Sunday, 28 June 2015
Dress Down Sunday: The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge
published 1960 – book set in the 1880s
[The Dean is visiting the home of his solicitor in the town]
A small girl was planted sturdily before him. She wore a starched muslin frock with short puffed sleeves and a frill round the neck. A blue sash encircled that part of her anatomy where in later years a waist would possibly develop….. He could not guess her age, but as her chest was about on a level with his knee he thought it to be tender….
She leaped into the big chair beside the canary’s cage and swarmed up its padded back, revealing as she did so that she wore the most enchanting lace-trimmed undergarments….
[Later] Climbing on another chair, showing a good deal of petticoat as she did so, she smiled adorably.
observations: When Christine Poulson and I did our lists of books set in Cathedrals and churches, revered blogfriend and favoured writer Hilary McKay had her own suggestion: The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge. And this is it.
Goudge (1900-84) is a lost middlebrow author: her children’s book The Little White Horse has cult status, and the recommendation of JK Rowling. Her adult novels have titles such as The Herb of Grace, or The Heart of the Family – both part of the Eliots of Damerosehay series. Somehow those titles tell you exactly what kind of books they are. As a teenager (alas, there wasn’t much in the way of YA in those days) I raced through them all, borrowing them from the local library. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read any.
The start of this one brought it all back – endless scene-setting in an imaginary Cathedral town (though you would guess based on Ely), and a lot of history and great characters from the past, and descriptions of bells and clocks.
On about page 40 the actual story gets going, by which time I was losing patience. Finally (this is late Victorian times) we reach a craftsman clockmaker, Isaac, and a long-standing and fierce Dean. Both men have imperfect lives, and the book is about their growing friendship. There is an array of minor characters surrounding them – very well-drawn – and it is obvious that both men’s lives are going to be improved by their unlikely camaraderie. The Dean – a good but stiff man – thinks he is unable to provoke love or affection in others. He will find he is wrong, and the little girl above will help with this.
All this is as predictable as the chiming of the Cathedral bells and the clocks of the town – it is sentimental, formulaic, slightly twee, and full of big doses of spirituality. And yet – my initial impatience wore off, and I became spellbound by the story, anxious to know how exactly things were going to turn out right, concerned about poor Job and Polly. And, amid the sentimentality, there are touches of real depth and a glimpse of the harshness that love can bring – the picture of the Dean’s wife and their relationship is heart-breaking.
I am not for a moment saying that Goudge was a 20th century Charles Dickens, but the experience was similar to reading Dickens: you know you are being manipulated, and also forced to read a lot of unnecessary guff alongside the good bits, but you become completely pulled in and delighted by it. And the picture of the city and the cathedral is astonishing and beautiful, it becomes totally real as the Dean walks round it. And in the end the goodness of people, their heart and charm, win you over, and you wish life really was like that.
A great addition to the list of Cathedral books – thank you Hilary McKay.
The little girl in the extract teeters on the edge of Shirley Temple and Lewis Carroll territory, but you have to allow Goudge the time she lived and wrote in. The picture is by John Hoppner, and came from the Wikigallery.
Dickens himself wrote about a Cathedral City in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.