Old-time religion

I've previously reviewed on here the first two books in Elizabeth Goudge's Damerosehay trilogy The bird in the tree and The herb of grace (published in the States as Pilgrim Inn). The trilogy follows the life of the Eliot family living in a magical corner of Hampshire before and just after the Second World War.

I first read the trilogy when I was in my late-twenties, and loved them. Coming back to them many years later, I found them in general less appealing than I had at a younger age. The herb of grace was still a beautiful, lyrical tale of love, loss and finding yourself again through accepting your past and its place in a long history of which you are only a small part; but I struggled a little with The bird in the tree. There was much to enjoy in it, especially in Goudge's depiction of dogs and children; but the religious element was rather more overt, and occasionally got in the way of the novel itself.

If this was the case with The bird in the hand, it is even more so with the final book in the trilogy The heart of the family. David Eliot, one of the central characters, in the earlier novels is now married, and the father of two small children. He still struggles though to reconcile his true self with the self that he wants to be, and that he believes his family, most notably his indomitable grandmother, Lucilla, expect of him. A break back in the heart of the family, the ancestral home, Damerosehay, brings these feelings to a head, when he meets up with his new secretary, Sebastian Weber. Weber is a broken man struggling to come to terms with the loss of his family, health, and career, thanks to the tribulations of the Second World War.

Although initially in opposition to each other, the house works its usual spell, and both Eliot and Weber find peace in the warm arms of Damerosehay, and David's family.

There are some wonderful moments in the novel. As always Goudge portrays children and dogs beautifully. The children are in evidence, but sadly most of the dogs of the earlier novels are gone, and later dogs get rather less mentions. If the religious element was handled gently in the earlier part of the trilogy; here it is rather heavy-handed, with some long digressions into philosophical and theological discussions. Unfortunately it's rather clumsily handled, and rather than being an integral part of the story, it becomes an often completely unnecessary diversion.

As with Bird in the hand the novel often handles very serious issues - in this case coming to terms with war from the viewpoints of a survivor of the fire-bombing of Dresden, and a bomber-pilot. I admire Goudge's attempt to do this, and to a certain extent she succeeds, at least in making you think about the issues involved. But ultimately it's all too saccharine and improbable.

Overall I love the trilogy, there's much to recommend it, and the second novel, The Herb of Grace is a stunningly good, loving novel in its own right. But there are serious weaknesses in the novels either side of it, most notably in the final novel The heart of the family.

There's still something very lovable though about the trilogy. Witness the fact that tomorrow I'm off camping in Hamphire, and am intending to visit Keyhaven, a central location in the Damerosehay saga.


Popular Posts