During my degree, my university halls of residence closed down their library, and offered students very cheap deals on all the books. Having read The Little White Horse as a child, I rescued two Elizabeth Goudge novels, which I dutifully put on a shelf and forgot about. In the intervening years, I borrowed a copy of The White Witch, memorable largely for the fact that at one point the narrative dives unexpectedly into the inner monologue of a horse. To say I didn’t know what to expect from The Child from the Sea would be an understatement. For most of the book, I wasn’t even sure which historical period it was set in. (My thanks to Nickie, who worked out that it was the English Civil war, and that Prince Charles was about to become Charles II.) As it turns out, protagonist Lucy Walter is a real person, as are most of the characters she interacts with.
When occasion demanded she could play the great lady very well indeed; and quite instinctively, for the golden thread of the Princess Ness was interwoven with the buccaneer, and for a short while she could enjoy the calm of gracious living.The Child from the Sea, Elizabeth Goudge
The opening chapters were thoroughly enchanting. The evocative fairy tale language reminded me of my favourite descriptions of Moonacre Valley in The Little White Horse. I didn’t know before reading that the theme of home — one of my preoccupations — would be so important, and I was pleased with the number of entries I added to my blog of literary dwellings. Lucy was a home-maker in the style of a more down-to-earth Anne Shirley. Instead of imagining places more comforting than they are, Lucy makes them so with pictures and ornaments.
The blood and darkness vanished and Lucy’s mind was full of wine-cups and apples, steepled churches and lovely ladies in head-dresses tall and pointed like the steeples.The Child from the Sea, Elizabeth Goudge
While these descriptions were enough to keep me reading, they were somewhat let down by the plot and characterisation. Lucy spends a lot of the book alone, and when the narrative is just a description of her circumstances, rather than a specific incident, I wasn’t quite sure what the point was. Even when they did happen, specific conversations between characters lacked immediacy. Elizabeth Goudge offered tantalising glimpses into the inner lives of Anne Hill and Lord Taaffe, and I sometimes wished I were reading a book about them, because their emotions seemed stronger and more well-realised. As much as I appreciated the perspectives of these minor characters, I did find the choice of when to switch into their narratives to be a little mystifying. When Lucy loses a beloved parent, one of the moments of what should be the highest emotion for her character, the narrative distances itself from her, and we only get to see her through the eyes of Lord Taaffe.
Politics is treated in a similar way. The Child from the Sea can’t seem to decide whether it is a novel about the English Civil War and the return to power of the monarchy or not. For much of the novel, Lucy is kept quite separate from the political situation, and the story being told is one of personal relationships. This would be fine, except that later on, the story takes a political turn, which feels quite disorientating. It’s not a total failure, and I was able to follow the politics to a degree, but it added to the sense that I was never quite sure what the book was about.
Overall, I’d recommend The Child from the Sea more for its descriptions and themes than its story or its characterisation.
Next, I’ll be reading Island by Aldous Huxley.