It is not often that it takes me almost two months to read a book, but so it has been with The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge, and I must probably blame Iris Murdoch for butting in and distracting me with some entirely different reading.
It had been a long time since I had read anything by Elizabeth Goudge too, maybe forty years, and that would have been Green Dolphin Country, bought for me by my mum, and I still have that 1968 7/6d copy. I clearly remember loving the book and it has obviously survived every book purge since, because I still get that pang of remembered enjoyment when I pick it up so it is reprieved. As with all books from this era of my life I now wonder why on earth I used to bind the edges with sellotape, but there you...that was me and new books. I should probably read the book again now given that it is partly set in New Zealand...doesn't the wrong sister set sail for a new life and husband, beyond that it's a bit vague. But I also discover the book spawned much more than my early enthusiasm, notably the 1948 Academy Award-winning film Green Dolphin Street starring Lana Turner and Van Heflin, along with the film's title music which would become the jazz classic On Green Dolphin Street. Film critics seemed less enamoured than the general public...
It had everything, i.e. too much for a single movie: a glorious wallow in family conflict, triangle romance, Maori uprising in old New Zealand, earthquake, tidal wave, pathos and bathos.
"The movie is generally panned by today’s critics, but war-weary audiences were ready for an extravaganza. It was the top box office draw of 1947 and won Academy Awards for visual and sound effects ..." (thanks to this website for this information and more)
Having been searching unsuccessfully for a copy of The Dean's Watch for a while I came across a nice hardback edition at a book sale, with dust jacket, for which I paid £8. This was the cue for me to find countless copies in every charity shop, complete with dust jacket, for £3 but it was the famous epitaph, which introduces the book, that had first piqued my interest (right click to enlarge)
...and not least because the neighbouring village of Lydford is only a few miles from us here, so I could go and find it. Pictures to follow dreckly.
Elizabeth Goudge's watchmaker Isaac Peabody, a gifted but lowly and humble man living with his ill-tempered sister in this unnamed Cathedral city, but apparently loosely based on that of Ely in the Fens. Elizabeth Goudge's father had been Vice Principal of the theological college in Wells in Somerset before taking up the post of prinicipal in Ely and thence a final move to Oxford, so a rarified and religious atmosphere in which to grow up, and that much is clear from this reading of The Dean's Watch.
We often stop in Wells en route to Bath and I must now pay much closer attention to the cathedral clock ,which is mentioned by Elizabeth Gouge along with something called a Jaccomarchiadus....the chain-mail suited figure who strikes the hour...
and on the other side of the wall, within the cathedral an astronomical clock...
In amongst the analogies of passing time and passing lives, plenty of opportunities present themselves for some proselytzing, none of which are wasted by Elizabeth Goudge as the acute social hierarchy of the city slowly emerges.
The mighty cathedral towers over the city, striking fear in Isaac's faithless yet faithful heart and Elizabeth Goudge quickly establishes that sense of place...
It was a compact city, and on a night such as this one it climbed towards the stars like one of those turreted cities seen in the margins of medieval manuscripts.'
And then the most powerful and, as is slowly revealed, the most misunderstood man in the city, Adam Ayscough, the Dean, painfully shy and living behind a reputation of fierceness, but there lurks a humble man in need of renewal whose only wishes are to serve God and his people, to right the social wrongs that surround him and to be loved by his young and very dissatisfied wife.
I rarely read reviews of books before I write about them, let alone those on Amazon, but I made the happy mistake of reading the third one down (John Gough) on this page and realising that, but for a couple of caveats, I really couldn't express this book any better myself and I gave it a resoundingly 'Yes it was Helpful' tick..
In such a dark world the creation of mechanically intricate and faithful watches and clocks, decorated lovingly with charming filigree or Dresden figurines or secret illuminated manuscripts, stands as a covert metaphor of the highest to which humans can aspire. At the same time the ticking of a watch and its sheer mechanical longevity stand as implicit reminders of the mortality of its maker, who labours to make the watch despite foreknowledge of his own death. (In our unthinking age of throw-away mass-produced digital watches Goudge's novel offers fundamental, old-fashioned values we do well to remember.)
Even the title means different significant things: the actual heirloom watch, which triggers the story; the Dean's "ticker" or heart, which physically beats uncertainly, yet passionately loves behind the shyness; the Deans' "watch", as a navy term, in which he faithfully steers the ship of the city and cares for her people.
As the Dean gains his invisible angel wings and goes about his good works I was reminded, for some reason, of that lovely book Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley... does anyone know it? Badger has died and the creatures are sad until they realise that all his unseen gifts live on in all their lives and will do so for ever. It is a lovely book for children when they have lost someone special and in fact I think it is equally comforting for grown-ups too.
It is clear the Dean is not a well man, but one desperate to leave a lasting legacy of good-ness behind him, and trails of redemption and forgiveness are laid for those whose need seems greatest, and though at times (and these are my own personal caveats) the book does become a little twee... and a bit melodramatic.. and maybe slightly overtly didactic on the Christian teaching and faith...and occasionally a little bit long-winded, yet none of this put me off. This is hot-water-bottle-comfort reading at its best and perhaps not for those moments when you need something sharp and edgy, and I only wish Iris hadn't interrupted me so that I could have read about Christmas in the Cathedral and the snow outside at the right time, not on January 9th.
I would welcome some more Elizabeth Goudge reading suggestions because I see there are plenty more to choose from, and also please scroll down where Himself awaits with a small gift.