Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Goudge’s Secret Gardens

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View over Devon's garden from near Marldon

            Gardens and flowers frequent Elizabeth Goudge’s books, several of which were written when she lived in Devon; Devon is an important re-envisioned background setting, in a cluster of them. Unlike Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one has the feeling that for her namesake Elizabeth Goudge the lost inner child never completely disappeared; through gardens real and imaginary she kept resurfacing, bringing with her a surfeit of joy. In several of her novels gardens and garden imagery appear essential to the fictions’ very existence.

           Goudge’s own early childhood garden, that of the Principal’s House at Wells Theological College, next to the cathedral, held a lifelong magically significant influence on the writer and probably provided the initial impetus for the burgeoning of garden backdrops in her later texts. Flowers, trees and other plants trail in abundance through the textual trellises of her texts. Gentians, gallica and rosamundi roses, ferns, jack-in-the-green, periwinkle, herbs, plum-blossom, elm-trees, weeping-willows, and a host of other species. Her autobiography Joy of the Snow frequently alludes to gardens where she lived. It is to the garden or to the garden’s periphery, that the writer turns to, for respite, healing, inspiration and solace. Gardens seem integral to her very soul and over and over again it is to a special, often secret space of solitude and exquisite beauty that she returns to, in order to foster creativity; a ‘deep well beside a tunnel of a lane’; or a ‘particular tree where a great white barn-owl used to sit at Twilight’; or a ‘very green shady and bird-haunted spot’.
Providence Cottage, Marldon
          At Marldon, where Goudge made her home for several years, it was a moment of transcendence, glimpsed through a window during her first glance at the garden - from a holiday bungalow at the ‘small wet lawn sloped from the window ... into the mist ... as though it was green water sliding over the edge of a precipice’, - that impelled her deep bond with the Devonshire landscape around her. At Westerland, where Goudge’s cottage was later built, there was a special corner ‘southwest of the orchard’, which had ‘a group of three giant pines, old and tough and strong’, the soughing of which, when it was windy, was ‘one of the two great voices of the place’. Goudge was able to gaze from Westerland at the same by now cherished view, and to wander to her beloved blue periwinkle bank which abutted the garden, where she could ‘dream her dream’ and ‘see her visions’ across the blue distance to Dartmoor.

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Devon's 'green-world'

        Another instant of epiphany happened to her one day when standing rooted in the  midst of her garden at ‘Providence Cottage’ and immersed in its and the distant view’s intoxicating beauty, she felt purged of a hidden and persistent inner demon. As one recent critic put it, Goudge’s ‘green world is thus the primary agent of the hero’s quest for authenticity’ and her own ease within natural and garden settings is projected on to many of her female characters who float through the books in a cloud of ‘green-world locales’. (Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction, (1981), 126).

