About halfway through Elizabeth Goudge’s novel The Scent of Water, a novelist, Paul, quotes Job chapter 14: “For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground, yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.” Paul has been blinded in the second World War, and his wife Valerie believes the whole affair has been harder on her than on anyone else in the world. She torments him with small cruelties and sighs her way through her martyrdom. But Paul, even in his pain, has hope for transformation and renewal.
This is a book about renewal. Like many of Elizabeth Goudge’s books, it is about the relationship between people and place: in this case, between two women and the home they inhabited in Appleshaw, in Oxfordshire. Mary Lindsay, an accomplished headmistress of a fine school, has inherited a house in Appleshaw from a distant aunt she met only once, as a child. For reasons she can hardly explain even to herself, she retires early to go and live in the deep English countryside (“before it disappears,” she tells herself.) There she restores the house, and learns that she isn’t the “landlocked sea” she feared she’d become after the war. She also learns about her Aunt Mary, whose namesake she is, and about the people living in the village, all of whom are in need of one sort or another of restoration and renewal. There is Edith, the child who lives next door, who’s hiding a miserable secret; the elderly Colonel and Mrs. Adams, whose upright and shining generosity nearly effaces their shame about their cad of a son; the Hepplewhites at the manor, whose money comes from unnameable sources; and Jean Anderson, the Vicar’s sister, who is mortally terrified of everything. Mary also finds her aunt’s journals, and discovers her lifelong battle with crippling depression, and her work to make her home a haven from it through prayer and connection with her friends.
Goudge takes each of these threads and tugs them gently. While it’s true that she’s an author who believes in happy endings, those endings are earned through pain and loss, each character finding their own way to a renewal they may not have believed possible. If I had a criticism of the book, it’s that I would like to know even more of the characters’ stories — it’s a large cast, and the book doesn’t go on long enough to suit me. It could have been a trilogy, like the Eliots of Damerosehay books, and I’d have been happy.
Elizabeth Goudge is one of the very few authors I know of who writes about such a wide range of the different stages of life. In each of her books, she includes interesting characters who are children, young people, middle-aged people, couples, people who’ve never been married, old people, and animals. After reading so many books that are only interested in, say, twenty-five to forty-year-olds in romantic relationships, it’s just… refreshing. The fact, for instance, that this book also contains a very vivid and honest portrayal of what it’s like to live with depression, and another quite unsentimental blind character — a novelist who creates his chapters whole in his mind before dictating them, and gets around both Appleshaw and London with his dog — only reinforces that Goudge is not the “chocolate-box” author she’s often classified as.
I think of Elizabeth Goudge as one of my favorite authors, but honestly, there are so many of her books that I haven’t read yet! The Scent of Water is one that’s been recommended to me over and over as one of her best, and it was excellent. If you’ve been wondering where to start, this would be a great place (or The Bird in the Tree, or Green Dolphin Street, or The Little White Horse…)