The Rosemary Tree, by Elizabeth Goudge

Several years ago my daughter and I read Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946), said to be a childhood favorite of Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Goudge’s mix of whimsy, fantasy, and light-handed moralism intrigued me, as did her blend of Catholic and pagan imagery (not unlike C.S. Lewis’s employment of Greek mythology in The Chronicles of Narnia). Seeking more, I discovered Goudge (1900-1984) had written almost twenty adult novels, in addition to short stories and children’s books.

I decided on The Rosemary Tree (1954), a novel set in post-WWII England. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the protagonist is a mild-mannered minister–a kindhearted soul who doesn’t quite have a handle on family life. When a native son, back from the war, wanders onto the scene, John befriends him. Before long we learn this lost soul was once engaged to John’s wife.

No soul-rending drama ensues. But Goudge’s artistic vision and sympathetic cast are still compelling, more than sixty years after publication. John’s bedridden aunt, Harriett, “one of those rare people who have ceased to revolve around themselves” (p. 240) provides a gentle commentary on her fellow characters.

Harriett tells John’s wife, Daphne, “What you call calculated cruelty has its roots in fear as often as not.”

Daphne, who has lived through the Depression and WWII, voices her emerging realizations: “For my generation all our days have been uneasy when they haven’t been downright terrifying. … But I don’t think fear that you share with the whole world warps you. It’s the personal fears that do that.”

Daphne’s overriding fear is failure. Rosemary‘s narrator tells us, “Living as she did in a state of perpetual nervous exhaustion, always driving herself beyond her strength lest the tasks of home and parish accumulate beyond her ability to cope with them, afraid to relax lest she collapse altogether, she had largely lost the power of wonder, and with it the power of looking at familiar things with fresh appreciation” (p. 234).

Goudge also describes the longing referenced in several previous reviews on this site, including Hadestown. John, in the course of a conversation with his daughter’s teacher, reflects that, “Beauty awakened such intolerable longing that people often shut their eyes to it, unaware that the longing was the greatest treasure that they had, their very lifeline, uniting the country of their lost innocence with the heavenly country for which their sails were set” (p. 284).

Ultimately, Goudge portrays a compelling picture of mutual giving within marriage that is both sacrificial and rewarding. Rosemary‘s antagonist, by contrast, is a coldhearted spinster with no appreciation for beauty or order. In a horrifically understated scene, she virtually implodes, the picture of isolated self-love.

Goudge was a devout Anglican. But when I read that she was influenced by The Oxford Movement, it was no surprise to learn that from this nineteenth-century movement within the Church of England emerged “Anglo-Catholicism.” Other notables influenced by this movement include the Catholic theologian John Newman, British abolitionist William Wilberforce, and twentieth-century writers W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Dorothy Sayers.

It may be coincidental, but The Rosemary Tree displays superficial as well as significant parallels to Brideshead Revisited (1945), written by Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh: a post-World War setting; a lost love and threatened marital infidelity; a family estate in decline; idealized landscapes with pagan overtones; an artist (a writer, in The Rosemary Tree) finding his muse; a lament for that which is passing away, and hope for the future found in faith. Like Brideshead Revisited, The Rosemary Tree abounds in references to beauty and art while embodying them in its craftsmanship.

Unlike Brideshead, which is firmly grounded in modern realism, the world of The Rosemary Tree is half enchanted and half rooted in objective history, from pre-historic paganism through biblical times and into the Middle Ages. Goudge’s fanciful imagination, given free rein in The Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians, glimmers here in and there in The Rosemary Tree as well.

Further Reading: Those seeking more background to Goudge’s books can read her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, as well as Christine Rawlins’s biography, Beyond the Snow: The Life and Faith of Elizabeth Goudge. Goudge’s most popular works include Green Dolphin Country (1944), adapted into the 1947 movie Green Dolphin Street, The Scent of Water, The Dean’s Watch, and the Eliots of Damrosehay series. The first two installments of the latter, The Bird in the Tree and Pilgrim’s Inn, come recommended by my cousin. And Goudge’s I Saw three Ships makes timely Christmas reading for families.

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