Literature abounds with enviable rooms of every stripe, and I have always had my favourites. The attic in Little Women, for instance, where I was entertained by the plays written and performed by the March sisters, or imagined myself curled on the ancient sofa to munch apples and write, like my heroine, Jo.
But the room that affected me most as a child belonged to the orphaned Maria Merryweather in Elizabeth Goudge’s prize-winning novel The Little White Horse. I don’t know how many times I read the chapter in which Maria is introduced to her tower room with its child-sized door, its vaulted ceiling that culminates in a sickle moon and stars, but it worked its magic on me then and it still has power over me now.
During the years when I read the book we lived in remote parts of Australia. Photographs from that time show that the houses we occupied were plain, and there were few luxuries. Playmates, too, were scarce, so books became my friends. For a long time The Little White Horse and I were inseparable, for with her love of beautiful places and her genius for detail Elizabeth Goudge conjured another world for me, one in which houses and food and clothing were never utilitarian but were transformed by her pen into a kind of poetry. As a solitary child, pets were also valued companions, and I was quick to cherish her enchanted animal characters.
Recently I came across another of Goudge’s children’s novels, The Runaways. Originally published as Linnets and Valerians, this book, too, offers its readers a wonderfully memorable room. Written around twenty years after The Little White Horse, it follows the fortunes of the four motherless Linnet children as they flee their grandmother’s house and find their way to the more child-friendly household of their Uncle Ambrose. The eldest girl, Nan Linnet, is a classic Goudge heroine – brave, sweet-natured, adventurous and yet reflective, and it is upon Nan that the writer bestows the gift of a perfect little parlour.
Born in England in 1900 in the cathedral city of Wells, Elizabeth Goudge was twelve years younger than Virginia Woolf, though from her writing she might have been a good deal older. Her father was a theologian and her mother a native of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and the combination of this with being an only child seems to have instilled in the young Elizabeth the Edwardian sensibility she would retain for the rest of her life.
A theologian’s genteel daughter she may have been, but it is inconceivable that, as a female novelist writing in the early 20th century, Elizabeth Goudge did not read Virginia Woolf. In 1928 She may even have attended Woolf’s Cambridge lectures at Newnham and Girton Colleges that would be published the following year as A Room of One’s Own. For while Elizabeth Goudge did not talk the talk of feminism, in her quiet way she walked the walk, ensuring that her female heroines, and by extension her young female readers, were given rooms of their own in a time when that must have seemed an impossible extravagance.
When I came to writing, I found that I, too, loved creating places that might be special enough to linger in a reader’s memory. The grand but dilapidated house in my first novel Nights In The Asylum (with its improbably lavish garden) has its fans, perhaps even more so than its human characters. I wrote it in all sorts of odd places — an uncomfortable desk in the corner of my bedroom, in my car on the way to work, in a room filled with donated books in the basement of a hospital, and it was finally finished in my mother’s spare room. The next novel was scribbled out in cafes, and in shopping malls. Even for one particularly testing stretch at a table behind the letter ‘P” in the window of an Italian restaurant called Spargo’s.
I proved to myself in those years that, if I had to, I could write anywhere, though privately I still longed for one of Elizabeth Goudge’s perfect rooms. Something like Nan’s parlour, with its panelled walls and its writing desk and pretty chair, its fireplace with two china sheep with blue ribbons around their necks on the mantle.
But the wonderful thing about a room in a book is that, having read it, it will always belong to me; I can go to it any time I want. And I want to go there often. The silent transaction between writer and reader is a gift that transcends time and place and circumstance. It is also, if the match between the two is right, a subtly transforming process, as we internalise these rooms a little more with each reading, until eventually they are recast as our own deeply private spaces.
In The Poetics of Space the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard insists that houses are in us as much as we are in them and beautiful houses are plentiful in books. But I fancy that many young girls, and more than a few writers, would be content to possess a pretty parlour, especially if it has a writing desk with a row of little pigeon-holes, a desk stocked with ‘pale pink notepaper and envelopes, a crystal inkpot with ink in it, a pen and two small keys on a ring.’ To pass muster in an Elizabeth Goudge novel it should also have a latticed window with a window seat, a window with a climbing rose growing thickly against it; its curtains and cushions should be sprigged with carnations and forget-me-nots, and there must be a secret cupboard hidden in the panelling.
Elizabeth Goudge’s writing, though loved by readers, was sometimes judged by critics as overly sentimental. When The Rosemary Tree was first published in 1956 a review in The New York Times criticised its ‘slight plot’ and sentimentalist approach. But in 1993 an Indian writer, Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, published a novel called Crane’s Morning, which was enthusiastically reviewed for both The New York Times and The Washington Post. One reviewer called it ‘at once achingly familiar and breathtakingly new’, and shortly that familiarity proved to be truer than the reviewer realised. For it was found that although Aikath-Gyaltsen had recast the setting to an Indian village, changing names and switching the religion to Hindu, the story of Crane’s Morning was identical to Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree, and in places the text was word-for-word the same.
After the plagiarism case, the same reviewer remarked that something that originates from exotic parts is read very differently, and concluded that ‘maybe Elizabeth Goudge is a writer who hasn’t gotten her due.’
Some months later, Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen was dead in circumstances that suggested suicide. I’m quite sure that Elizabeth Goudge, had she been alive, would have been shocked and saddened at such a devastating outcome.
Sentimentality, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. Elizabeth Goudge’s eye was needle-sharp when it came to observing and recording England’s landscapes, its way of life, and its people. She was aware, too, that much of what she saw was slipping away even as she wrote it down — the inevitable changes wrought by two world wars. So often, we do not notice or sufficiently prize what we are deeply immersed in, so her clarity of vision was all the more remarkable.
Elizabeth Goudge never married, or had children, yet through her writing she gave to countless children and young women the gift of a room of their own, and for this she has never received due acknowledgement.