Friday, October 18, 2013

The Herb of Grace

Going to an estate sale and finding a copy of an old book that I've already read and enjoyed, gives me a connection with the other person who owned the book too. If the pages are well-thumbed and the dust jacket is falling apart, I know the book was read often and kept for a reason.

And, of course, if I need to replace my copy of the book that I've loaned to someone else, I'll buy the one at the estate sale (if it's cheap enough).  Last weekend, I found a 1948 copy of Pilgrim's Inn by Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984).

Not only did it still have its dust jacket, it also had the original Wings Literary Guild book review that came with it:

Goudge is probably best-known as the author of Green Dolphin Street, which was made into a film in 1947, but she wrote a number of other books which I've enjoyed more.  Pilgrim's Inn is one of them.

"What's it about?" you might ask.  I could say that it's about a family, and some other people, who find themselves living in a very old house in England after World War II, but that's too pedestrian a description.  The editors of Wings admitted:

Pilgrim's Inn is difficult to describe, because as in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, the old house plays a part as important as any of the characters.  Tired, distressed people find within the old inn's walls a peace and a magic spell that, once felt, changes their lives.

I think there's a little more to it than that.  Elizabeth Goudge's great strength, which appears in all her books, is her ability to make a seamless connection between the earthly and the spiritual, the living and the inanimate, the mundane and the holy. 

In Pilgrim's Inn, the Eliot family, reunited just after World War II, discovers that their new home, The Herb of Grace, is really an ancient maison dieu, a pilgrim inn, built as a hostel for pilgrims near a great abbey or cathedral in the era before Henry VIII.  Goudge describes the father and children of the family entering the house for the first time:

...Immediately they had a wonderful feeling of being most royally and loudly welcomed, almost as though some generous, glowing personality had shouted aloud at the sight of them.  They looked about them, but there was no one with them in the stone-flagged passage....

As they look around the entryway, The Herb of Grace's personality manifests itself:

...George's eye was caught the glory of the staircase that exactly faced the front door.  It was of black oak and highly polished with age, each stair sagging in the middle like a bent bow.  It sloped up between high paneled walls, then divided and curved away to the right and left beneath an alcove in the paneling where there must once have been a cupboard, and that now held some strange little carved figure that he could not make out in the dim light.  The sweep of this dividing staircase was most beautiful and gracious, and gave one a feeling of welcome like strong arms held out, the arms of that glowing personality who had welcomed them in.  And Ben noticed, though George did not, that the whole structure of the staircase, with the arms held out beneath the upright panel, was like a cross.

Goudge's more practical characters are initially embarrassed or angry at the idea that the house has the personality of a benevolent saint.  But others embrace the idea, as the Herb of Grace seems to embrace them.  

If you've ever lived in a house that seemed to have a personality of its own, you may understand their experience. I wonder if the person who owned this book before, ever lived in or visited a house with a welcoming personality all its own?

I've been blessed to know a house like that, although it was not nearly as old as the Herb of Grace in Goudge's book.  I'll tell you about it soon.

Elizabeth Goudge's books are all over and eBay, often at very reasonable prices.  You might enjoy:

A City of Bells (fiction, 1936)
God So Loved the World (non-fiction, 1951)
The Little White Horse (children's fiction, 1946)

If you enjoy The Little White Horse, you're in good company.  J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, once said that it was her favorite book as a child and that it had a direct influence on the Harry Potter books.

The Elizabeth Goudge society has a website:

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