Mini Review: Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

Linnets and Valerians is full of all the best things that I loved about The Little White Horse with none of its overt moralizing and proselytizing. It’s about four children, ages 6 to 12, who run away from their grandmother and fortuitously end up at their uncle’s. They eat mouth-wateringly described food, romp all over sun-soaked hills bursting with color and smells, and proceed to have a glorious adventure by thwarting the “evil witch’s” wicked plans.

At its heart Linnets and Valerians is about magic—the magic of finding your heart’s family, the magic of nature, and well, the kind of magic which looks like magic but is also not that hard to rationalize. There’s also a very un-monkey like monkey, a man who could be a gnome, and madam queen and other bees who weave their own enchantment.

As with The Little White Horse, my favorite part remains Goudge’s writing—fat, gorgeous, luminescent words that paint evocative scenes which spring up in the mind’s eye fully realized, and vividly colored:

She stood and looked about her and she wondered if there was any place anywhere more lovely and strange than this, poised here half-way between the world of trees and of the clouds. It was a miniature green valley, almost like a garden, held in a cleft of the rock. . . . A small stream ran down the center of it and fell over the edge of the cliff down to the trees below, and the banks of the stream were thick with forget-me-nots and green ferns. There were flowers everywhere in the grass and more ferns and little rowan trees grew up  the sides of the valley. Nan put her flowers into a pool between two stones at the edge of the stream, to get a good drink, and she had a drink herself, lifting the water in her cupped hands.

Cozy, funny, generous, and delightful are all terms that can be liberally and aptly applied to Linnets and Valerians. It was such a satisfying read that it’s made me want to ILL my next Elizabeth Goudge book!

Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse

So let me begin by saying what did NOT work for me—namely, a few of the Christian themes that are integral to the structure of The Little White Horse, plus a couple of other philosophical ideas that underpin the book:

(i) The idea that a “sin” committed by an ancestor continues to have repercussions for each successive generation till somebody “atones” for it

(ii) The very idea of “sin”

(iii) That curiousity in a female is bad (though to be fair to Elizabeth Goudge, it seemed that Maria paid little attention to this one)

(iv) That for a relationship/marriage to thrive one must never quarrel (as italicized in the book). Though this became more understandable in context of what’s revealed later in the story, it still wielded a weight that makes me put it up here in this list.

Elizabeth Goudge The Little White HorseI’m pointing these things out not to debate their rightness or wrongness or to discuss whether they’re an accurate representation of Christianity (I’ve no idea); I’m mentioning them because it was difficult for me to look past these notions and continue enjoying the story. (Also, that Maria gets married at age 14/15—maybe this was in keeping with the times (1840s) that the story is set in, and also the fact that The Little White Horse is a bit fantasy-ish but in the wake of the other things that I mentioned above, this last seemingly trivial bit just made me want the story to finish already! And if the book hadn’t been an Inter Library Loan, I doubt I’d have bothered to finish it at all)

When we begin, Maria is a 13-year-old orphan who’s on her way to Moonacre Manor in the village of Silverydew. Let me pause to reflect on these names because firstly, they are lovely, and secondly it becomes clear very early on that “silver” is of some significance in the story. Maria is accompanied by her companion Miss Heliotrope who’s looked after her and loved her since she was a baby. There’s also Wiggins, a spaniel, who’s equally lovely and vain.

They meet up with Maria’s only living relative, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, who’s genial, sharp-eyed, and exactly the kind of guardian that Maria could have wished for. Rounding off Sir Benjamin’s household are a dog-who’s-the-most-unlikely-looking-dog there ever was, a cat who communicates by drawing in the ashes, and a cook who happens to be a dwarf. We don’t get to meet these characters all at once. Instead, Goudge reveals them to us one at a time, drawing us deeper into the mystery that surrounds Moonacre Manor. All this I lapped up without batting an eyelash. Goudge is simply superb at creating a highly atmospheric setting—one can feel the hint of sinisterness lurking beneath the unabashed joy of the Moonacre Valley and the Silverydew village.

And this brings me to the aspect of The Little White Horse that I loved the most—the descriptions! I adore an author who gives a free rein to their words, letting it all tumble out, with no eye to restraint. Goudge’s descriptions are lush, detailed, and awash in colors. She fills in her scenes with such texture and dimensionality that you can’t but see the whole thing in your mind’s eye. This is true for all of her food scenes as well! I LOVE food, and I love that Goudge is so persnickety when it comes to laying out and describing all the food items that Maria consumes in the book.

But when she looked again there was nothing to be seen except the tangled briars and all the lovely little birds with their rainbow-coloured wings. They were singing gloriously this morning, twittering and chirping and caroling and shouting and fluting and humming in praise of spring, until it was a wonder they did not burst their throats.

Another example to illustrate what I mean—a description of the place where all the food is prepared! It was a toss-up between this and Maria’s room, both places that I would love to live in!

