Miserable after reading Anna Funder’s Wifedom. Out of sorts. Dispirited by how little seems to change. Thinking about my own life and choices.  My mother, who wanted to be a historian. The artist wife of an artist friend of my parents, who only re-started her painting in her 80s, after the old bastard died. I resorted to Elizabeth Goudge.

The Scent of Water. I’d read it before, obviously too fast, and dismissed it as overly sentimental, one of her lesser efforts. And yes, it has its faults. But it acted as a corrective, a stern but loving buck-up, a gentle hand and encouraging smile coupled with high expectations – ‘you can do better, and you will’. One of Elizabeth Goudge’s themes – in agreement with the Buddha! –  is simply that life is difficult. You don’t always get what you want; anything can happen, at any time, and it does. We can’t change that, but we can do our duty, we can be kind, loving and forgiving and we can be decent. We can gain sustenance from the beauty of the natural world. As a mystical, nature-loving Christian, she links the cyclical nature of the world to her faith. Plants die and disappear and hide out underground and then are reborn to sprout and grow and flourish and seed (maybe) and then die again. I’m not a Christian, but I can cope with this strand of Goudge’s work; it seems spiritual rather than narrowly C of E. I can also cope with – or ignore – the strand of martyrdom she imposes on partners in unhappy or unfulfilling marriages (another theme of Goudge’s). It’s usually the women who cop it, but not always. I link this to her deeply held, conservative belief in the sanctity of marriage vows – and perhaps the fact that she was never married herself!

Mary Linton, fifyish, urban and cosmopolitan and just retired, impulsively moves to a derelict old house in a remote country village. It was left to her by her father’s cousin, also named Mary. What a wonderfully classic Goudge beginning. The pleasures of exploring an old house, restoring and renewing it, discovering its treasures and its history never seems to pall for me. (The description of ‘the little things’, a case of tiny ornaments, rang so many bells for me because as a small child one of my delights was to sit with my mother while she took her little treasures out from the glass case to dust and admire and tell me their stories).

Mary is quickly absorbed into the village and the stories intertwine. The “squire” and his wife, the Hepplewhites, hiding their working class origins underneath a show of wealth and smothering generosity. The Andersons, elderly siblings; the no-nonsense clergyman is perpetually irritated by his timid sister, a woman almost incapacitated by anxiety. The dear old couple whose one dream is a TV, and their caddish son.  The blind war-hero poet and playwright, Paul, whose vapid wife Valerie blames him for her unhappiness and makes them both unhappy. A cast of beautifully realised children and somewhat comical faithful retainers (yes, and a modern reader just has to cope with that issue, too).

The other major character is the dead Mary #1, the one who left her house to her cousin, the “now” Mary #2. From her diaries, Mary#2 discovers that the first Mary suffered from severe mental illness; deep, debilitating depression, hallucinations, breakdowns. Her state is vividly described, with real understanding and I imagine was drawn from the author’s own experience. How Mary#1, through her faith, came to accept and live with her illness, and rejoice in what joys she could find, is the over-arching theme of the novel and this message – of acceptance and gratitude – permeates The Scent of Water. There are no deliriously happy endings or indeed any startling resolutions for any of the characters’ problems or sorrows.

When I read this book before I just took in the story of the unsatisfied wife, the blind husband, and the caddish son (her would-be lover). I read a different book this time. Goudge’s book can be an odd mix of novellettish story lines combined with deeper, more spiritual and – for me – bolstering themes.  A bit of a mish-mash but if you love it,  you love it. And I do.

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3 Responses to THE SCENT OF WATER

  1. Kate C says:

    Like you, I last read The Scent of Water long ago and I suspect I would also take different messages from it now. I must seek it out again, I think I’m ready for another gentle Goudge lesson (I was going to say sermon, but she doesn’t ever really preach).

  2. Kate C says:

    YES!! The Athenaeum has a copy 🙂

  3. susan says:

    Blessed be the Athenaeums!

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