The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge
[Early 1640s in rural England: Christmas during the English Civil War]
[The parson] visited an old friend in the town, a green-fingered man, and from his house and sheltered old garden had been given a few treasures for the altar of his church on Christmas Day: sprigs of scented geranium, Christmas roses and a few violets. As he walked home through the dusk, up Pack and Prime lane, he was holding these treasures carefully, rejoicing in them. The hair-cut had cost him coins he could ill afford, but it had been worth it to have the Christmas roses and the violets. Also he had wished to be particularly trim and tidy this Christmas. He wished to honour God in every way possible.
He wanted the church to look gay and beautiful as it had never looked before, the services to be memorable with prayers and hymns that were wholehearted in God’s praise. He wanted his people to remember this Christmas for he thought the time was coming when they might no longer be able to worship God in the way he had taught them, and which was natural to them, the way of beauty and gaiety of heart that was akin to the world about them, where birds sang and flowers and stars bloomed and shone, the way that he believed was God’s way, who had made all things bright and fair.
For Parson Hawthyn was not very optimistic about the future. He believed the King would fight great battles yet, would be victorious for a while, but he feared that the darkness that confronted him was like that of a mounting storm that will not pass until it has broken. Then it would pass, as all things pass, but that time might be a long way ahead, and Parson Hawthyn did not suppose he would live to see it.
But the times ahead were none of his business. His business was this Christmas that had been so miraculously given to him. By next Christmas, Robert, the patron of his living, might have driven him out of his church, but this Christmas, by God’s mercy, Robert was not here. For that, as he trudged along Pack and Prime lane, leaning on his stick, he gave thanks, speaking aloud as was his custom, and singing a little in his cracked voice.
commentary: In a previous entry on this book I said that I was helpless before it. Because this is all very well, and you’re in no doubt where Goudge’s sympathies lie in the English Civil War. As so often, you think of Sellar & Yeatman’s work of historical and comic genius, 1066 and All That. Their considered verdict was the the Cavaliers (supporters of the King, the Parson above) were Wrong but Wromantic, while the Roundheads (Puritans, and Robert, the local squire above) were Right but Repulsive.
And the scene that follows this is most startling and discomfiting – Robert decides that he’s not waiting for next Christmas before he changes things. But it is not, I think, the scene you would be expecting, as Robert – a tragic character – becomes positively unbalanced. And the way all the characters end up is complete, and sad but satisfying.
On the way the book has taken in Tarot cards, Hampden’s funeral, various battles, the story of Catholics in England, and the question of King’s Evil (scrofula) and whether it will be cured by the Royal touch.
Altogether this is one of the strangest books I have read this year. And I am quite sure the scene of the battle of the Christmas church is one I will remember for a long time.
An earlier Advent entry had another clergyman treasuring violets.
Thanks again to Jenny McAuley who told me about the book.