In Search of Unicorns

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Did you ever yearn to live in a magical world? One where a unicorn is glimpsed in a wood, monkeys do housework and a big black cat takes messages, and where there is also, reliably, steak and kidney pie for lunch, honey for tea and cocoa for supper?

That’s how my sister and I spent one summer, lost in the comforting world of Elizabeth Goudge’s children’s books. We were quite young – maybe 13 and 9. Our parents were fighting all the time, screaming and sulking. Most summers we trailed round European cities following my father’s lectures at medical conferences, being plunged into high culture while all we longed for was to repeat our one holiday on a British beach.

It was far otherwise in Goudge territory, twinkling with exquisitely English landscapes, cosy as a quilted sampler. Whether she is describing a young child climbing slippery rock steps from a sea cave or uncovering the glories of a tangled garden in Devon, she is one of the only modern prose writers to capture the spirit of the seventeenth- century mystic Thomas Traherne:

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things . . .

Like Traherne Goudge was an ardent Anglican. But although religion can be an oppressive presence in her adult novels, in her children’s books it manifests itself merely as a sense of embracing safety. One of her obituaries quoted Jane Austen’s famous line from Mansfield Park, ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ Her fictional world is devoid of malice, which is why it was such balm to our childis

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About the contributor

Victoria Neumark lives in north London but enjoys frequent excursions to magical realms in the company of her two small granddaughters.

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