Maria, in the kitchen, once more stood and gazed. The kitchen was glorious, flagged with great stone flags scrubbed to the whiteness of snow, and nearly as big as the hall. Its ceiling was crossed by great oak beams from which hung flitches of bacon and bunches of onions and herbs. It had two open fireplaces, one for boiling stews, and cooking pies, and another, with a spit, for roasting. There were two oval bread-ovens set in the thickness of the wall, and pans, so well polished that they reflected the light like mirrors. There was a large wash-tub in one corner, and against the wall an enormous oak dresser where pretty china stood in neat rows; and an oak table stood in the center of the room. There were several doors which Maria guessed led to the larders and the dairy. The windows looked out over the stable-yard, so that the morning sun filled the room, and the whole place was merry and bright and warm and scrupulously clean. There were no chairs, but a wooden bench against the wall, and several three-legged wooden stools. One of these stools had been pulled up to the table, and standing upon it, facing Maria as she came in, was a little hunchbacked dwarf making pastry.

Throughout the book, Goudge invokes the moon and the sun as two types of Merryweather personalities. Balance between the two is important for a happy life in Goudge’s world. I don’t have a quarrel with that. Balance is important in all our lives, I agree. But Goudge’s frequent use of the silver-gold motif (especially the silver) left me feeling a little worn out. I wonder if this motif/mythology has any real world significance as well. Anyone know?

Also, as a counterpoint to things I mentioned at the start, here’s a bit of of Goudge’s representation of Christianity that did work for me:

Maria had never heard anyone pray like this Old Parson, and the way that he did it made her tremble all over with awe and joy. For he talked to God as if he were not only up in heaven, but standing beside him in the pulpit. And not only standing beside him but beside every man, woman, and child in the church—God came alive for Maria as he prayed, and she was so excited and happy that she could hardly draw her breath.

I’m pretty sure I read some of Goudge’s children’s books as a kid but for some reason I have absolutely no recollection of their overtly Christian themes. Maybe it just went right over my head? I still have Goudge’s Dean’s Watch that I got from a second-hand bookshop. I think I might give it a shot (for all those descriptions!) and see how it goes!

Books! Ba-ba-loo-ba-la, BOOKS!

In case you guys were wondering about my disappearing act—it’s been a busy past month at our household, what with cousins coming over from half-way across the world from Singapore, and then our own two week trip to London which was VERY productive because. . .

I GOT ME SOME BOOKS!

Behold all the books I brought back with me:

Persephone Books

Because, of course, I had to visit Persephone Books.

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And also the venerable Hatchard’s!

Hatchard's

Books

I bought the one at the top of this pile as a joke for husband. It’s called Harris’s List Of Covent Garden Ladies, and is ahem, as you can imagine, a list of the covent garden ladies in whose company the gents could find some, ahem, pleasure. Here’s my current favorite lady:

Miss Godf-y, No. 22, Upper Newman-street

If parts can conquer great and small,
Sure—and Godf-y—must needs do all.

This lady is a kind of boatswain in her way, and when she speaks, every word is uttered with a thundering and vociferous tone. She is a fine lively little girl, about 22, very fond of dancing, has dark eyes, and hair, well shaped, and an exceeding good bed-fellow, will take brandy with any one, or drink and swear, and though but little, will fight a good battle. We apprehend this lady would be an extraordinary companion for an officer in the army, as she might save him the trouble of giving the word of command.

She resides in the first floor.

I know, I know. I should be horrified. And outraged. But right now, I’m only capable of gurgles of laughter!

I was also very pleased to find an omnibus of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, a collection of stories set in the small village of Malgudi, some of which I remember reading and enjoying hugely as a kid!

And alas, my library does not carry The Ruby In The Smoke, so I knew I was going to buy that at some point.

Dog Ears is a children’s book that I searched for high and low in the U.S. but couldn’t find! The wonderful nobodyjones characterized it as Blytonian so of course I had to try it out! Also, can I just say how RELIEVED I was to find Enid Blytons stacked up and down all over London’s bookstores? Their absolute absence in the U.S. had me start questioning if they were a figment of my imagination!

Then there’s Elizabeth Goudge whom I remembered being a children’s author though I have no recollection which book of hers I read. This one though, The Dean’s Watch, seems like a grown-up book with an interesting enough story. Oh, and it was gifted to someone in 1960!

Reader, I have discovered the pleasure of second-hand bookstores! And London simply BRIMS with them. The whole of Charing Cross Street is lined with one second hand bookshop after the next. It has made me want to seek out some here in my own city too!

Rose Macaulay, and Angela Thirkell, I recall wanting to try out, but never succeeding in finding any of their work.

Homestead is the only one amongst this lot that I have absolutely no idea about except that it has a blurb, and a setting (Switzerland) that sounded intriguing.

Middlemarch

And then there’s Middlemarch. I have been meaning to get around to reading it and I just could not resist this gorgeous edition.

Have you guys read any of these books? I’d love to know what you thought!