Right, I have like seventeen things I am wanting to write and fifty-three things I really ought to do, but I am also sick and exhausted, and as a result it has started actively bothering me again that one of the best books in the world is not in print, so I thought I would rant about it.
Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) wrote a great many books, divided roughly equally into the categories of novels for adults, novels for children, and apologia. I refuse to read any of the apologetics because I suspect they are nauseatingly twee and I cannot locate any anyhow. Of the adult novels, Green Dolphin Street is generally highest-regarded and I couldn't get through it; The White Witch attracted me with its title and then was so screamingly bad at romance that I had to run away again. sovay has mentioned that one of the other books contains her ancestor Theobald Taaffe, which is good, but that it dramatically misrepresents the romantic position he and Lucy Walter and Charles II were in as being a love triangle rather than, as their letters suggest, friendly polyamory. Consequently I have not read said other book.
Of the children's books three are worthwhile. Two of those are more or less known, in print, and generally well-liked. The third is immortally brilliant and has had, as far as I can tell, one printing ever.
The two you can get hold of are The Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians.
Linnets and Valerians is easily describable: it is Better E. Nesbit, very highly reminiscent of all those E. Nesbits in which a group of children, mostly related to one another, get themselves tangled up with magic. In this particular instance, a number of plot elements are more well worked out than you generally see in Nesbit except at her very, very best, the prose is more musical, and there are bits which are more frightening and more numinous than Nesbit also generally reaches. Also, and this is viscerally satisfying to me as a long-time reader of children's books, this is a book which starts with the children running away and they stay run-away and never go back to the place they were running from, because it was a horrible idea for them to be living there. It is by no means a perfect book-- lack of plot direction, shifts in tone which sometimes feel as though there are two or three novels fighting one another in there, Goudge should never be allowed near even the hint of trying to write about romantic love, and if you want to write about the genuinely creepy or numinous I don't know why you would start with a template of E. Nesbit as it imposes upon you certain limitations-- but really it can be summed up as Better E. Nesbit, and if you like that idea you will absolutely like it.
The Little White Horse is a far more medieval sort of story, and is one of the few decent novels to contain a unicorn, and probably the only such novel I have read which does not have any portions intended satirically. A unicorn in the old sense, too, straight off a tapestry, and for that matter with the counterpart of a lion. The young woman at the heart of the book is a slightly more modern, end-of-the-nineteenth-century young lady who is brought home to a feudal demesne to unify a family feud and heal a family wound. Again, the magic is very magical indeed and gloriously written, and portions of the language sing. Again, I wish Goudge had not been allowed to go near romance-- I have a suspicion that this is the book C.S. Lewis was talking about when he said that the appearance of romance between children was one of the most nauseating things an author can do in a book, which is a great pity because it means he probably stopped reading Goudge. Also, the danger is not very danger-y. But it is a lovable book, though I do not love it as much as I might have if I had met it as a child.
Then there is Valley of Song, which is, as I have remarked, out of print, out of print, out of print. Valley of Song is also very easily describable. It is Better George MacDonald. Some of you now no longer care. To the rest of you, I say, yes, it is better than my favorite George MacDonald. Or your favorite George MacDonald. Or in fact anything George MacDonald ever wrote. Speaking here as a person who very much loves George MacDonald.
The premise of Valley of Song is that Tabitha, who is about eight, lives in a quiet shipbuilding village somewhere in probably-circa-Restoration England. The village has just gotten an order for a large and beautiful ship; Tabitha's father is the blacksmith, and she looks forward eagerly to seeing all the building and making. She also knows of a gate to the Valley of Song.
Again I have to reference C.S. Lewis here. What Lewis was trying to do, with the Narnia books, he said, was fuse mythology older than Christianity with his own Christianity in a way which showed his deep respect for both. Whether he succeeded at this is debatable. He does sometimes for me, and sometimes not. Goudge is trying the same thing, but achieves the correct distance, I think, the precise blend which makes the trick work: the Valley of Song is theologically located on the outskirts of Heaven, but is metaphysically in the land of Faerie. Each person who goes into it sees it differently, but each sees it in terms of the mythologies which a) mean the most to them and b) influence them the most, which two are not always the same thing. And the book's plot does not center around retelling any of the Christian stories.
The plot is about the ship's owner losing all his money, and being unable to continue his commissioning of her, which will be an economic catastrophe for the entire village, and has been a personal catastrophe for the owner, a man well aware of his responsibilities. Tabitha leads various people into the Valley of Song to try to find a solution for this problem, and it is through the confluence of the different aspects of the Valley, the different ways each person sees it, that the problem is solved.
On an imagery level, it is one of the loveliest books I know. It has people repeatedly riding on personified signs of the Zodiac; it has dawn breaking over the Greek islands, and a character going into the dawn by going into the sea and learning to breathe water; it has the timbre of the air at the top of the tallest mountain in the world, at which there is a doorway made of ice, through which nothing human may do more than listen at the keyhole.
On a character level, it is surprisingly dark. Many of the characters are at first glance types, and the general outlines of their arcs are usually fairly clear from the beginning, but all of them are fleshed out in ways which are simply more complex and unexpected than one has any right to expect from this sort of novel. The reason the book can sustain its heart-wrenching beauty is that not everything is going to be all right. There is death, there is pain, there is hunger, there is grief, and there are miracles but they are specifically that, miraculous, not to be expected on any sort of regular basis, in point of fact not to be expected. I realize that not all books work emotionally on all people the same way, but I do in fact reliably cry every time I read this, and I know exactly where I am going to cry, and I still do. Comedic characters may have the least comedic motives possible.
No book is perfect. There are 2.5 scenes in this one which I consider to maybe, if I am in the wrong mood, tip over the line into twee. That is all.
There are also lovely and appropriate line-drawing illustrations, rather nicer than the kind one usually gets, which I appreciate.
I first read this because the library system near me had it, and sovay told me to. Then the years turned, and I moved away for a while, and when I came back somebody had noticed that this book sitting in the children's section of this library cannot usually be gotten in the U.S. for less than one hundred fifty dollars if you are buying in-continent-- I bought it for sovay for marginally less, but I had to have it shipped from Australia-- and this noticing person stole it. I do not know who that person was, but I quite literally curse their name, because denying the public access to that book is not a thing which should have happened. I am mostly lenient with library thieves, many of whom are motivated by strange passions and the love of books. Not this one. A book-loving person ought to know better.
It is my fervent hope, therefore, that somebody will bring Valley of Song back into print. Maybe the New York Review of Books's Children's Classics imprint, or something? I mean the other two are still put out by Penguin! This should not be impossible! And Goudge, having died in, as I mentioned, 1984, is still in copyright even in Australia, and cannot be gotten via Project Gutenberg no matter which country you are from, whether for the weekend or more generally. Nor is there a legal ebook.
So you cannot find this. But if you see it at a yard sale, or pester a large company to bring it out again effectually, or discover a copy moldering at the back of a children's library, read it and treasure it, because no other book I have ever read has achieved the things which Valley of Song does, and many have tried.
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