A City of Bells (by Elizabeth Goudge)

In re-reading the novels by Elizabeth Goudge, I reached ‘A City of Bells’, which I last read in 2003. Really I should have re-read this before I read ‘Sister of the Angels’ and ‘Henrietta’s House’ last year, as it’s the book which introduces the young and imaginative Henrietta. More significantly, because I had read the others recently, there’s an unexpected revelation in this book which I was expecting, so it was not as much of a surprise as it might have been.

Jocelyn is the main protagonist of the book, however. He is a young man, injured during the war (I assume the first World War) and very weary. We meet him as he is about to arrive in Torminster to stay with his grandparents. Grandfather is a clergyman, almost eighty years old but not yet retired, and Grandmother is a couple of years older, but still in good health, though growing frail.

Despite their years, they have their eight-year-old grandson Hugh Anthony living with them, and have adopted Henrietta, a young girl of similar age, whom Grandfather found in a children’s home. Her mother had died, and nobody knew who her father was. Henrietta is compassionate, imaginative and a deep thinker, with an unexpected element of wildness that appears from time to time. However she is continually grateful for her circumstances, and generally does what her grandparents expect of her.

Next door lives Mrs Jamieson, an elderly lady whose mind is wandering; we would probably say she has Alzheimer’s Disease nowadays. Her niece Felicity has come to stay, and Jocelyn is immediately attracted to her. Their worlds seem far apart, because Felicity is a successful actress, taking a break, and Jocelyn has no career or plans for the future. Until Torminster’s rumours start, and he ends up running a bookshop…

This is a character-based novel, one I had almost entirely forgotten, and which I have enjoyed re-reading very much. There’s a lot of description; I tend to skim descriptive passages in novels, but made myself slow down and read some of them deliberately, and found myself appreciating them. I was less willing to read the lines of poetry that were included despite their significance in Jocelyn’s life.

There’s some satirical, gentle humour here and there in the caricatures of some of the people, and Hugh Anthony’s down-to-earth and questioning nature, but there’s also a great deal that’s extremely moving. Henrietta is very affected by people who are lonely or impoverished, and when she loves somebody, it is whole-heartedly. She and Hugh Anthony provide an excellent contrast to each other.

Lovely writing, about delightful people in an old-fashioned (even for the era) country town. This wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but if you like slow-moving books with mostly believable characters and a fair amount of spiritual/Christian discussion (without any preaching) then I would recommend this novel.

I'm pleased to see that 'A City of Bells' was re-published since I last read it, and is also available in Kindle form. But it can often be found in second-hand or charity shops.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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