Green Dolphin Country (by Elizabeth Goudge)

When I was a young teenager, my best friend introduced me to Elizabeth Goudge, and I read and enjoyed a couple of her young adult fiction. It was a little mystical, a little more descriptive than I liked, but she told a good story. Some years later I was given the book ‘The Herb of Grace’, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and eventually acquired the two other books in the same trilogy.

I then discovered more of her writing, mostly paperbacks in charity shops, and more recently put others of her books on my wishlist. ‘Green Dolphin Country’ (also known as 'Green Dolphin Street') is not currently in print, but a relative found it second-hand, and I finally had this book, considered a Goudge classic by many, in my collection.

It looked a bit daunting: nearly 600 pages of rather small print is not a quick read, but I began it about ten days ago, and have finally completed it.

The story begins in one of the Channel Islands in the middle of the 19th century. Marianne and Marguerite are sisters, but very different. Marianne, the elder of the two, is extremely bright in an era when girls were not supposed to think. She’s also very concerned with appearances, and wants, above all, to be successful. Her sister is a total contrast: loving, compliant, and contented. Into their lives come Dr Ozanne, who - they learn - was their mother’s first love, although he left the island many years previously. His wife has now died, and he’s returned with his son William, who’s a couple of years younger than Marianne, but a good-looking, strong boy.

The three young people take to each other quickly, and at first William is treated like a brother; however, Marianne falls in love with him and is determined to marry him. It takes Marguerite a lot longer to realise that her deep affection and friendship has also turned to love. William loves both girls, but wants to marry Marguerite; however for various reasons he’s stopped from speaking to her. He joins the Royal Navy, sponsored by the girls’ father, and then, due to being reckless and naive, he ends up in New Zealand…

The bulk of the book is then about his life in a new, newly colonised island, where the native people are very suspicious, sometimes hostile. William works as a lumberjack and gradually reaches the stage where he can consider supporting a wife. So he writes to his old friends, in the hope that Marguerite will come and join him. Unfortunately, he makes a mistake… one that seems highly unlikely, even given the elapsed time and William’s slight inebriation at the time, but apparently this part of the book is based on a real incident in the author’s ancestry.

Essentially, this is a story of redemption. What is a man to do, when he’s expecting a blissful reunion, only to find that someone else has travelled half-way across the world for his sake? What is a woman to do, believing herself rejected by the only man she ever loved? Can a woman change a rough, unmotivated - albeit gentle and kind - man to become more ambitious? Can a man learn to love a success-driven woman who shows little affection to anyone? The author moves between the different main characters of the book, unfolding their stories gradually, showing their thoughts as well as their actions, their connections as well as their separation.

Written in 1944, this has all the appearances of an epic saga, and on the whole I found it very readable, albeit rather long-winded in places. I don’t find descriptions particularly interesting, and often skipped a page or two without missing any of the story. Elizabeth Goudge had a wonderful way with words, and sometimes I slowed down, and savoured some of her phrases and concepts; at others, I wanted to move faster to find out what was going to happen, how the story would end; and whether William would ever find his way back to the Channel Islands.

From a historical point of view, it was interesting to read about some of the uprisings and battles in New Zealand in the 19th century, something I knew almost nothing about. The author never visited that country, but she did her research well and it feels consistent to someone like me who has also never been there. It was a brave move, setting a story partly in the gentle, clean environment of a middle-class island in Europe and partly in a pioneering, often violent country thousands of miles away. But it works; I gather there was a film made of this story, which I hope to see some day.

I’m not sure that I’ll want to read this again, as it was quite draining at times; moreover, I never really liked Marianne. She becomes the most important character for much of the book, intent on improving and redeeming everyone else, yet most in need of redemption and healing herself. I suppose she got under my skin, which is the mark of an expert in characterisation, but it made the story less enjoyable.

Modern readers may be shocked at the casual use of a word which is now considered highly offensive, although I suspect that may have been changed in more recent editions. Mine is a 1975 impression.

Recommended if you’re interested in New Zealand in the 19th century, or if you like long, adventure-based sagas with plenty of description.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews


sparrow girl said...

I struggled to like Marianne, too, and agree that she needed redemption the most and I felt, didn't really experience it as fully as I'd liked her to..I also wasn't left with a satisfied feeling when I finished the book but rather an unsettled one..as if the book just didn't end the way I wanted it to. I find that I really love Goudge's children's books - my daughter and I just finished reading Smoky House together and loved it - but I can't seem to get into or enjoy her adult books. Do you have an adult book of Goudge's -that has a satisfying ending- that you could recommend? I really need happy ever after endings, I guess!

Sue said...

My favourite Goudge books for adults are the Danerosehay trilogy: Bird in the Tree, Heart of the Family and Herb of Grace.