Elizabeth Goudge is one of my very favorite authors. She writes equally well for adults and for children (her Linnets and Valerians is wonderful, and so is the satisfying Little White Horse). She writes historical novels and multigenerational family trilogies, and I love them all, but she specializes in quiet novels about small family problems: unhappy marriages, children having trouble at school, intractable money problems, deep worries about war or infidelity or children far away. Nothing in her books is earth-shaking, yet all of it has the importance that our everyday life has: what do we have but this moment? What is of more real merit than each person we are given to see?
Superficially, The Rosemary Tree is about how the Wentworths — John and Daphne and their children — are transformed by a wanderer, Michael, who comes into their lives (and is not such a stranger as he seems.) John is the vicar of the local parish, and his great-aunt Maria lives in the manor house, valiantly trying to keep it from being sold by managing on nearly nothing, while the rest of the family lives in the vicarage. Daphne is an unhappy woman, feeling trapped by her family and church obligations; John senses her unhappiness and struggles with a lifelong sense of failure. The children attend a nasty, pretentious little private school, where they’re cruelly treated by a warped headmistress; one teacher is ill and one is barely keeping her joyful nature intact in the school’s horrible atmosphere.
But in fact, this book is about prisons, and the way to escape them. John and Daphne are trapped in a marital rut, staring at each other from cells of their own making: John with his sense of worthlessness, Daphne with her narrowness and pride. Michael is a recently-released prisoner, but still trapped in his shame and in the pity and disgust with which he expects everyone to react to him, and deeper still in his desperate need to escape what he sees as his cowardice in the war. Miss Giles is trapped in her fierce resentment of her lot in life. Elizabeth Goudge shows a possible way out: read, look at nature, offer a kindness the other person would never expect, share what you’re ashamed of, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Elizabeth Goudge has been accused of being a “chocolate-box” author, but in fact in this book (as in many others of hers) there are no neat and tidy ends. Many questions are left unresolved. If she doesn’t give glamor to sad, upsetting, and even evil behavior, she certainly does look at it with a wry and realistic eye. Her joy is brighter, especially in the beauty of nature, and she understands family as involving everyone you love: friends, older people, children, animals. She understands the importance of food, which I find crucial for a really satisfying author. And she addresses with serious happiness the questions we all face: not just “who am I?” and “what does all this mean?” but “why can’t I think about this until I get a decent cup of hot tea?” Finding someone so mystical and so practical at the same time is a rare treat. I highly recommend Elizabeth Goudge.