Cat Among Books
A Lucky Day

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge

Superficially this novel seems a domestic drama of the sort that I would not ordinarily find very interesting. To summarize the bare facts of the narrative would make it sound as if nothing much happens: a family buys a house, and various troubled relationships in and around the family and its new home arrive at some degree of resolution. Normally that sort of novel is not my cup of tea—not at all. But a narrative summary does not begin to do justice to the richness of the novel’s vision.

I could begin to describe the difference between this and the typical naturalistic novel of manners by saying that this is a thoroughly Christian work, but even that does not do it justice. In fact such a description is an injustice, because it suggests that “Christianity” is present in the novel in the form of an idea, as a more or less abstract answer to various moral and philosophical questions posed by the narrative.

It would be better to say that everything in it is suffused with and transfigured by the presence of God, and that the plot is a working-out of God’s providence. Not all the characters are conscious of this, but all are caught up in it.

Two comparisons occur to me, and both seem superficially unlikely, but both illuminate the way Pilgrim’s Inn transcends the limits of what appears at first to be its genre. First, some of the films of Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries, for instance, or Autumn Sonata. The work of the atheist Bergman may seem an odd comparison to that of the Christian Goudge, but it presents itself to me because I’ve often thought that by my usual tastes I shouldn’t like certain of Bergman’s films, because they are exactly the sort of nothing-much-happens study of family relationships that usually makes me impatient, and maybe downright uncomfortable. But the work of both Bergman and Goudge is distinguished from these, and made fascinating, by the way they reach down into the depths. The human relationships are not only that; they have powerful spiritual and philosophical implications. A story like Wild Strawberries, for instance, deals not only with the problem of an old man’s relationships with his son, his daughter-in-law, and his dead wife, but with the question Is there mercy?

The other comparison is to Charles Williams. At first glance the two, Goudge and Williams, could hardly seem more different. Williams is often dark in both the literal and symbolic senses in a way that Goudge is not, and he is often obscure in every sense, while Goudge is lucid. It is, for instance, not always easy, and sometimes not even possible, to see what Williams is describing—I mean at the fundamental level of forming a mental picture of a scene or an action. Goudge, in contrast, presents a skillful and detailed visual rendering of everything. This in fact becomes for me almost a fault: due to some defect in the way my mind works, I find it very difficult to form a clear visual image from a verbal description, and often it seems that the more elaborate and detailed the description, the less clear my image. I still do not have a good visual grasp of the two houses and their surrounding landscape which form such an important part of this book. Nevertheless, the descriptions have their effect in producing a sense of a rich and beautiful environment, both in its natural and man-made aspects.

The similarity to Williams lies on a deeper level. Principally it’s the sense, first, that the natural and the supernatural are not really separated from each other and are in constant interaction. And second, that the universe, in both its physical and material aspects, is what Christian thought conceives it to be. This is another way of approaching what I said earlier about the presence of God in the work. The operations of the individual soul and of the world and of God’s providence are represented as Christian in as natural a way as physical events are Newtonian in any novel; in both cases laws, spiritual in the one case and physical in the other, govern implicitly, and need not be much remarked upon. It is hard to see how anyone could enjoy this book without at least grasping the idea of the Christian God. (I am sure it is possible, and is in fact done, just as people frequently miss the essence of Flannery O’Connor’s work; I just can’t quite understand how.)

This Christianity is of a very English sort. Goudge seems to have been some sort of Anglo-Catholic. Someone in Pilgrim’s Inn refers to “Henry VII of detested memory” or something of that sort. And one of the most admirable characters in it is a clergyman, affiliation unstated but presumably Church of England. It is the sort of Anglicanism that could hold C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, despite their Catholic leanings, and which I suppose is now approaching extinction. Also approaching extinction, if one can trust what one reads from people like Theodore Dalrymple and Peter Hitchens, is the sort of England, especially the rural England, that Goudge clearly knew and loved deeply. I suppose those who hated and have sought to destroy that England would say she sentimentalized it, and that it was always the nasty and oppressive place portrayed in, for instance, Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. Well, I’m in no position to judge, but if England was once anything like Goudge’s picture, and if it really is gone or almost gone, it’s the world’s loss.

Returning to the Williams connection: in both authors, love is a real thing, a sort of force or substance comparable to a physical force or substance. It is not an emotion—it produces emotion, but is not identical with it. It is the essential element of the world of the spirit and has its own laws of action and reaction just as the physical world does. A love which is not returned is not, as we might think of it, a useless fit of passion something like what happens when one stubs a toe on a rock and breaks out in useless curses. When someone loves, something has happened, an event, which, like a rock thrown into a pool, will have an effect. And this is true no matter how the love is received, or even if it is kept completely secret and leads to no external action. Love is God’s word, and it does not return to him in vain.

Some would say that Pilgrim’s Inn is sentimental, that all the difficulties work out too neatly. And on the naturalistic level there is some justification for that complaint. But it misses the essence, which is the promise that this is, in the end, how the world works. Just as the strands of troubled lives are gathered together for the good, though temporarily and incompletely, in the novel, so they will be gathered for the good permanently and completely in God’s reality—will be, and are being.

Contrary to first impression, then, this is in fact less a naturalistic novel than a romance, not in the contemporary sense of being a love story—thought it includes several of those—but in the older sense of being a tale of adventure and marvels in which the hero passes through many difficulties but wins some sort of victory or at least comes to some sort of non-tragic resolution. The Odyssey is an early and excellent example. (One difference here is that there is no single hero, no real main character at all. Some characters are given more attention than others, but there is no central person or couple, but rather a central family.) Pilgrim’s Inn may indeed be the novel of manners it first appears to be, but it is not a realistic or naturalistic one. It might be called a novel of supernatural manners.

There is much, much more to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on any of its beautiful specifics, which means I haven’t really given you any very concrete sense of what it’s like. But that’s all I have time for today. I’m very much indebted to Janet Cupo for introducing me to this wonderful writer.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.