Elizabeth Goudge's Linnets and Valerians has long been one of my comfort reads. I have a battered old ex-library hardback, and I often dip in for a quick re-read of the best parts (any involving Uncle Ambrose). I didn't discover it until I was in college, and after I had read some of her other books, including The Dean's Watch, also a favorite. Goudge's books can be hard to find, or at least they were before the internet, and I still remember the thrill of getting my own copy of Linnets and Valerians.
A few years ago Goudge came up in discussions on the Georgette Heyer listserv I belong to, and several people recommended The Little White Horse as their favorite. I had never heard of it, but I found a copy in a bookstore and added it to the TBR pile, where it languished. Last week I sat down with Linnets and Valerians for a few minutes before bed, and that inspired me to pick up The Little White Horse again.
It is the story of Maria Merryweather, newly orphaned and sent off to live with her only surviving relative, her second cousin Sir Benjamin Merryweather, "in his manor-house of Moonacre in the village of Silverydew." I am a sucker for orphan's tales, no doubt due to early exposure to Rose Campbell, Anne Shirley and Sara Crewe.
I enjoyed this book in part because it kept me off balance. I thought I had a good idea of where the story was going, and in general I was right, but there were zigs and zags that took the plot in directions I wasn't expecting. Goudge also knows how to balance the sweet elements of the story, without letting them slip into saccharine (I admit, the names Moonacre and Silverydew initially gave me pause). As in Linnets and Valerians, she also weaves supernatural elements into the mundane, and pagan elements into Christian spirituality, even in clergymen like Uncle Ambrose or the Old Parson in Silverydew.
I do think, though, that Goudge didn't quite play fair with one character, Robin, who is initially introduced as a playmate of Maria's in London. Maria's governess Miss Heliotrope firmly believes Robin to be a figment of her imagination, and Maria just as firmly insists on his reality. Robin reappears in Silverydew, to Maria's delight. When she asks why he disappeared from London, he replies,
"We were getting too old for those children's games . . . Soon you would have been bored with them, and as soon as you had begun to be bored you wouldn't have believed in me any more. People only believe when they are interested. It was better to come away before you began to be bored."That to me suggested that Robin was imaginary, or a Puck-like sprite. When his true identity is revealed, he's a real person with roots in Silverydale. So how could boredom or disbelief change that? It's a small point, but it jarred in a book where so many other diverse elements mesh so seamlessly.
But that's a quibble, and in the end I did enjoy the story, and I can certainly see why it won the Carnegie Medal.