One of my favourite books in the world is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, written in 1946 and set in a magical version of Devon. I dearly wish I'd known it when I was young, for Goudge's brand of magic (gentle, wind-swept and rain-kissed) would have perfectly suited the child I was. Instead I read it three years ago, fell entirely under its spell, and then spent a whole winter devouring all of her other books for both kids and adults. (I was sick in bed for some of those months, and Goudge was the perfect companion.)
In an excellent essay on Goudge, Kari Sperring writes:
"With the exception of her children’s books, most of her work is not what most people would think of as fantasy. The children’s books are all set in a version of our real world, too, though her towns and landscapes in them are imaginary. Yet in all her work the boundaries between worlds are thin. Folklore and poetry, transcendent experience, and glimpses of the immanent pervade them, and her characters -- especially the youngest and the oldest -- slip between these worlds easily. Her characters channel folktales and legend through their lives and their connections with others.
"This is most clear in her children’s books, in particular, her three best known -- The Little White Horse, Henrietta’s House, and Linnets and Valerians (recently retitled The Runaways). In TLWH, which is the most directly fantastical of Goudge’s books, the protagonist Maria must explore the history of her family and their ancestral home via a blend of fact and magic -- the injustices done by her forefather Sir Hrolf were real enough, but their context and consequences belong as much to the realm of magic and the liminal as to reality. A white horse and a giant dog come and go throughout the history of her family -- and her own experience -- guiding, observing, and sometimes leading Maria to the discoveries she needs to make. The dog -- another Hrolf -- is real enough but seemingly immortal, but the horse is a unicorn and a creature of the sea and not to be grasped or owned. The story sounds soppy, and the recent film (titled The Secret of Moonacre) tried hard to make it soppy by replacing the very real magic of Goudge’s writing with sentiment and gloss, but in the book, it is not. Rather, everything is tied together by extra-mundane bonds, so that Maria’s friend and ally, Robin, is at first a boy in dreams who becomes real, and the white horse brings not only Maria but the book’s main antagonist to a solution to the ancient problem they face that is partly realistic, yes, but rooted in liminal experience."
Elizabeth de Beauchamp Goudge was born in 1900 in the cathedral city of Wells, where her father was a clergyman and theological scholar. His career took the family to Ely and Oxford (two cities she loved and would later write about) -- but his early death meant the loss of their Oxford home and sudden impecunity. Reeling from the loss, Elizabeth's semi-invalid mother announced they would take a month's holiday in Devon. Her elderly Nanny, now a permanent part of the family, was to come along too. In her autobiography, Elizabeth writes:
"Devon? Why Devon? We knew no one there and where could we stay? But my mother had seen an advertisement in the paper. A small wooden bungalow could be cheaply rented for a summer holiday at a village called Marldon, and she was quite certain that was where we must go. So Nanny and I dragged ourselves out of the ooze of our exhaustion and we set off, driven by a friend who had a large comfortable car and said he knew the way. More or less he did and very late in the afternoon we found the wooden bungalow and inside it our unknown landlady, who kept a guest-house next door, had lit a glowing fire.
"For it was what those who do not love Devon call 'a typical Devon day'; that is to say it was raining, that steady relentless rain that lifted the Ark about the primeval flood, and at the same time, since the day was windless, a thick mist covered the earth. We could know nothing of our surroundings except that the bungalow seemed poised upon the summit of a hill and that its wooden walls did not look very weather-proof.
"It was felt that food would be reassuring and Nanny and I began quickly getting some sort of meal together, but the friend who had brought us down took me away from the preparations for a few moments to the western-facing window. 'Look,' he said, 'what do you think is out there?' The downpour was slackening at last and no longer drummed on the roof. A small wet green lawn sloped from the window and appeared to fall into the mist as though it was green water sliding over the edge of a precipice. We could see nothing through the mist yet we were aware that behind it was the westering sun, and also it seemed to fill a deep valley and rising beyond the valley was -- what? 'Something grand,' said our friend. 'You'll know in the morning.' A tremor went through me, and I think through him too, for we seemed to be sharing one of those inexplicable moments of expectation and intimation that come sometimes when a small earthly mystery seems to be speaking of a mystery beyond itself.
"I was woken the next morning by a sound I had not heard for a long time, a cock crowing in the garden, across the lane, eastward where the sun would soon be rising. Had the mist lifted? When later I pulled the curtains it was still there, but the morning sun was shining through it and turning it to gold, and every bush and tree that lined the lane was glistening with diamond drops.
"It was what lovers of Devon call 'a typical Devon day,' that is to say, a morning of clear shining after rain. Because of the slope of the land the hill seemed higher than it actually was; it seemed high as Ararat, with the wooden bungalow perched like the Ark on its summit. The valley below was even wider and deeper than I had realized the night before and it seemed to hold every beauty that a pastoral Devon valley knows, woods and farms and orchards, green slopes where sheep were grazing, fields of black and white cows, and where there were fields of tilled earth it was the crimson of the earth of South Devon and looked like a field of flowers. And along the eastern horizon lay the range of blue hills called Dartmoor.
