Jocelyn Irvin has just come out of the Boer War with “an incurably lamed leg and a future that consisted of nothing but an immense question mark.” Restless and ill-tempered, he goes to the one place he believes he can find peace: the ageless cathedral city of Torminster, where his adored grandfather has served as canon for many years. Here, he finds the rest of the family, which consists of his acerbic grandmother, and the two children they’re caring for in their old age: Hugh Anthony and Henrietta.
Torminster is a town straight out of Trollope, where the Dean of the Cathedral is the reigning monarch, and gossip causes things to happen faster than any other motivating force. When Mary and Martha, who run the sweet-shop, cause it to be known that Canon Irvin’s grandson has come to Torminster to set up a bookshop, it’s irresistible, whether Jocelyn wants to do it or not. And so he steps into the little house recently abandoned by Gabriel Ferranti, the poet who used to live there and talk to Henrietta about beauty and eternity, and he sets up a bookshop for Torminster.
But Ferranti, his disappearance and his suffering, are a bigger mystery than it seems at first sight. And that mystery, too, is irresistible, because in Grandfather’s care no one can be lost without sorrow. Jocelyn doesn’t find the peace he is looking for, but he finds work, and love, and responsibility, and care, and those lead to a sort of peace in the end.
I have mentioned in my last few posts that I’ve read several books in a row that deal with books and immortality. This was by far my favorite of them, just as Elizabeth Goudge is one of my very favorite authors. (I think she is under-rated and under-read, marked as a “chocolate-box” author and thought simple-minded because she often has happy endings. Nonsense.) This is what Grandfather has to say on the topic:
In my experience when people begin to read they go on. They begin because they think they ought to and they go on because they must. Yes. They find it widens life. We’re all greedy for life, you know, and our short span of existence can’t give us all that we hunger for, the time is too short and our capacity not large enough. But in books we experience all life vicariously.
“A bookseller,” said Grandfather, “is the link between mind and mind, the feeder of the hungry, very often the binder up of wounds. There he sits, your bookseller, surrounded by a thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts and conditions. And there come into him other minds, hungry for beauty, for knowledge, for truth, for love, and to the best of his ability he satisfies them all… Yes… It’s a great vocation.”
“Greater than a writer’s?” asked Felicity….
“Immeasurably,” said Grandfather. “A writer has to spin his work out of himself and the effect upon the character is often disastrous. It inflates the ego. Now your bookseller sinks his own ego in the thousand different egos that he introduces to each other… Yes… Moreover his life is one of wide horizons. He deals in the stuff of eternity and there’s no death in a bookseller’s shop. Plato and Jane Austen and Keats sit side by side behind his back, Shakespeare is on his right hand and Shelley on his left. Yes. Writers, from what I’ve seen of them, are a very queer lot, but booksellers are the salt of the earth.”