The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge ~ a review and an homage to the continuum of life.
They say you should never look back, that you should never revisit your past.
I’m never sure who the ‘they’ are in these sayings but I’m telling you, they are wrong. Perhaps you ought never to try and dwell in the past, live there or claim it as yours, for the past shifts as much as the future does. But to look back, to peer clear-eyed into pivotal moments in your life can give great clarity in understanding who you are in the present moment, and clues to who you may become. And these things blur and bleed into each other, like rain-washed ink in a journal left out in a sudden summer storm.
I’m being confusing. I’m sorry. I’ll try harder to make myself understood. I’m never good at doing the standard book report style review, and given that the book I am writing about was first published eight years before I was even born, there’s little urgency involved. It’s not as if my words are at all crucial to the author, for she passed on only a few years after I first read the book in my mid teens. And yet, even in writing this, having just read the book again after more than thirty years, I know from the book itself that perhaps my words may well matter to her for time is not constrained as we think by the immutable laws of physics: Time past and time future, what might have been and what has been, point to one end, which is always present.
The Scent of Water is not a book of complex plot; in fact, outwardly very little happens at all. Given my liking at the time for detective novels, I am unsure why I picked it up and read it. I almost didn’t, because my mother suggested I read it, telling me it was a beautiful book. You can sum up the plot fairly quickly: a women inherits a cottage in a quintessentially English village and gets to know both the inhabitants, herself, and the dead cousin who left it to her. Yet this does not do justice to the sheer richness of the characters, the depth of experiences or the prose which haunted me for many years after I loaned the book to a teacher and never got it back. Images and ideas from the book have underpinned much of my inner life, unacknowledged. The central character Mary Lindsay undergoes a form of renewal and a connection to her cousin whom she met only once in childhood; the journal of the cousin (also Mary Lindsay) provides poignant insights into her life, apparently blighted by serious mental illness and the stigma and isolation that would have followed in the early part of the twentieth century. At the time, I was starting to know what these storms of the soul meant, yet at fourteen I could not begin to look at the idea that they were more than tumult of the teenage years. Reading the book again at forty six, I wish I had known more about my self.
There is a theme throughout the book of renewal, and of time overlapping and touching. Past and present interlink; the cottage Mary lives in was once the infirmary chapel of an Abbey. Visiting children hear singing, the echoes across time of the monks chanting. Things return to their proper places; a carved chest that held significance for the elder Mary is found in an antique shop by her heir, and restored to its place and function in the cottage, where its maker had once been infirmarian. Round and round, links across time and space, seasons passing and yet things remaining. There is such benevolence in this book that reading it is like drinking a glass of spring water on a hot parched day. The prose is kind, drawing in your senses and filling you with the beauty of an England that is at once long vanished and yet is eternal.
The village of Appleshaw in the book bears resemblances to the village I have moved to. There is a sense of solid Englishness, a quality one might be foolish enough to call quaint. Yet I feel I have always known this place. Several years ago, I dreamed of this house, of being inside it. This was during a time when it remained impossible that we should ever return to the clerical life and I woke weeping for a home that didn’t exist, couldn’t exist except in a dream. When we visited during the interviews, we were not allowed to see the house (for various reasons) so we did not see it until after my husband had accepted the position. The dream did not influence the decision(that was influenced by a swarm of bees greeting us at the oldest of the churches here, and an appeal for help in the street) but has informed my own belief I am somehow in the right place. Another dream, from last winter, has done the same. I dreamed I was walking along a narrow lane in late summer, twilight on a hot day, and on one side was a buttressed red brick wall, over which hung branches laden with fruit. Behind the wall was a kind of orchard, with gnarled trees heavy with great oranges. The lane as I saw it exists, less than five minutes walk from my home, but I thought the trees did not. Talking to someone the other week who has lived here her whole life, it turns out that garden did used to have a fertile orchard, the apple trees bearing fruit so large and orange-coloured you would think at first glance they were indeed oranges. Perhaps I was seeing not just how the village is now, but also how things were once, as a part of a multi-layered tapestry of times present, past and future.
Just as Mary Lindsay found renewal in her new home, a new faith from withered roots, at once a part of her heritage as a woman with deep untapped roots in the land and a part of her inheritance from her cousin who sensed her across time and prepared a place for her, I hope that I took will experience a renewal. I suffer with the dark storms the older Mary Lindsay endured and finally found meaning and purpose in. In her journal she writes of a chance meeting with an elderly clergyman who came to give cover while the vicar was away. It’s one of those meetings where you know so much of significance has happened and yet others will dismiss it as trivial. The old man has himself suffered badly in the same way as Mary and when they part he tells her something I’d like to end by sharing with you:
“Then he abruptly let go of my hand, turned his back on me and stumbled down the steps that led from the front door to the drive. At the bottom he turned round again and looking into his face I noticed that when he was neither eager nor alarmed his eyes had the most extraordinary quietness in them. ‘My dear,’ he said,’love, your God is a trinity. There are three necessary prayers and they have three words in each. They are these, ‘Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands’. Not difficult to remember. If in times of distress you hold to these you will do well.’ Then he lifted his hat and turned round again. I stood at the door and watched him go. He had a queer wavering sort of walk. He did not look back.”
The Scent of Water is available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback