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Elisabeth Ingles, Elizabeth Goudge - Slightly Foxed Issue 30

Time Travel

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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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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 surname) does not name her city or its cathedral, but there is little doubt that it is Ely. The city, for which she provides a concise but romantic history, rises from the flat fen country with its huge skies, the cathedral towering over it like a ship on the ocean. It is a small, self-contained place, surrounded by villages that look to it as their focus. And it can be lonely: Elaine, the Dean’s beautiful, heartless wife, feels isolated, missing acutely the fashionable life she led in far-off London before Adam’s dog-like devotion persuaded her into marriage and a way out of an existence of narrowing options. The characters are introduced one by one as they play out their lives in the immense, looming presence of the cathedral, which is itself a character in its own right. The child-like Isaac, a horological craftsman, is painfully shy, frightened by the all-embracing darkness of the mighty building, but quietly happy in his own abilities. Job, the orphan boy with a master craftsman’s touch, lives in his own little world, where he can escape his harsh existence as assistant to the bullying fishmonger. The little maid Polly, Job’s sweetheart, possesses so sunny a temperament that she is incapable of feeling dislike even towards her bitter, destructive employer Emma, Isaac’s sister. Later we meet Adam the Dean, a man of immense ugliness and terrifying aspect, whose core of solid gold is generally unappreciated by the townspeople and by his bored, beautiful wife. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with Isaac who, plucking up all his courage, offers to teach him about the wonders inherent in the microscopic technology of his superb watch: ‘All his life [Adam] had loved children and poor people, and such child-like trusting little oddities as the extraordinary little man sitting opposite to him . . . But he never knew what to say to them and his unfortunate appearance always frightened them.’ Isaac is not brave enough to cope with an interruption from the Archdeacon, however, and sidles behind the butler ‘like a terrified crab seeking cover behind a rock’ before Adam can get him to say more about the mechanism of the Deanery clocks. Adam is completely unaware of his own goodness, and constantly reproaches himself with his failure as a churchman, friend and husband. But his great qualities do gradually come to be recognized: by the townspeople, by Job, who twice has reason to be deeply grateful to Adam, and, most surprisingly, by his wife, who realizes too late his greatness as a man. The other main figure in the story is Miss Montague who, in my view, vies with Adam as the author’s favourite character. She is the last of one of the town’s oldest families, a dumpy elderly lady of quiet charm: ‘Those upon whom her eyes rested immediately thought the world of themselves, for it was obvious that she saw with one glance all the good in them to which their own families seemed so strangely blind.’ She is a true Christian, and epitomizes the book’s central theme: ‘unemotionally because she was not emotional’, she takes a vow to love.
She saw that all her powers, even those which had seemed to mitigate against love, such as her shrewdness which had always been quick to see the faults of others, her ambition and self-will, could by a change of direction be bound over in service to the one overmastering purpose.
When she is plunged into grief at the death of a beloved brother, the author describes with great acuity the state of depression and of losing one’s faith. Yet Miss Montague eventually finds the gift of being happy, and her contentment is completely attractive. Love is manifest throughout the book. One poor clergyman is on his uppers, and his mind is clouded, but ‘Love still owned him, steered him, drew him to itself.’ Job, when he meets the Dean for the second time, recognizes it subconsciously:

It was years before he was to realize that a sense of identity is the gift of love, and only love can give it, but for the rest of his life he was to remember this moment and be able to recall at will the tones of the harsh deep voice, the kindling in the eyes. It was the moment when life began for him, real life, the life of spirit and of genius which his world had foreshadowed.

Miss Goudge has certain predilections. She is very good on cats:

There was a long silence in the room and then a sound so faint that it was more a vibration than a sound. It increased . . . slowly, steadily until sound was perceptible, a faint humming, and then a louder humming as of innumerable bees approaching at speed, and then at last Polly’s whole body was shaken by the full glorious organ music of Sooty purring.

The author rather loses her heart (as does Adam) to a wilful small girl who knows exactly how far she can push her luck. And she can’t resist redeeming even the most unappealing of her characters – the shrewish Emma, or the thuggish fishmonger. But those changes of heart are really to do with Adam’s greatness of spirit and his generosity.

She has a nice sense of humour too. When Isaac opens the front door, light and air and music poured in, broke against Emma like bright water against a dark rock, flowed round her, joined behind her, and to Isaac’s fancy filled the house. ‘Shut the door, Isaac,’ said Emma sharply from the pavement. Isaac did so and then leant against it chuckling. ‘Too late, Emma,’ he said. ‘It’s in.’

Miss Goudge is not afraid of emotion, though she doesn’t overdo it. But I doubt if any reader will be able to hold back a faint pricking of tears at the end. Although The Dean’s Watch is not action-packed, the changes described in it are profound. In that sense it is every bit as satisfying as a novel by Mrs Gaskell, sharing something of the small-town flavour and the fascination with the minutiae of ordinary everyday lives. It is a deeply Christian work, but in a way that is not off-putting for non-Christians. What it celebrates is the power of selfless love – agape, not eros – to affect every aspect of its characters’ lives, and the reader’s too.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 30 © Elisabeth Ingles 2011


About the contributor

Elisabeth Ingles moved to Somerset from Kentish Town seven years ago. Now the most beautiful words in the English language, ‘High Barnet one minute’ on the Tube indicator board, have been replaced by ‘Basingstoke’, left behind as the train carries her west.

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