"I felt I had come home. I have never felt so deeply rooted anywhere as I was in the earth of Devon. Or rather I did not so much put roots down as find roots that were already there. And yet I had not been born in Devon, I had been born over the border in Somerset. I could not understand it then and I do not understand it now. The only tremor was the realization that in a few weeks time we should have to leave this earthly paradise."
But in fact, they did not leave. World War II began and the family stayed in Marldon -- where Elizabeth lived for the next twelve years. She wrote some of her best books there, paying the bills with the steady work of her pen. A deep love of Devon shines through every single page of The Little White Horse...as well as through Linnets and Valerians, and her quietly beautiful adult novel The Rosemary Tree.
The village of Marldon is not far away from us, just on the other side of the moor, so I wanted to go see those hills for myself -- especially since learning that Moonacre Manor, the enchanted setting of The Little White Horse, was inspired by Compton Castle: an old manor house in Marldon parish. South Devon has changed since Elizabeth's day; it's now less remote, more heavily populated, but still full of orchards, woodlands, and farms, and Marldon itself has retained its old charm. I wanted to see the lanes she once walked, the bungalow where she lived, and her old village church. I especially wanted to see Compton Castle, now a National Trust property.
I finally made the journey last year at this time, as autumn colored the hedgerows and fields, in the company of four other writers who also love Goudge: Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Liz Williams and Veronica Williams. We started with lunch at Marldon's Church House Inn, where Ellen read us some relevant passages from Goudge's autobiography...
...and then made our way through the winding lanes to the gates of "Moonacre Manor."
Comptom Castle, a fortified manor house, was the seat of Sir Maurice de la Pole during the reign of King Henry II. It passed into the de Compton family, and then, through marriage, to the Gilbert family. The house was enlarged in the mid-14th century, fortified in 1520, and then sold in 1785 -- after which, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it fell into ruin. A descendant of the Gilbert family bought the property in 1931, began the castle's restoration, and then gave it to the National Trust -- on condition that the family would continue to occupy the house, which they do to this day.
Compton Castle is considerably smaller than Moonacre Manor in The Little White Horse -- but the soaring main hall, the kitchen gardens, the orchard full of vivid red apples and the emerald-green hills full of fleecy white sheep, all hold the magic she drew upon to create her timeless story.
We were thrilled to discover a kitchen well just like the one at Moonacre Manor. Sitting beside it, I could almost believe that Goudge's story was real after all, and Serena the hare would come tumbling over the grass, followed by the noble dog Hrolf.
(Her talent for creating distinctive animal characters was second to none.)
In a recent essay for Slightly Foxed, Victoria Neuman has this to say about Goudge and her work:
"Whether she is describing a young child climbing over slippery rock steps from a sea cave or uncovering the glories of a tangled garden in Devon, she is one of the only modern prose writers to capture the spirit of the 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne:
"'The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which should never be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things...'
"Like Trahern Goudge was an ardent Anglican. But although religion can be an oppressive presence in her adult novels, in her children's books it manifests itself merely as a sense of embracing safety. One of her obituaries quoted Jane Austen's famous line from Mansfield Park, 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.' Her fictional world is devoid of malice...Loyalty, kindness, affection, the wonder of nature, the smells of good, plain English cooking, a hot bath and clean clothes, the appealing personalities of pets: these are the things she celebrates. In Goudge's children's books, to use Louise MacNeice's phrase, there is 'sunlight on the garden' and the equation always comes out."
I should note that unlike Neuman I don't feel oppressed by the Anglican threads within Goudge's work. As the daughter of a clergyman, she was writing about the world she knew best. I enter it as I do any other unknown culture, trusting the writer as my guide, and her generous, mystical, nature-based version of Christianity allows even a wooly old pagan like me to feel welcome within her tales. Goudge, as Kari Sperring writes, "never preaches, nor lays out moral parameters, and, to paraphrase Louisa Alcott, she does not reward the 'good' with gilded treats and the 'bad' with dire punishments. Indeed, I’m not sure she deals in good and bad at all: she writes rather about compassion and understanding and resolution through empathy. Her work is not showy and it is not melodramatic. It is, however, often surprising and sometimes startling. And she rarely if ever does what the reader expects."
"As the world becomes increasingly ugly, callous, and materialistic," Goudge once wrote, "it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself."
That statement sums up why I love Elizabeth Goudge, and why I continue to read and re-read her. She, too, believes beauty is vital in a troubled world, and the promise of hope. Her work is old-fashioned, quiet, and slow. I say this without apology, for these qualities have genuine literary value in an our loud, aggressive, and fast-paced culture.
If you'd like to read more about Goudge's life in Devon, here are two previous posts on the subject: A Sense of Otherness and The Magic of Moor and Hill. To learn more about Compton Castle, go here. (You can even stay overnight at the castle, in its charming Watch Tower.) To learn more about the author's life and work, visit the Elizabeth Goudge Society. Or better still, go read her marvelous books if you haven't already.
Words: The text quoted above is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimsping the Liminal" by Kari Sperring (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016), The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography by Elizabeth Goudge (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974), and "In Search of Unicorns" by Victoria Neumark (Slightly Foxed, Winter 2018), all of which I recommend. A good biography of Goudge has yet to be published.
Pictures: Marldon and Compton Castle, South Devon, with thanks to my lovely companions on the journey. The photos are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)