Gentian Hill (by Elizabeth Goudge)

One of the authors I’m re-reading currently is Elizabeth Goudge, whose books were written in the middle part of the 20th century. I hadn’t read ‘Gentian Hill’ since 2005, and had entirely forgotten what it was about. So I started reading it about ten days ago, and have just finished it.

As with most of this author’s books, ‘Gentian Hill’ is full of descriptive passages, and is a thoughtful, often rambling story. When I took the time to read the descriptions, I appreciated that they were beautifully written; however I’m not a visually-oriented person, and they didn’t help me picture anything much; I simply liked the flow of words, sometimes using alliteration or assonance, though I don’t know if it was deliberate.

So although I took it slowly - Goudge’s books are not ones to read rapidly - I did skim some of the descriptions in order to get to the story. The plot, which is set around the year 1800, involves a young girl called Stella. She is ten at the start of the book, but old for her years. She has deep intuitions and insights, and a love of learning which rather concerns her adopted parents, hard-working farmers whom she adores.

But the book begins with the viewpoint of fifteen-year-old Anthony, a midshipman on a frigate with a cruel captain. He has been bullied and tormented, as well as living in some appalling circumstances, and has reached the end of his tether. So when his ship is anchored in a Devonshire bay, he decides to desert it and risk swimming to shore…

Inevitably the two meet and are drawn together, but along the way other important characters are introduced. There’s the strange-looking but wise and caring Dr Crane who looks after some of Stella’s education. There’s the AbbĂ©, a tall, rather terse man who, as we soon learn, has tragedies in his past. There’s the elderly and somewhat lonely Mrs Loraine, and the even more elderly shepherd Sol. Nor can I forget the faithful dog Hodge.

It’s a character-based novel, based on a legend which is gradually uncovered through the course of the book. It’s mystical, as with many of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels, with a strong Christian theme, yet without any preaching. Faith is taken for granted, not just in God but in dreams, and superstitions, and also the ability to recognise kindred spirits.

It took me a while to get into the book; the first chapter is somewhat sordid, though not gratuitously, and contrasts well with Stella’s happy home and childhood. Stella herself is independent, outwardly deferring to her parents, but following what she sees as a higher calling, often going out on her own without her parents knowing.

While the book is fiction, it’s set firmly in the historic context of the Napoleonic wars, and according to the author’s note at the start of the book, the legend on which she based the novel is also a real one, connected with a chapel in Torquay.

It was a good book to read at bedtime, just a chapter or two at a time. It was easy to put down, and also easy to pick up again; the characters are clearly drawn so it was easy to remember who was whom, despite quite a large cast of important people.

Recommended if you like thoughtful novels set in the early 19th century, and don’t mind quite a bit of descriptive prose with not a great deal of action.

Re-printed fairly often, and can often be found in second-hand or charity shops. Now available in Kindle form as well as print editions.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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