The Bird in the Tree (1940) by Elizabeth Goudge

Book Review by George S: This is the first volume of a trilogy about the Eliot family, set in the autumn of 1938, just a few years before the book was published in 1940.
I have to say that of all the books I have read for the Sheffield Hallam group, this is the one I have enjoyed least. I almost gave up on it after the first chapter, which describes the family and the old house where they live. This chapter is full of sentences that are rather beautiful, but more or less nonsense.

For example, Elizabeth Goudge gets very lyrical about the trees on the drive of the family home where the novel is set:

But the trees said a good deal. In the spring, when their old branches were jewelled with flame-like coral-tipped leaves, they whispered together of the secrets that they knew, secrets that if whispered to the passers-by in the wood would have taken all sorrow from their hearts for ever.

There is an awful lot of stuff like this in the book. Maybe some readers of its time liked this kind of whimsy, but to me it seems about on the level of Madeline Bassett’s ‘The stars are God’s daisy chain.’
The book of full of woozy generalisations:

A work of art is like a human being, the more it is loved the more beautiful it grows […] The Odes of Keats […] are lovelier now than when they were written.

The Eliots live at Dameroshay, a lovely old house which Lucilla Eliot bought after her husband died in the First World War. She bought it on an instinctive impulse. She is full of instinctive impulses. Elizabeth Goudge is hazy about where the money came from.
She now lives there with the three children of her son George. George had been married to Nadine, a much younger woman, but the pair constantly quarrelled, so they split up. Nadine does not particularly like children, so the grandmother takes care of them.
The plot begins, after an awful lot of description of nature, when another grandson, David arrives. He is an actor, aged twenty-five, and he is obviously burdened by a terrible secret. It takes a while, but we eventually find out what this is – he has fallen in love with Nadine, his aunt. (She is, after all, not much older than he is). He knows this fact will scandalise his grandmother. If they are to marry, Nadine would have to divorce boring George. He knows that his grandmother had intended to leave Dameroshay to him, but of course that would be unthinkable now. One of the children sees their much-loved cousin David kissing their mother (in the wrong way). He is traumatised by seeing this.
Eventually David tells his grandmother about the affair. She is horrified and stern; she insists that he should bring Nadine to the house, so that she can talk to them both. The rest of this very long novel (or at least it seems very long) is the story of how the pair come to realise that they must put their personal happiness aside, for the good of others.
Lucilla lectures them, and so does Hilary, a clergyman who is also one of Lucilla’s sons. Local history gives David a lesson in responsibility and fortitude. Various people see ghosts and have intuitions or spiritual revelations. All these intuitions convey the same message – the pair should not come together.A great storm brings out his courage, and when he comes to rescue an ancient family retainer from the floods, he realises where his duty lies.
Elizabeth Goudge was a committed Christian, and the book is propaganda for the traditional negative attitude to divorce. This would not be a problem if it were a good novel. Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance is an example of fiction that pleads the Catholic view of divorce, but also manages to be a fully-rounded novel, fair to all the characters. In this one, the dice are so loaded against David and Nadine that they never stand a chance. In the end he renounces her, she agrees and goes back to boring George with whom she had quarrelled constantly. Presumably they will quarrel again. Meanwhile David, who got on splendidly with the boys, and would have made an excellent stepfather, is banished.

Elizabeth Goudge was brought up in a cathedral close and never married. Her attitude to sex sometimes made me giggle. She drops dark hints but won’t be specific. Nadine, for example, had been flighty, but had her standards:

Before she had met [George] she had been in love for the first time, that is very romantically and desperately in love, with a man who turned out upon intimate acquaintance to be all that most revolted her. Nadine had no religion, and submitted her life to no stern moral law, but she was fundamentally clean and fastidious and she had been shocked and sickened by her discoveries, so much so that for a little while her world had seemed to crash about her. Then she had met George and had fallen at once for his sheer goodness. He had satisfied her desperate craving for love with cleanliness, and for a while she had been very happy.

What were those sickening ‘discoveries’? I’m afraid my imagination isn’t very polite, and suggested possibilities too rude to be written in a nice blog like this.
Set in the autumn of 1938, the first chapter has disturbing mentions of the coming war, but these are forgotten as the characters become more and more obsessed by their own personal relations. It’s a bad book. I soldiered on with it, but wish I hadn’t.
Apparently it was something of a best-seller. I imagine the ideal reader as someone who wants to wallow in having his or her prejudices reinforced. This is the sort of book that gives the feminine middlebrow a bad name.

5 thoughts on “The Bird in the Tree (1940) by Elizabeth Goudge

  1. I remember loving the trilogy as a young adolescent when I found it at my aunt’s:she adored Goudge. I am 74, so I think the key to its success is to have read it when it first came out!- which is the corollary to your categorisation of this book as poor, since any good literature ought to have durability. The hesitations of Nadine seemed quite sophisticated to me and I found her lack of understanding of her children poignant as, perhaps naturally, I identified with the more hesitant of them rather than the confident, barging son. Without being able to check I suspect the other volumes in the saga were less mawkish. Maybe they had more positive action from children in them? I recall a jolly young woman, Sally, who was daughter of an artist; and a rather touching portrait of dominant Lucilla and her single-daughter-as-slave-at-home as Lucilla aged. Definitely undemanding reading with idyllic rural setting as bonus!

    • Dear Hilary,

      When we discuss novels at the monthly Reading 1900-1950 reading groups we always do try to think about what the novel was like as a reading experience for readers when it was first published compared to now, so very good to have your personal account of what you thought of this novel nearer to its original publication date. I read Goudge’s The Castle on the Hill (1942) and liked it more than George liked The Bird in the Tree, though I agree some passages did sound a little as if they had been written by Madeline Bassett!

      – Best wishes, Chris Hopkins.

      • Thank you, Chris,

        I’m glad the group takes this approach. In other areas of our lives there seems to be an increasing tendency to apply 21st century standards to historical events and artefacts. (It’s almost a reverse of what happens in the performing arts, when for instance a composer is reviled for not sticking to traditional rhythms, melodies and harmonies.) I don’t know The Castle on the Hill, so I shall pursue that one when I have a spare minute.


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