The Bird in the Tree

BirdintheTreeLucilla 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 that 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 this sort of 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.

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14 Responses to The Bird in the Tree

  1. cbjames says:

    I just wanted to say how much I like your new banner picture. Where isit taken? I love it.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks! It was taken at the College of William and Mary, which is where Jenny and I went to college and first met each other. We went there over the summer and a picture with those particular statues seemed appropriate for the blog.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I love this trilogy, mostly because of the wonderful houses that Elizabeth Goudge brings to life. My favorite is the next one in the series, Pilgrim Inn.

    • Teresa says:

      I probably will read the others, assuming I can find them. My library only has a few of Goudge’s books, but I am curious as to how things turn out for everyone.

  3. I read one of Goudge’s books and didn’t love it — it was The Little White Horse, and I couldn’t stop feeling squicky about the romance — but Mumsy loves her and I keep meaning to try some of her books for grown-ups. I do think it’s interesting in older books to see values that are no longer standard causing problems for the characters.

    • Teresa says:

      This may be the first of her books that I’ve read. (I might have read a couple years ago, but I don’t remember them at all.) I *think* you’d like this, and Goudge does pretty well at exploring why the relationship is a problem at that place and time and, more important, what the characters’ determination to pursue the relationship, whatever the cost, says about them. (I think what the relationship says about them is more important than the relationship itself.)

  4. Jenny says:

    I’m so glad you liked this — this trilogy is my favorite of hers, as you know, and I value it more as I get older. Hilary is my favorite character!

  5. Harriet says:

    There is so much comfort and love in the trilogy that I revisit these books again and again. So glad you have begun your introduction to them.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see why so many find them comforting and keep going back to them. I might have found them too late in life for them to have that kind of place for me, but time will tell.

  6. Lisa says:

    I bought the second some time ago, not realizing it was part of a trilogy. If they need to be read in order, I still have time to find this one, though the libraries here aren’t well-stocked with her books. My favorites have always been The Dean’s Watch and Linnets & Valerians.

    • Teresa says:

      Libraries here don’t have many of her books either. I hope that between the two library systems I’m a member of, I can read them all.

      I don’t know how important it is to read them in order–Jenny could speak to that. I suspect that it would enhance the pleasure, but it might not be necessary.

  7. Alex says:

    I hadn’t realised the Goudge wrote for adults as well as children. Her children’s books dated rather badly and I haven’t been back to them for some time. From what you say I think I might find the same problem with this, but if I come across a copy in any of our charity shops I might give it a go just because it’s her.

    • Teresa says:

      For me, the specifics of the story were dated, but the principles behind it weren’t. The idea of thinking of how your actions affect others is timeless, and when I thought of it that way, the more dated elements didn’t bother me.

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