“Bereft…

"The Dean's Watch" by Elizabeth Goudge

… is the only word to describe the void that is following The Dean’s Watch,” quoth my friend Laura in an email over the weekend.

Our book club just finished reading this 1960 Elizabeth Goudge jewel and I know exactly how she feels. We’re all kind of wandering, I’m afraid, unwilling to exchange that post-Goudge dreamy sort of happy-sadness for the cares of a new cast of characters with which Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda is doubtless only too eager to supply us.

Personally, I’ve been saving The Dean’s Watch, only slipping it onto our ballot after some half-dozen of her other books had in their turn been unanimously voted onto our reading list. My mother—who introduced me to Elizabeth in the first place—has long named it her favorite, and so it was with as much reverence as expectation that I anticipated the pleasure of its acquaintance.

At the meeting, everyone wanted to know if it was my favorite, as well. I hemmed and hawed and contradicted myself in the way that I generally do when confronted with a question that I haven’t fully settled in my own mind. I thought about Henrietta slipping like a sprite through the cobbled streets of A City of Bells. I swung round towards the beckoning flare that Pilgrim’s Inn will always be to me. I set down the delicate crystal goblet with which our hostess had supplied me upon arrival and sighed.

“It will be someday,” I said.

Someday when its hard-earned lessons of love are less experimental on my part and hopefully more experiential. When I am old enough to look back on the vision it has cast and God-willing able to say that the light it first shed is more dazzling upon approach than I could have dared to dream. The Dean’s Watch is a book of great maturity, disarmingly simple at face value. But Elizabeth Goudge will not let you take anything at face value. She, like all truly great novelists, probes the hearts and motives of her characters with an oftentimes brutal honesty. She examines what a life of love really looks like—and what it really costs.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England, reputed to be the setting of 'The Dean's Watch'

Through descriptions that glint and gleam and live, like the glimpses of heaven that they are, Goudge takes us into the heart of an English cathedral city at the turn of the nineteenth century. She gives us the fens of Cambridgeshire in all their stark beauty, and the personalities of those that inhabit them—oftentimes more stark and startlingly more beautiful. But the light with which this book is filled and borne along is set against a dark foil of evil and suffering. Goudge will not let us content ourselves with the charm of the narrow cobbled streets, with the warmth of Miss Montague’s drawing room fire and the music of the birds in the trees of the Cathedral Close. With a persistence that seems almost dogged she draws us into the slums of the city, into the repulsiveness of child labor and into the festering alleyways of hatred. And she bears the light with her, inexorably lavishing it upon all who come within its circle of brightness–deserving and undeserving alike.

The great Cathedral that towers over the city and all who dwell in it is itself a figure of love. An image of grace that overwhelms both reader and character alike with what Charles Williams would call a “terrible goodness”. And at the helm of the Cathedral, we find the Dean, like a captain at the wheel of a mighty ship. A man whose whose simple godliness–straightforward but never facile–has the power to affect an entire city. But it’s one man, the atheistic little clockmaker Isaac Peabody, that seems to have the whole burden of his soul…

I love and esteem the way that Goudge writes of sacred things with an absolutely spiritual touch and never resorts to triteness in the way that many Christian authors inadvertently do. She doesn’t tell us that God is good, that Love is real and that Light will always triumph over darkness. She shows us.  She blinds us with beauties and breaks our hearts with joy.

She enfleshes the Body of Christ–the Church–with characters that are humanly flawed and yet beatifically drawn into the heaven they’ve been made for.

The Heaven we’ve all been made for. God bless you, Elizabeth. You’ve done it again.

20 Responses to ““Bereft…”

  1. Maureen E says:

    I can never remember which book is based on Ely. While The Dean’s Watch isn’t my favorite Goudge, it will have a special place in my heart now that I know that. Your picture of the cathedral brought back memories from my own visit there, just over a year ago now.

  2. Yes, you GOT it! :)

    I told my daughter that I believe The Dean’s Watch can best be appreciated after one has lived awhile. I’m not even certain I could have appreciated it as much as I did in my 40s (and I’m in my 50s). I would have enjoyed it as a “good read”, instead it haunted me for days and days (weeks?) after I read it. I was so sorry to have it end.

