Gentian Hill combines legend with history, real characters with fictional, and seascapes with farmland. Set in England in late 18th to early 19th century, this novel gave me a longing to find out more about Admiral Nelson and the naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars.
The story is multi-layered, combining two major characters; Stella, an orphaned farm girl, and Zachary, a naval deserter, and follows their lives as they make friends (among others), with a French ex-patriot, (persecuted during the French revolution for his nobility), and a village doctor (a hero in his own right.) The author creatively weaves in Zachary’s personal story with that of Admiral Nelson’s naval strategy, while Zachary fights the demons of war and fear, faithfulness to duty and love of country. We find out *why* Stella is an orphan and whom her true parents were, and it is just a lovely story!
I wish I had room here to write of the many themes Goudge has explored in this novel!
“What was the matter with him, Zachary wondered, that he could not thrill to the music of great names, and the splendor of great deeds? Why was it that for him the horror of war completely overlaid the glory? It was not so for other men. To them it was all worthwhile, because of the glory. And what was glory? What did they mean by this glory that was something more than the love of country? He had the love of country, but it was not enough. He had not this other love, that seemed for most men to be interwoven with the first. He did not know what it was.”
As always, Goudge’s descriptive writing is lyrical and her characterization realistic and original. Her sentiment (Goudge has always been portrayed as a sentimentalist), comes to play in her linking Stella and Zachary’s romance to an old medieval legend. Anya Seton used the ‘time-travel’ device in fiction writing in her “Green Darkness”, and several other contemporary authors (Susanna Kearsley comes immediately to mind), have followed suit. With the latter, their novels seems popular, but for some reason, it doesn’t always work for me in Elizabeth Goudge’s writing.
What *does* work for me in her writing is her jubilant, cheerful portrayals of both human and physical nature, her quiet confidence that there is always hope when we persevere in the difficult times of life, and that goodness, although not seeming always to, ultimately will triumph over evil.
“During the last fifteen years or so he had passed through one of those furnaces of suffering and hardship that break the body of a man of weak constitution, but temper the body of a strong one to whipcord and steel. The Abbe’s constitution had always been remarkable, and he was now whipcord and steel. He regretted it. He was thinking this morning that if he were to live to ninety like his grandfather, then he was still only halfway through. And since Therese had died, the time had seemed long. That was the way of it in loneliness.
When they had been together, the years had flown, and even the bad things they had endured had not seemed to last so long because they had been together. And now one solitary and eventful week seemed a century. He supposed he ought to try and be more companionable, but he had lost the trick of it, and that after being one of the most gregarious young men in all France…. The world was a madhouse, he had thought, and as most of the men and women in it were what you would expect in such a place, it was best to have as little contact with them as possible….
They existed here and there, the wise and gentle, the brave and gay, and the incurious. Among the little community he had just left were many excellent men and women, he knew but their curiosity, searching his wounds like a surgeon’s probe, was a thing that he could not yet endure.”
Goudge is an author I have turned to again and again over the years. I had read “Gentian Hill” more than once, but picked it up again after an absence of a few years, and immersed myself in the story of Stella and Zach, and once again was carried away into another time and place.
And maybe that is the best thing anyone can ever say, of any author.
“The fire burned low, waiting for the new yule-log to replenish it. The apples for the wassailing bowl were roasting in the ashes, the Christmas bread was baking in the bread oven in the wall, and delicious warm smells were creeping out. It was so still and quiet that the ticking of the grandfather clock sounded very loud. One could hear the rustling of the settling ashes, the scamper of a mouse in the corner, and the click of Stella’s needle against her dented little brass thimble. She was getting on faster with her sampler now, because she was turning it into a gift for Zachary. She had done quite a lot of the border of stiff little apple trees and strange birds that went all around the edge, and in the middle, she was going to embroider a frigate in full sail, with dolphins and seagulls sporting ’round it. When it was done, she would frame it, and Zachary should have it for a picture to hang on the wall. But she was aware that she had set herself a very difficult task. She would get on better, she thought, if she had a really nice workbox, with skeins of bright colors in it, and a real silver thimble.”