For the last few years Lory of The Emerald City Book Review has been hosting a celebration of Elizabeth Goudge’s work on the author’s birthday and as a result I have read three wonderful novels, one every April since 2015 – The Child from the Sea, The White Witch and Towers in the Mist. This year Lory has taken a break from hosting this event, but I was pleased to find that it has a new home at Howling Frog Books and Jorie Loves a Story. Even before I knew that there would be an Elizabeth Goudge Day 2018, I had already decided to mark the day myself by reading another of her books. I still had plenty of unread Goudge novels to choose from, but Gentian Hill was the one I felt most drawn to this year.
Gentian Hill, first published in 1949, is set in Devon during the Napoleonic Wars. It opens on a peaceful August evening with a Royal Navy fleet arriving at Torbay during a glorious sunset. On board one of the frigates is fifteen-year-old Midshipman Anthony Louis Mary O’Connell, who has been in the Navy for eight weeks and has had all he can take of the seasickness, the brutal treatment, the punishments, and the taunts of the older, more experienced sailors. Escaping from the ship during the night, he deserts and disappears into the countryside where, taking the name of Zachary, he wanders from place to place looking for work until, eventually, fate takes him to Weekaborough Farm near Gentian Hill.
Weekaborough Farm is home to the Spriggs and their ten-year-old adopted daughter Stella. Stella is a gentle, sensitive girl whose time is divided between caring for the animals on the farm and attending lessons with Dr Crane, the village doctor, a man who values the importance of a thorough education for girls as well as boys:
Reading, writing, and elementary arithmetic were all the child needed to learn of the doctor, Mother Sprigg maintained. This, combined with the arts of housewifery that she herself could teach her, was all the education required by a farmer’s daughter. Doctor Crane disagreed; the education required by any individual, he maintained, was just exactly all the knowledge the individual could possibly assimilate.
When Zachary arrives in Stella’s life, an instant connection forms between the two of them which quickly blossoms into love, but soon Zachary must go to sea again…and there is no guarantee that they will be reunited.
I enjoyed Gentian Hill; as with all the other Goudge novels I’ve read, the writing is beautiful and there are some truly lovely descriptions of the Devon countryside. Here are the words she uses to bring Torbay to life:
The last light of the sun was streaming over the rampart of green hills to the west, brimming the leafy valleys with liquid gold, then emptying itself in a sort of abandonment of glory into the vast domed space of sky and sea beyond. There were ripples on the water, and a fragile pattern of cirrus clouds above, and these caught the light in vivid points of fire that were delicate as filigree upon the fine metal of the gold-washed sea and sky.
However, this is probably my least favourite of the four books I’ve read so far. With the hero and heroine being ten and fifteen (and they only age slightly over the course of the novel), I couldn’t really believe in the romance between them – it felt more like the love between a brother and a sister. I also found the characters a little bit too good and too pure, even for a Goudge novel; I feel sure there were characters in her other books who were more complex – unless I was just in the wrong mood this time.
I did find plenty of things to love, though. I particularly liked the way Goudge weaves local legends into the story, such as the legend of St Michael’s Chapel in Torquay, as well as all the customs and traditions that formed part of 18th century rural life: Christmas wassailing, the Ploughing Chant, harvesting, corn dollies, and the ancient instrument known as the bull-roarer. I also enjoyed following the story of the Abbe de Colbert, chaplain of Torre Abbey, who lived and suffered through the recent French Revolution. And although the plot is predictable, what I was hoping would happen is exactly what did happen, so I was happy with that!
Gentian Hill is a lovely story, but if you have never tried one of Elizabeth Goudge’s historical novels before I would recommend starting with either Towers in the Mist or The Witch Witch. She also wrote several contemporary novels including The Scent of Water…don’t forget to enter my giveaway if you would like to win a copy of that one!