You must have had the experience of finding yourself so absorbed by the world conjured up in a book that you read it ever more slowly – battling the urgent desire to find out what happens next – because you can’t bear to get to the end. For me The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge is such a book. She has the gift of pulling you effortlessly into the world she has created, and leaving you bereft as well as satisfied when you arrive at the last page.
I must have been 16 or 17 when I first read this novel. I was not in the happiest frame of mind – my father had recently died in a car accident, and consequently my family had moved to another town and I had had to change schools. The chance to escape into another world and another century could not have been more opportune.
I first came across the novel as a serial in one of my mother’s magazines – not, alas, something likely to happen today – and was drawn unresisting into a cathedral city of the 1870s. It is seemingly a picture of life in a golden age: the houses in one fine street ‘did not look like houses in which anything could go very wrong’. But at the same time the city has its poverty-stricken, unsavoury slums, which rouse a burning sense of injustice in the formidable Dean of the Cathedral, Adam Ayscough. His desire to improve them is one of his chief preoccupations, and he castigates himself severely for his inability to do so.
I can date my fascination with the medieval cathedral from my rapt first reading of this book. Now I am lucky enough to live within a few miles of Wells, a fine small city, stuffed with architectural delights and with a glorious Gothic gem at its heart. I am not in the least religious, but the power of the numinous, the mystery of a great cathedral in which thousands of worshippers over the centuries have found something that speaks to them, is a phenomenon I cannot ignore.
Miss Goudge (somehow it’s impossible to refer to her only by her
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