    As for my favorite, I think Pilgrim’s Inn will always be my favorite because it was my introduction to Goudge… and the fact I adore the way she describes houses and their affect on us. Many of her others are tied for a close second.

  3. Helen says:

    You WERE the one who introduced me to Elizabeth Goudge! I somehow was sure it was you . . . but I couldn’t find a post mentioning her. I picked up one of her books several days ago, The Scent of Water. I couldn’t put it down. But neither could I absorb it quickly. She draws the reader in so deeply, reflecting each of us in the ever-so-human characters. I found myself reading, not to discover what happens to the Marys, but to discover what will happen to me.

    Thank you for the introduction. I have found a new friend.

  4. Jodi Lenz says:

    The Dean’s Watch is one of the few Goudge books I have yet to read. Your description is making me eager for a library visit. Thanks, Lanier!

  5. Sheena Walsh says:

    Interesting – The Dean’s Watch was the first Elizabeth Goudge I read, and still my favourite. I don’t reread it nearly as often as I do her other books, though – it is too rich, perhaps. The dichotomy you mention between the light of God and of love and inspiration and the heavy darkness experienced by almost all the characters, even Miss Montegue and the Dean, is so accurately drawn and so painful that I can’t expose myself to it often. As you say, the story breaks my heart every time and it takes me quite a while to recover. Yet I think it is her masterpiece, and it is so sumptuous and so satisfying that I recommend it to anyone I want to appreciate her writing.
    I would be interested in knowing what you think of The Middle Window – I can’t decide about that book, myself.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Hello, Sheena :)
      I actually loved The Middle Window. I know that a lot of Goudge fans have said that it’s not one of their favorites, and it is definitely different from most of her other works. (I wonder if that has to do with the fact that she wrote it so early in her career?) I knew what I was getting into with this one, though, and I was already in the mood for a good Gothic-styled novel when I picked it up. So I imagine that it does deserve a few disclaimers for Goudge lovers that are looking for something a little less spine-tingling. 😉 I do love the way that she explores impossibilities in this book–though I’d never be one to support the idea reincarnation, hehe… 😉 But I just thought that it was a romantic, lovely read–a pure love story and it just suited my mood last summer.
      But you may be asking the wrong person–I haven’t read a Goudge that I did not love. 😉

  6. Please may I use this article via a link to your site if you prefer or as an item in its own right for the Elizabeth Goudge Society website? It would make a prefect article of the month and would be a voice other than my own.

    I have contacted your site in the past, and still think that your understanding of Elizabeth’s work is thought provoking and evocative.

  7. Stacy says:

    While I can not say that The Dean’s Watch is my favorite of Goudge’s works, it does make my top 5. I must share that in July 2009 my former church, Good Shepherd in Lexington, KY, had the great honor of making residency at Ely Cathedral. We’ve recently moved to GA and our computers are still in boxes (posting with my BlackBerry), but as soon as I’m able I will post a link to their site.

  8. Melissa says:

    This is the first time to comment here, for me, Lanier, but I’ve so enjoyed every post! Your writing has encouraged and blessed me many times. This is a lovely place to visit!

    I have to break the silence now that you’ve said, so beautifully, what I’ve felt about The Dean’s Watch. I’ve read it several times, and go back to reread passages often. Elizabeth Goudge’s novels have gone straight to my heart, time and again, with compelling pictures of what it is to love and to grow in love and in surrender to God. You just explained it all so well, that I had to thank you.

    Do you like The Scent of Water? It’s a favorite of mine, as well. I am always especially moved by the character of the older Cousin Mary—her humble acceptance of her fraility and trust in God.

    Anyway. Thank you. I’ve so enjoyed this. Blessings to you.

    P.S. And I’ve just started Daniel Deronda for the first time, after reading your post on that…

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Thank you, Melissa! I appreciate your taking the time to chime in. I actually haven’t read The Scent of Water yet, but I imagine it’ll have to be next on my list as it’s been so heartily recommended to me multiple times! :)
      Judging by the bookstores and best-seller lists, it’s tempting to think that books of the worth and weight of Goudge’s have gone by the wayside…but I think it’s absolutely lovely the way that the Web connects kindred spirits over the loves that they share. And that the love of Elizabeth Goudge is alive and well in this world! :)

  9. Jodi Lenz says:

    WHAT?!? You haven’t read Scent of Water yet?? LANIER!!!! Heehee, just kidding…sort of. Pilgrim’s Inn used to be my hands-down favorite until Scent of Water. To be honest, I didn’t love Scent of Water when I first read it, but I’m so glad I re-read it! There are parts of it I can’t read without getting teary. At this stage in my life it is my favorite. Also, this may sound strange, but has anyone else noticed that Elizabeth Goudge’s heroines are often dressed in green? Just curious.

    Lanier, Bron and I, on your recommendation, are cozying up with a pot of tea and the movie The Young Victoria this afternoon. I’m sure we’re in for a treat.

  10. During these exhausting several months of packing, moving, renovating, unpacking—I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Goudge.
    I finished The Rosemary Tree last week and had previously read through the Elliot trilogy and The White Witch.
    Pilgrim’s Inn remains my forever favorite. But then, The Bird in the Tree is special, as is Green Dolphin Street.
    Have you read The Child from the Sea? I’m always intrigued when a “real” person who has been historically rather maligned becomes the subject of a sympathetic fictional work.
    This weeks’ reading is the “Piney Ridge” trilogy of Janice Holt Giles. I read these books first many decades ago and loved them, never supposing that I would someday live in the very county in which they are set. You might like “Miss Willie”–my favorite of the three.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      My book club read The Child from the Sea and we all thought the very same thing, Sharon. I have Dickens’ take (Child’s History of England) on the scandalous Charles II etched on my mind but this work certainly gave me cause to remember that there are two sides to every story! It was certainly an interesting perspective on a historical character and we all enjoyed that very much…not to mention the tragical romance, as Josie said. I think it was all very daring of our Miss Goudge, and underscores her prowess as a convincing writer.
      Janice Holt Giles…sounds like another author that I need to get to know… :)

  11. Josie Ray says:

    The Dean’s Watch was my first and is my favorite of Elizabeth Goudge’s books. It is probably even my all-time favorite fiction work. For some reason, I read it every June. And make raisin pie or Banbury tarts (mini raisin pies), though they’re not mentioned in the book.

    To comment on comments:
    –I hadn’t noticed the green dress Goudge theme, but it does seem that Lucy Maud Montgomery heroines favor pale blue dresses. At least, I always want one when I finish reading one of her stories.

    –I love The Middle Window…so tragically romantic! And The Child From the Sea…tragic romance again! It pleases me to see that wrenching type of passion in E. Goudge’s heart, almost as much as I love how she loves poetry.

  12. Stacy says:

    Lanier, I’ve posted several pictures of my choirs visit to Ely Cathedral on my blog and added a link to our choir master’s site, where you can enjoy some of the lovely music. Enjoy!

  13. […] Christmas)67. Library Hospital (The Spinster Book)68. Homespun Light (Recovering Charles)69. Lanier (The Dean’s Watch)70. Leah@ Good Reads (Laddie)71. Judy @ Seize the Book Blog (In Harm’s Way)72. Judy @ Seize […]

  14. Sarah says:

    It’s been awhile since I checked your site and now I have an overabundance of posts to read! This is such a refreshing break to the end-of-year mad scramble of music theory and math I’m in right now. I read The Dean’s Watch, my first Elizabeth Goudge book this last winter. I kept hearing such wonderful things about this authoress from you and others. I’d been disatisfied with the last several “grown-up/realistic” books I’d tried. Goudge was the perfect mix of good mature writing and I loved her touch of Christianity sprinkled about. It was so natural, not blown in with an air-compressor! So, thank you for the introduction. I’ll be back to the “G” section of the library soon!

  15. Scent of Water along with Green Dolphin Street – and Magic Island. My top 3 – although I love them all.

    Very sorry to hear of the loss of your beloved pets.

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