       When I was a child I did not have the chance to read Goudge’s favourite and famous children’s novel The White Horse; unfortunately it did not ever appear on our rather denuded town-library shelves. If it had, its otherworldly and spell-binding garden scenes would have been added to that of our own play-time layered compendium of texts and garden montages. Moonacre Manor’s garden is modelled on the real and historically significant Compton Castle.
compton castle
Compton Castle views
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         During the period when Goudge moved to Devon and presumably visited that estate, the castle was being renovated, so she would have had ample opportunity to absorb its particular features, which included remnants of a pleasaunce or plesaunce and evidence of large formal gardens. Compton had belonged to several of Devon’s prominent families since at least the period of Henry II, in particular the Gilberts. One commentator mentions that
here and there, grey archways peep out ... As a military post, the house is of no value; for it is commanded by the old " pleasaunce," or garden, to which, in rear of the building, the ascent is by a broad flight of steps. From their summit, there is a charming view of that part of the fabric, which contains the hall and chapel. The whole is indeed buried in a luxuriant growth of ivy ...’
Another elaborates on the plesaunce:
‘Behind it are the formal walks of the old garden, or pleasaunce ... the southern court of the ballium had become a flower-garden, with quaint terraces, statues, knots of flowers, clipped yews and hollies, and all the pedantries of the topiarian art’.
        Lady Rosalind Northcott was another early C20 woman who in one of her books about Devon described Compton Castle. She remarks that ‘The Gilberts seem to have lived alternately at Compton and on their older property, Greenway’ and further comments on the garden that,
‘At the farther end, on steps leading into the garden, a peacock looks wonderfully appropriate, and some white fantails strutting in front of the heavy walls add very much to the picture. There is scarcely any sign of the old 'pleasaunce,' except a low and fairly broad box-hedge, which runs each side of a path in the present garden, where a few violets and one or two strawberry-blossoms are tokens of the softness of the air’.
One reader who was introduced to The Little White Horse as a child visited the area after her first encounter with the book, rather more recently than Northcott’s Devonian survey and described the place’s impact on her:
‘... child in you is fascinated by the walled courtyard at Compton Castle, where you can walk up the steps of the steps of the stone ramparts and walk straight on it seems, into the hills ... Here you get the sense of being gently held as if cupped in a giant hand ... feel safe looking far away to the reaches of Dartmoor ...’ (See Country Homes and Interiors, 1989)
compton and gardens
Gardens near Compton Castle
          Little White Horse engages with its source’s real past and stirs the cauldron of garden layerings sunk within its layered earth. Goudge, alchemist, transforms Moonacre’s walled courtyard garden setting, sited within ‘silvery Devon’, into a crucible, wherein elements from various different forces dissolve, disintegrate and reassemble, in line, and in-keeping with the transformative unravelling and denouement of the narrative’s complex fairy-tale quest plot. The writer’s way of conjuring up the setting of her now classic children’s book seems to have involved a creative interweaving of the garden and surrounding rural environment as it was when she saw it, as it may have once been and as it unfurled its visionary potential in front of her imagining, interior, writerly eyes. She described the latter phenomenon in The Rosemary Tree:
‘This sense of kinship with particular things and people was not new ... As one lived in a place certain things about one – the branches of a tree seen through one’s window, certain aspects of the light ... moved forward from the rest of one’s surroundings and became the furniture of one’s own private world. One could not part from that particular tree ... without a sense of personal loss; and from memory they would never be lost’.
       It is a curious intermingling or layering of garden, text, imagination, history; the effect is achieved in such a way that the submerged child resurfaces, bringing with her her own lost gardens of a past and fusing them with the adult writer’s rationally induced ability to scrutinise her surroundings in acute detail. Perhaps the secret of Goudge’s spell on children and susceptible adults is that she manages, at will, to enter and exist different worlds, the child’s and the adult’s; her brand of magical realism merges together the real and the unworldly. As you read the books your own identity shift back and forth, imperceptibly, between two zones. At the same time, you are pulled down, down as in trance, to deeper levels of pre-symbolic consciousness – back almost to the semiotic state. In the Little White Horse the boundary-lines between zonal worlds are figured by a profusion of liminal Alice-in-Wonderland type garden entrances. The book is awash with threshold entrances - doorways in hills, gates, tunnels of bushes and trees, winding-staircases, archways and parting-curtains. The process occurs again and again, descending in figurative steps deeper and deeper, right from the book’s first pages, as Maria Merryweather and her companions arrive at Moonacre in her carriage. They have journeyed through mist and moonlight and are suddenly engulfed in a narrow passageway, between walls of rock, where, suddenly, a ‘door in the rock’ materialises, replete with a hanging rusty chain and opens onto Maria’s entrancing initial glimpse of Moonacre’s garden: ‘beautiful glades [with] ... silver ... so delicate that the moonlight sifted through it like a fine film of silver-dust’. Goudge has projectively re-envisioned her own first encounter with the mystical and misty view from her holiday bungalow at Marldon, onto her fictional scene. Next, the party in the carriage drive through ‘an archway in an old grey-wall’ and enter an entrancing ‘formal garden, with flower-beds and paved walks surrounding a water-lily pool and yew-trees ...’. The vision picks up details of fragments from what was left of Compton Castle’s real gardens and scatters them into the imaginative re-mix of the writer’s melting-pot.

      Goudge’s fiction - and not only that for children - illustrates how the woman writer who finds and allows her child-self free to roam, in the still rampant wild-gardens of the heart, wanders (and wonders) freely into ever-widening efflorescent circles of semiotic vision; there, not only is jouissance, but anything, is possible.

See also previous blog on Goudge
copyright @ Julie Sampson

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