The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (1956)

Elizabeth Goudge’s children’s novels have many admirers, but our reading group found her adult novels pretty heavy-going.

Jane wrote of The White Witch: ‘Oh dear! I was ploughing through it but it’s like trying to swim in treacle. Heady with simile, smeared with cloying descriptions, dobbed all over with an overdose of adjectives and adverbs – it;s a read too far for me, I’m afraid.’

Oh dear indeed. As we compared our novels we found a clear pattern. The story begins with an unhappy, fractured or disfunctional family. Through the course of the novel, often through a series of unlikely coincidences, this family will be healed. As Margaret comments below, there is a strong Christian sense that everyone can be redeemed – and overlaying this story there will be the beauty of the natural landscape, and above all, flowers.

Review by Margaret B:

The arrival of a stranger in a small village is the catalyst for an unhappy family – a vicar, his wife, their three small children and an aged great aunt, to face up to their problems and do something about them. At the same time the girls’ very bad private day school tries to improve too. It emerges that the stranger is not that strange to one of the characters and some painful memories emerge.

For a modern reader this book may be too sentimental, too moral, too twee with everything working out for almost everyone in just six weeks!

An example of the twee-ness is one of the men, remembering how he could hide in a foxglove flower when he had needed to feel safe as a child. There is a bit too much coincidence going on when it emerges that the stranger is the ex-lover that abandoned the Vicar’s wife before she married the vicar on the rebound.

Yet I found it had a real gentle charm, a magical quality framed by the spring flowers, bird song and the almost all pervasive smell of violets that pervade it. There was an overwhelming and no doubt very Christian sense that no sins are too awful, everyone can be redeemed and there is always hope. It bordered on the preachy and sanctimonious but for me its quaint rural Englishness, its flawed but basically good eccentric characters, its lively descriptions of the characters inner lives worked – I think!

Anyway, I could not put it down even though others may well find it all too much.

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8 thoughts on “The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (1956)

  1. I’ve only ever read The Runaways, but I really loved that – I *will* try her adult fiction, but only I think when I’m in the right mood for sentimentality!

  2. I’ve still read only one Elizabeth Goudge, an apparently little-read one called The Castle on the Hill, set during WWII. I loved it, and found it’s themes of compassion and redemption really compelling, surprisingly complex, and not very sentimental at all–even perhaps shades of Iris Murdoch in it. But from what I’ve heard, it’s perhaps an atypical Goudge?

      • Anyone reading the comment I’ve just left on the post about Castle on the Hill may not be surprised to learn that The Rosemary Tree is one of my all-time favourite books. I keep it on the bedside table. The themes of compassion and redemption are common to all her books and I like that she is equally as concerned with small redemptive acts as she is with the larger ones. In fact, she is incisive about small personal weaknesses.

        As to her lush descriptions, I think the sense of place in her novels is what makes them so enduring.

  3. I have read a couple of her adult books-one being The Scent of Water. I loved this book. It’s about depression although it doesn’t come right out and say it. Her writing is very rich and lush.

  4. I was addicted to her novels as a teenager, starting with the inevitable Little White Horse, though I find that too smug, well-organised and perfect now. I was entranced by the Eliots novels, The Bird in the Tree, the Herb of Grace, and The Heart of the Family, which are about the healing of damaged and unhappy people. I also read and reread Towers in the Mist (Queen Elizabeth I visits Oxford), The Dean’s Watch (a Victorian tearjerker), and Gentian Hill (Napoleonic wars?). I agree completely that her prose can be cloying and her attitudes are smug and very small-c conservative. The Christianity also got to me after a bit. But she was a joyous writer, really knew how to express the pleasure in tactile and emotional comfort.

  5. oh, ps, I recently bought and read Island Magic on the recommendation of someone I knew, and thought it was absolutely dreadful: trite and badly written. but that was her first one.

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