Sister of the Angels (by Elizabeth Goudge)

I’ve liked Elizabeth Goudge’s thoughtful novels since I was a teenager. A friend introduced me to her children’s classic, ‘The Little White Horse’ when I was about twelve or thirteen, and a few years later I fell in love with ‘The Herb of Grace’. I was delighted to discover that it was the middle novel of a trilogy, and even more pleased when I managed to acquire the other two books in the series at charity shops.

I’ve gradually bought other Goudge novels over the decades - they’re often found in second-hand shops, inexpensively. But I had drawn a blank with ‘Sister of the Angels’. I only learned of its existence within the last few years. It’s apparently related to ‘Henrietta’s House’, a children’s book which I liked very much but have not read in about twenty years.

Girls Gone By is a publisher who reprints a variety of hard-to-find children’s books from last century, using the original text as far as possible. A few years ago they published ‘Sister of the Angels’, but I was dubious about paying full price for it. I knew it was quite a slim volume, and felt that £13 was a bit of a high price. But eventually I found a better value edition in Amazon Marketplace, and bought it about eighteen months ago. It’s sat on my to-be-read shelf for all this time, and I finally read it over the past few days.

Henrietta is eleven in this book, and lives with her grandparents. Her grandfather is a minister, and mostly understands her well. Her grandmother is excellent at providing good meals and comfort, but expects punctuality and cleanliness. Henrietta is an artist - quite a talented one, already - and finds the spartan existence of the parsonage rather hard to take in the winter.

We meet her on the morning when her father - a very dreamy writer - is due to arrive in Torminister. It’s early December, and he’s coming back for Christmas. On her way to meet his train she takes a detour with Grandfather into the cathedral, and spends some time in her favourite chapel. It has some beautifully restored frescoes, and one wall that hasn’t yet been restored.

There’s some back story about the original artist who painted the frescoes, in the Middle Ages, and his namesake - a wandering artist - who was able to restore some of them, before running away and getting in trouble with the law. Henrietta knows exactly what pictures should appear on the last wall… she’s an intuitive, thoughtful child who sees visions and perhaps ghosts, but takes them as part of ordinary living.

The characters are classic Elizabeth Goudge style, rather caricatured as certain personality types, but no less lovable for all that. Henrietta is a caring, gentle person, old for her years, but made human by her frustrations, and her dislike of washing in cold weather.

It quickly became clear to me where the story was going; everyone has secrets, some of which are shared with the reader, others just hinted at. I don’t know if I was supposed to have guessed the biggest secret - but it didn’t spoil the story in any way. If anything, it added to the anticipation. It’s a short novel, even for a children’s book; it has 126 pages but the first thirty or so are various introductions. However the story is complete, moving in places despite its predictability, and I’m glad I’ve finally managed to read it.

The GGB publishers always give interesting introductions to their books and this is no exception. It begins with a detailed guide to the cathedral on which the Torminster one was based, and is followed by a brief biography of Elizabeth Goudge, and a few other notes.

Recommended if you like this style of novel, set I suppose in Victorian times. There’s quite a Christian emphasis, but that’s not really surprising when the entire story is based around a cathedral. The original readership would have been girls of around ten to twelve; today's children are less likely to enjoy this. But for those who enjoy historical fiction with plenty of description and complex language, it's definitely worth borrowing.

This seems to be the only edition of the book that seems to be available at all, and it's not currently in print. However it can sometimes be found in second-hand bookshops online. Due to its rarity, some of the prices asked seem extortionate to me, making the new price seem quite reasonable by comparison.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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