Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Green Dolphin Country

Green Dolphin Country / Elizabeth Goudge
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975, c1944.
575 p.

I read this book in high school sometime; I can't quite remember when because all I recall about it is that I got about half way through and thought, what a dumb book! But, since I've been reading a lot of Elizabeth Goudge as an adult, and since I have (hopefully) a much wider viewpoint than I did at 14 or so, I tried again. This was partly inspired by the fact that I had bought a copy in a second-hand shop quite a long time ago, and thus added this title to my list of reading for Emily's TBR Challenge. I think I'm nearly halfway through my list of 20 reads from my own shelves, and it has certainly been a rewarding effort overall.

I still don't like this one as much as some of Goudge's other books though -- too much of a saga for me. And I had a few problems with the depiction of New Zealanders especially. The main characters are from the Channel Islands and they end up pioneering in New Zealand, where the Maori are depicted as bloodthirsty savages with superstitious traditions, and the missionaries trying to convert them are upright and holy. The missionaries are shown with a bit of complexity and she does have non-missionary characters who are more open minded, but the view of the natural superiority of the white, Christian way of life does colour the whole book. Of course, Goudge's Christian outlook flavours most of her work, but in her books with more modern settings it doesn't seem to jump out and whack you over the head quite so forcibly.

Anyhow -- here is the main storyline: Marianne and Marguerite Le Patourel are young sisters (16 and 11) on the tiny island of St. Pierre, when they meet the other main character, William Ozanne, age 13. He brings light into both their lives, with Marianne deciding that she will have him, while to William and Marguerite as well as to the reader, it is clear that they are the two who belong together.

Lots happens, they all grow to early adulthood, and William goes off in the Navy, and through a twisted but believable situation in China, misses his boat to accidentally go AWOL. This means he can never go home to his own country, so instead he heads off to New Zealand to homestead there. Eventually, once he's got on his feet a little, he writes home to ask Marguerite to join him. However, due to a bit of drink and the inherent lazy habits of thought he seems to possess, he writes "Marianne" instead, and changes the course of all three of their lives. This is the great sticking point of the book. Would someone REALLY make such an error? It feels like it is a forced moment, necessary to the rest of the story, but it certainly takes some suspension of disbelief. Goudge is at pains to explain in the introduction that this happening was inspired by the real life situation of one of her ancestors -- this really did happen, and just like in the book, her great-uncle kept quiet about his mistake and made the best of it. Nonetheless, because something is true in real life does not mean it works particularly well in fiction, and I felt like my whole reading was a bit flawed because of my lack of ability to feel that this was a natural event.

There is lots to enjoy in this book if you like Goudge's style of writing -- fairly old-fashioned with lots of descriptions of nature, of spiritual crises, of deep thoughts on various subjects. I do happen to like it, so persevered even though I was starting to feel the book was dragging on a bit. William and Marianne have to work out their troubles in New Zealand, while Marguerite, left behind in the Channel Islands, has to make some kind of life for herself, especially after her parents die. She becomes more and more religious, and her struggles provide Goudge with much opportunity for the kind of spiritual and faith-related writing she loves. There is one character in New Zealand, William's best friend and Marianne's frequent nemesis, who is a fascinating creation. I missed him once he left the story's inner circle.

Overall, if you like historical sagas and don't mind a bit of Christian content and can overlook the dated racial references, this one was okay. There is simply too much in the book to discuss all of its settings or even the different stages in the character's lives: it carries on from the girls' childhood to their old age and reunion of all three main characters in St. Pierre. As always, though, in reading Elizabeth Goudge, I found many quoteable selections. I'll share a couple of them, to give you a taste of her writing and her philosophical bent.

Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short.

I suppose it's always a mistake to hate, she said to herself, because when the people you hate suddenly turn around and do great things for you it puts you at such a ridiculous disadvantage.

...she knew also that what the world sees of the life of any human creature is not the real life; that life is lived in secret, a reality that moves behind the facade of appearance, like wind behind a painted curtain; only an occasional ripple of the surface, a smile, a sudden light or shadow passing on a face, surprising by its unexpectedness, gives news of something quite other than what is seen.


  1. I've had my eye on Capuchin Classics' reissue of this, but it sounds like it might not be the best introduction to Gouge after all.

  2. Nymeth - I don't think it is representative of the things I like best about Goudge. For a delightful introduction, try her children's book The Little White Horse (I loved it) Then to approach her adult work, try her Cathedral trilogy, or perhaps the Eliot Chronicles.

  3. Good review. I am not into sagas, but I liked reading your review of this one. I admire you for giving it another try.


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