Green Dolphin Country

Elizabeth Goudge is one of my very favorite authors, and one that I regret is not more read. She writes beautifully and evocatively, and although she deals with serious subjects — self-sacrifice, independence, humility, adultery, enduring love — she has a sense of humor and an eye for detail, and she is never leaden. She is also one of the rare writers who writes equally well for adults and children.

Green Dolphin Country is a book whose plot, taken as a skeleton, makes it sound like an over-the-top romance. Marguerite and Marianne, sisters with very different temperaments, live in the Channel Islands. Marianne is brilliant, ambitious, sharp-tempered, and bitter that she could not have been born a man; Marguerite was born happy, and laughs wherever she goes. Both are in love with William, who is well-meaning but lazy, but William has eyes only for Marguerite. The two are made for each other, and are blissfully happy together. When William, through a series of mishaps, winds up in New Zealand, he writes to ask if his bride will come to him. But through his laziness and a disastrous slip of the pen, he sends for the wrong girl, and it’s Marianne who greets him from the bow of the Green Dolphin.

Elizabeth Goudge takes this situation into very interesting territory. At first, as you might imagine, the marriage of William and Marianne is a miserable failure. She is ambitious and determined to “save” him from himself, and he hates his wife. All she wants is his complete adoration and submission; all he wants is a rest from her. But slowly, over the course of years, as they both act as if they love each other for the sake of making each other happy, they learn first humility and then love. It may not be the love they had first envisioned, but it is real. As for Marguerite, left behind on the Island, she becomes a nun, and that doesn’t turn out to be the cliché it sounds like, either, but a vivid, passionate, and creative choice. And in the end, all three are brought together again from the ends of the world, much changed and much aged, and if you want to know what they have to say to each other, you’ll have to read the book.

I really loved this book and its careful crafting of a long relationship, and its witness to the way people can change their own hearts when they are constantly trying to look out for someone else’s best interests and not only their own. It’s kind of the anti-Updike. And yet these characters are terribly flawed and often not likeable at all, so don’t mistake me as saying that Goudge is writing portraits of angels, which might be quite dull.

I think I’d have liked to hear more from Marguerite; it was really Marianne’s story most of the time. But even so, Goudge does certain things so well. The contrasts between the European beauty of the Channel Islands and the wild beauty of New Zealand were wonderful. And when she describes someone in the middle of utter despair or utter joy, you’re right there with them. I loved accompanying these three in their mistakes and reparations and human life, and I’m glad I’ve got more Elizabeth Goudge in front of me to read.

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15 Responses to Green Dolphin Country

  1. Lisa says:

    It’s a shame her books are so hard to find these days – even library copies have disappeared.

  2. Are this and “Green Dolphin Street” the same book? I’ve come upon the latter on Goodreads and, although the plot matches your description, the “Country x Street” thing left me rather confused.
    Great review, by the way.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, this and Green Dolphin Street are the same book. I think “Country” was the name in the UK and “Street” in the US. If you read it, “Country” makes more sense as a title, though “Street” does make some sense. :) And thanks!

  3. Steph says:

    This sounds all kinds of awesome to me! At first I thought it was going to be setting up a kind of Sense & Sensibility dichotomy, but the more I read of your review, the more I realized that was not the case at all. The locations definitely appeal and it sounds like this is a love story that has some bite… will definitely have to check out this author!

    • Jenny says:

      Elizabeth Goudge is wonderful. My own favorites of hers are the Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy (The Bird in the Tree, Pilgrim’s Inn, and The Heart of the Family) but I have yet to read one of hers I didn’t like and mostly love. Her kids’ books are also fabulous.

  4. Jenny @ Stone Soup Books says:

    Oh I have been loving on Elizabeth Goudge lately as well. I am lucky that my public library seems to have most of her books in the stacks.

    • Jenny says:

      I took a look at your blog, Jenny, and you and I have very much the same taste in books! As I said above, my very favorites of hers are her kids’s books (Linnets and Valerians, The Little White Horse) and the books about the Eliot family, but I love lots of hers. I’m sure you will, too.

  5. hopeinbrazil says:

    I love Goudge too, but I haven’t read this particular book. Thanks for the great review.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I have a copy of Green Dolphin Street from my mother’s library and now I can look forward to reading it. I’ve had it for years but ignored it.

  7. I’ve read most of her books ever since reading the kids book Smoky House when I was about nine. I have most of her books in my collection. Favourites include the Elliot trilogy, The Deans Watch, A City of Bells, and Towers in the Mist. Didn’t get on so well with The Scent of Water, The Middle Window and The Rosemary Tree, but do intend to give them another try at some point, as tastes do change over the years.

  8. Jay Pfeiffer says:

    I’ve always loved Elizabeth Goudge since ‘The Little White Horse’ when I was a child. ‘The Child From The Sea’ is another favourite of mine. I’m going to NZ South Island later this year and was delighted to find a restaurant called the ‘Green Dolphin’ which I intend to visit. I doubt they know why it was called that but I’m assuming it’s because of the book. Marianne and WIlliam move to the South Island at one point. ‘The Green Dolphin’ was the name of William’s ship and they lived on Green Dolphin St as children.

  9. I have read Elizabeth Goudge for fifty years. As a teenager I started with The White Witch and was moved by it. Her anthologies of prayerful and thoughtful poems, prayers and excerpts from writers one would not otherwise know are worth seeking out. Sometimes the detailed descriptions seem like embroidery and then the reader comes up against a tough spiritual truth. Her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, is worth finding.

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