I was recently very ill with an extremely nasty bout of salmonella poisoning. This landed me in the hospital for three days, and when I’m sick and relatively helpless, I turn to comfort reading. I rarely have the time to re-read these days — it seems that there are so many new books begging for my attention that I seldom get back around to the ones I’ve loved for years. But in times of illness, back I go to old favorites. And there are few books that bring me more pleasure and comfort than Elizabeth Goudge’s trilogy of novels about the Eliot family: The Bird in the Tree, Pilgrim’s Inn, and The Heart of the Family.
The Bird in the Tree, published in 1940, introduces the Eliot clan. Lucilla Eliot, the grandmother of the family, has created a home at Damerosehay, on the Hampshire coast, that is truly home for all the Eliots, no matter how far they wander or what problems they may have. She holds the strings of the family in her hands, and she is the bright center for all of them, including the grandchildren Ben, Tommy, and Caroline who are staying with her. But when her best-beloved grandchild, David, comes home to Damerosehay to visit her, she understands that all is not well with him. He explains, painfully, knowing how much it will hurt Lucilla but needing to tell her the truth, that he has fallen in love with Nadine Eliot, his uncle George’s wife and the children’s mother. Their love is beautiful and all-consuming: they plan to marry once Nadine has divorced George, despite the shattering blow this will deal to the family, to the stable home Lucilla has built, and to the children.
Lucilla hears David out. Quietly, she asks two things: that Nadine and David not make their decision public for two weeks, and that they spend those two weeks together with her at Damerosehay. She will talk to them once, but only once, about the step they propose to take. The couple can only agree, knowing that their love can withstand anything. During those two weeks, however, the history of the house of Damerosehay — always owned by people of extraordinary selflessness and fidelity — and Lucilla’s own history begin to affect David and Nadine. The unutterable beauty of the setting puts their striving minds and bodies at peace, and they begin to think of Nadine’s children, of George, and of the way it is sometimes possible to build something beautiful from the outside in. In the end, it is not only Lucilla who wrestles for dominion over their actions, but the entire history of Damerosehay.
Pilgrim’s Inn (also published under the title The Herb of Grace, in 1948) finds the Eliot family five years farther on. Nadine has remarried George and had two more children, but she is not content: there is a part of her that is always reserved for David, the great love of her life. David himself had a bad war and a nervous breakdown after it, and although he hates himself for always taking from the people he loves and never giving, he can’t stop himself. And he, too, still loves Nadine, though his self-discipline is better than hers and he tries hard to stay away.
Into this brittle and broken situation come two immense forces: Sally Adair, the daughter of a famous painter, who is as innocent and whole and transparent as anyone can well be, and is clearly made to be David’s wife; and a marvellous old pilgrim’s inn on the river, which welcomes Nadine and George and the children with open arms and shows them that goodwill and generosity can triumph if we are willing to exercise the necessary discipline. Rue — the herb of grace — is an astringent herb, the grace of single-mindedness, and it is this grace that Nadine and David need: the willingness to let go their dual allegiance so that they can give themselves wholly to the families and lovers who need them.
The Heart of the Family, published in 1953, moves the Eliot family farther forward in time. David and Sally are married, with two children, and living at Damerosehay (Lucilla has moved to nearby Lavender Cottage.) David, a famous actor, has brought a stranger into the family circle: Sebastian, nominally his secretary, but actually a man wracked with physical and spiritual pain and close to death. Neither David nor Sebastian seem to understand the bonds that link them — Sebastian dislikes David intensely, and David believes he’s worthy of the dislike — but they do seem to be bound together until they work out their emotional ties.
This book is more difficult and less active than the previous two. There are a good many set pieces, where characters move slowly into place in order to have long philosophical or metaphysical conversations. Two of the main characters (Lucilla and Sebastian) are very close to death, and are pondering this transition; several others (Ben, David, and Sally) are undergoing major life changes and upheavals in the way they understand the world. Still others (the small children) have only recently arrived in the world, and have insights to offer on that account. This book has to do with war, and the despair of war, and the legacy war leaves to our children, not only in the world, but in their very bodies and souls. It’s painful to read in places. Still, Elizabeth Goudge infuses all of her work with the deeply-held belief that pain, rightly offered, can be prayer; that good will always triumph when the chaff is cleared away. She never denies the reality of suffering. Instead, she shows the purpose of it.
These three novels are some of my favorites. They are absolutely wonderful — heartwarming in the very best way possible, the way that affirms life and love. I’ve read them over and over again, for their beauty, their tenderness, their humor, for the strength and compassion that flows through them, and perhaps most of all for their portrayal of goodness. It can be difficult to give a portrait of a really good person without becoming sentimental and oversimplifying matters. Goudge does this brilliantly. In this review, I haven’t even mentioned my favorite character in the books, Hilary, a priest, one of Lucilla’s children. In him, I recognize real, solid, tested goodness. It’s not an easy task for a novelist. I recommend these novels very highly, and I hope you will all fall in love with Elizabeth Goudge.
(p.s. Does anyone know for sure how to pronounce “Damerosehay”? I’ve settled on “DAM-ro-shay” in my mind, but I don’t really know…)