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Elizabeth Goudge: The Dean's Watch [Jan. 21st, 2018|05:42 pm]

I took The Dean's Watch to London with me, because, of all the candidates for 'next book I want to read', it was the best combination of 'long enough to last the journey' and 'portable small paperback'. It was a good choice for another reason, too: it's not a Christmas book, exactly - the action spans some eight hundred years, from the Norman Duke Rollo to the Dean of the title, appointed in 1865 - but it moves to its crisis as Christmas approaches, and the final Christmas Day is crucial. In a better ordered world, I would have posted this before Christmas, and this extract would have served as a Christmas card:
All over the city men and women and children poured out of the chapels and churches exclaiming at the beauty of the day. It all looked as pretty as a picture, they said. The frost kept the sparkling snow from slipping away from roofs and chimney pots, but it was not too cold to spoil the sunshine. There was no wind. On their way home, whenever a distant view opened out, they could pause and enjoy it without having to shiver. The stretch of the snow-covered fen almost took their breath away, it was so beautiful under the blue arc of the sky. It was like the sea when it turns to silver under the dazzle of the sun. When they turned and looked up at the Cathedral its snow-covered towers seemed to rise to an immeasurable height. Then a wonderful fragrance assailed their nostrils. In steam-filled kitchens the windows had been opened now that the day was warming up. The turkeys and baked potatoes and plum puddings were also warming up and in another forty minutes would have reached the peak of their perfection. Abruptly Christmas Day swung over like a tossed coin. The silver and blue of bells and hymns and angels went down with a bang and was replaced by the red and gold of flaming plum puddings and candled trees. Everyone hurried home as quickly as they could.

The Dean's Watch is, technically, a realist novel. It has no unicorns, no domesticated lion, nothing happens which could not, at a pinch, happen in the real world. But in its own way it has something of the same enchantment as The Little White Horse, and this passage demonstrates that kinship: the juxtaposition of bright transcendent beauty and good solid food. And the wonderful image that asserts the compatibility of the two: "Christmas Day swung over like a tossed coin..."

Beyond that, what can I say? The Dean's Watch is a good, solid novel, I enjoyed reading it: but I failed to love it. It may simply be too Christian for me.

The character of Isaac Peabody is richly drawn, and deeply lovable: but the moment I read that he was an unbeliever, I thought, Well, that's too good to last. And it is, for the Dean's final bequest to Isaac is "my watch and my faith in God," and in accepting the one, Isaac accepts both. There is a kind of whimsical Anglicanism in the Dean's bequest which in another book might as well be magic. Likewise, the Dean's bequest to his devoted butler, Garland, of his gold pencil seems random, until we see Garland's pain at parting with the papers which were, with the pencil, the last things that the Dean had touched, and wishing that he might possess one of these things. But the Dean could not have known this in drawing up his bequest. Not just in his will but during his lifetime, the Dean's gifts are well chosen. The fishmonger to whom Job has so ill-advisedly been apprenticed is stupefied at the Dean's proposal - "How did the old codger know about him wanting a pony and trap?" - and there is a hint that he will now drink less and become an honest tradesman (he is unlikely to beat his new apprentice as he did Job, since the boy is big enough to fight back). Only with the wife he adores does the Dean lack this clairvoyance, and there is sadness as well as humour in the gentle irony (gentler than that bestowed on Maria Merryweather) with which, for example, she receives the gift of the golden fret which is all that survives of the celestial clock, delighted that it is not something she will be obliged to wear.

There is magic - or all but - in the skill that has gone into the creation of that clock. Which is fair enough, because it is hard to conceive the degree of fine and elaborate workmanship can be achieved without modern tools and miniaturisation. Elizabeth Goudge is writing in the mid-twentieth about the mid-nineteenth, and her protagonist looks back through the generations to Thomas Tompion in the seventeenth century. Clocks give Isaac access to houses to which he would never be invited socially, because they must be wound; every clock that appears in the book is described, and has a quality which tells us something of its owner.

This includes the great cathedral clock itself, with its Jaccomarchiadus - the finest in England - the mailed figure which strikes the clock to mark the hours. This isn't a word I (or my Chambers dictionary) know, and an internet search heads straight back to The Dean's Watch, pausing on the way to admire some pictures of Wells cathedral clock. Not that the cathedral in the book is Wells, and although the location, an island in the fens, is very like that of Ely, it isn't Ely, either. Lincoln, perhaps? In fact, of course, it is an invention, with an invented history, like the other characters, and the author pays it more attention than most of her characters. There were moments when I wished for less ecclesiastical history and to get back to the people in the story, please, but to wish this would be to wish to be reading another book entirely, so they were only moments.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.