The Herb of Grace by Elizabeth Goudge ~ literature that heals
A while ago, I was sent a gift of a book, from a friend on Twitter. Sally had read my review
of Elizabeth Goudge’s A Scent of Water and very kindly sent me a copy of The Herb of Grace,
which she felt I would love.
I took a long while to read it. In fact I took a long while to start reading it. I wanted to make sure that the experience was at the precise right time I needed to read this book. There are tides and seasons of a life and becoming atuned to them, I’ve realised we can grab too greedily at pleasures and seize things before they are ripe. When an author is no longer living, or like Susan Howatch,
no longer writing, there is a diminishing pool of works of theirs we have not yet read. There can only ever be ONE first time to read a book and for some books, it’s important we read them when we’re ready. I’ve heard it said that Jane Austen ought not be read before one’s fortieth birthday; to some extent I would agree as the nuances and subtleties are probably lost on most teenagers obliged to study Austen’s works for school.
So I waited until I had a week away with my beloved friends Kate and Mike, in my equally beloved North Yorkshire before beginning to read The Herb of Grace. I chose to read slowly. In normal circumstances I have a very fast reading speed, learned from my university days where I would often have less than a day to read some brick of a book. I read Moby Dick in on frenetic, fevered afternoon. I have a terrible tendency to gobble books, read far too fast and too intensely. I didn’t want to read this one too quickly.
I restricted how far I read in one day. I stopped myself at the end of a chapter, put the marker in and made myself not open the book again for at least a few hours. It was like a box of wonderful bespoke chocolates; however fabulous they are, the best way to enjoy them without sickening is by choosing one, perhaps two, to eat each day. You savour each bite, each melting on the tongue and you stop while you crave more.
The Herb of Grace is probably a tremendously old fashioned book in a lot of ways. There is little of the kind of melodramatic antics of thrillers, none of the bodice-ripping of romances, and almost all of the characters are hopelessly likeable. And, if you are used to the breathless pace of many modern novels, you could say nothing much happens. Yet so much does happen that it’s hard to précis the plot. The second book in the Eliot family saga, The Herb of Grace takes up where The Bird in the Tree left off. I read the first book after The Herb of Grace, so you don’t have to read them in order and I’d suggest you don’t, as to me The Herb of Grace is a better, more enthralling book. The series follows the lives of the Eliot family: matriarch Lucilla rules the family with kindness and a strong sense of duty, holding them together during and after the war and doing her best to ensure that the family retains integrity, both personal and familial. Unhappy daughter-in-law Nadine is perhaps the least likeable character, coming across as somewhat selfish and self-absorbed. A series of events leads Nadine and her family to buy The Herb of Grace, a former pilgrim inn not far from the family estate of Damerosehay, and as the family move in and begin restoring the old house to its former glory and its former function, the house itself begins to exert its benevolent influence over all who live or visit.
There are many mystical aspects to the house, both part of its former history as a pilgrim inn and also connected to the nearby Knyghtwood, an ancient and almost impenetrable woodland that holds deeper secrets than the white hart that is sometimes seem locally. For me, with my long love of both woodland and ancient folklore, and of pilgrimage tales, the lure of the Knyghtwood was such that I struggled not to rush through chapters to find out more.
Every character in the story carries a hidden grief, a wound that isn’t healing. From Nadine, who has given up her love David, for the sake of the family, to the somewhat feral twins Jose and Jerry, all the beings that live within this beautiful book are damaged and in need of love, hope and healing. Yet slowly, steadily, without any flashiness or Damascus roads of drama, healing begins. It’s the place itself, the genius of the house and the beings that exist deep within the wood, that heals, but it’s not without work or cost. The soothing atmosphere the house holds is the start, softening and gentling souls the way a horse whisperer might slowly tame a frightened, abused horse, but each must then begin to step out in faith to uncover (and there is a very literal uncovering of something extraordinary that appealed to me. I’ve long wanted to strip wallpaper in an old house and find something under it that blows the mind).
It came at the right time for me. It reassured me that the layers of myth that this land holds (the world holds it too, but I know only my own small corner) have a power that endures, even to the cynical times we live in know; those deep mythic layers endure and spread and grown and remain whether we know it or not. Like the symbiotic system of roots and fungi and flora and fauna that exists beneath the earth in a wood, it carries on whether or not anything above ground is aware of it. It reassures me that the mythos that I believe I tuned into to write Strangers and Pilgrims
is still there, humming and glowing and growing. It reassures me that I am a part of a wider, wilder experience, one of a people who have heard these lost songs and have begun to sing them again, adding their voice to the harmony.
You see, it’s too easy to become deaf to the tunes. It’s too easy to let the power of commerce and the need to make things saleable ruin the joy of being a part of an ongoing story. I’m a writer of stories that heal, part of a long tradition of storytellers who keep the old tales going through the dark ages. Rosemary Sutcliffe used the term Lantern Bearers, and I believe that’s what we are.
So thank you, Sally, for sending me that beautiful book at the exact right time. My light was guttering and the book has mended my wick.