Tuesday, July 20, 2010

THE BIRD IN THE TREE by Elizabeth Goudge

What I find most interesting about The Bird in the Tree (1940), Book One of The Eliot Chronicles, is the fact that it was set in 1938. England, still suffering the aftermath of war and financial chaos, was about to plunge into a second great war. Elizabeth Goudge's more serious contemporaries were examining sin (Greene) and loss (Waugh) and politics (Auden), while the general public were enjoying detective fiction's golden age.

By contrast, Elizabeth Goudge (1900 - 1984) harks back to Victorian conventions: Abundant descriptions of nature, lengthy and lyrical. Storms arising as needed for dramatic effect. A large country house with a history. Gardens where children play and faerie folk are imagined if not actually spotted. Doomed lovers who unite in soul but never in body. And above all, exhortations to faithfulness and duty.

Modernity, however, is also evident. The matriarch Lucilla reigns over her family but, short of funds, is down to two servants plus a couple of helpers from the village. Her daughter-in-law Nadine has divorced her son George. Some of the young adults believe it is more important to be true to oneself (a later generation would call this "authenticity") than to sacrifice for the needs of others. Grandson David roars around the countryside in a silver-grey Lincoln.

Fortunately, older and wiser folk are available to set the young ones straight. The 78-year-old grandmother speaks of her own thwarted romance. The 80-year-old housekeeper launches a frontal attack against one of the miscreants. Lucilla's stodgy son Hilary, a country parson with war wounds, states his position and prays.
What in the world, thought David, could Hilary be praying about or for? He hoped it wasn't for him. He disliked being prayed for. He didn't think it was fair. For all you knew, under the compulsion of it, you might find yourself doing something heroic that you didn't in the least want or intend to do.
It would be easy to dismiss Goudge's tale as sentimental (about the natural world) and moralistic (about people). But despite her romantic leanings, she is not saccharine. Her characters are well drawn.  I especially like the irrepressible 8-year-old Tommy and the dogs, Pooh Bah and the Bastard. Lucilla is a force of nature: Dame Joan Plowright would play her well. Her grandson David's pervasive cynicism allows the author to contrast contemporary wisdom with eternal verities.

Goudge's age was as politically tense as our own, and selfishness is endemic to every age. Why not escape into a story where individual desires give way to the common good, where people choose to do right even at the expense of personal happiness, and where God is worshiped and family is valued? That is, if you don't mind long descriptions of marshes and tides and flowers and cornfields and birds and trees ...
The Bird in the Tree is out of print but available from sellers of used books.

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