too far, to the point of assuming that sacrificing our own feelings is always the better course. Lucilla—and her son Hilary, a clergyman—both talk about testing every thought against our principles, which I think is the key, and it’s not always easy to do. Different people might come to different conclusions about what the right course of action is, even if they follow the same guiding principles, such as the teachings of Christ or the good of the community, both of which are highly valued in this book.
This book reminded me a lot of the kinds of books Persephone publishes, and I think a lot of Persephone readers would enjoy this, if the overt Christian content isn’t off-putting. I feel that this is a book that includes characters who happen to be Christian and find guidance and value in their faith without requiring others to do the same. But the line between being supportive of faith and being preachy about it will vary from reader to reader. To me, whatever preachiness this book exhibits is more about life choices and less about faith choices. Faith guides some of the characters’ choices, but it’s not presented as the only proper way.