‘The Scent of Water,’ by Elizabeth Goudge

 “Yes, I will,” that is my song. I had not known before that love is obedience. You want to love, and you can’t, and you hate yourself because you can’t, and all the time love is not some marvelous thing that you feel but some hard thing that you do. And this in a way is easier because with God’s help you can command your will when you can’t command your feelings. With us, feelings seem to be important, but He doesn’t appear to agree with us.

Long years ago, when World War I veterans still walked the earth and I was only a teenager, my mother handed me a paperback copy of Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water. “I think you should read this,” she said.

As some of you know, my relationship with my mother could be described, charitably, as “problematic.” So I did not make haste to read the book. It sat in a drawer for a long time. I picked it up a couple times, but it didn’t grab me. It was written by a woman, after all, and showed no signs of anybody getting killed in it.

Fast forward more than fifty years. Recently somebody commented on Facebook that Elizabeth Goudge was one of C. S. Lewis’s favorite authors. My mind went back to that old paperback (which had gotten lost in the interval) and I thought it would be interesting to read it now and divine, perhaps, what secret message my mother had meant me to learn. I bought the Kindle version.

I don’t know if I figured Mom’s message out or not. I have a couple ideas. But I did enjoy the book.

Mary Lindsay is a 50-year-old unmarried lady living in London in the early 1960s. Once a teacher, she now works in a government office. She lives an ordered life and has an ordered retirement planned.

But one day she learns that her namesake Aunt Mary, a distant relation, has left her her home, “The Laurels” in the tiny village of Appleshaw. Mary only met the old woman once, when she was a young girl, but they connected immediately and her time with her is one of her happiest memories. Suddenly, to her own surprise, she decides to leave her job and retire to the Laurels. She’s been a Londoner all her life, she reasons, and she’d like to experience traditional country living before it disappears forever.

What she finds is the most charming little community imaginable. The whole village is built on and around the ruins of an ancient monastery – her own new house was the infirmary. She gets to know her neighbors – the nouveau riche “squire” and his chattering, insecure wife; the curate and his disabled but courageous sister; the impoverished blind poet and his neurotic wife; and especially the children next door. The children are prepared to hate Mary, because they’ve been accustomed to view her garden as their private playground. But Mary knows exactly how to handle children, and soon she becomes their friend and teacher. Especially the little girl Edith, who will be a surrogate daughter to her.

Through her interactions with neighbors in a community where there are no real secrets, and through reading her late aunt’s journal, Mary enters onto a spiritual pilgrimage. She learns humility and gradually embraces the Christian faith.

There’s a fantasy element in The Scent of Water, I think, and I don’t only mean the dream sequences where Mary envisions the life of a hunchbacked medieval stonemason. The world of this book is one where people can act in thoughtless, weird, and even criminal ways and be met, not with outrage, but with understanding and compassion. The people of Appleshaw are divided among the very wise and the very foolish, and the wise have mercy on the foolish. This is not realistic, but it’s charming.

One of the central images of this book is Aunt Mary’s glass case of “little things,” small figurines that Mary and little Edit both love. The Scent of Water is like a collection of “little things” — a multiplicity of small observations, descriptions full of lists of flowers and trees and everything Mary delights in. It gives the book a rich, baroque quality that leaves a memorable impression.

I don’t think I’m going to become a Goudge fan, but I enjoyed reading The Scent of Water, and was deeply moved by it. I think a lot of Brandywine Books readers will love it.

One thought on “‘The Scent of Water,’ by Elizabeth Goudge”

  1. Thanks for this writeup!

    A correspondent of mine, who’s very knowledgeable about Charles Williams, finds a Williamsy quality in Goudge’s novel The White Witch. I haven’t read any Goudge yet except part of an autobiography.

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