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.