The Dean's Watch (by Elizabeth Goudge)

I’ve read several of Elizabeth Goudge’s books over many decades now, after first coming across her children’s novel ‘The Little White Horse’ when I was a young teenager, and then one of her ‘Damerosehay’ series in my late teens. I’ve collected quite a few of her books now, mostly second-hand from charity shops or thrift stores where they can often be found inexpensively. Her writing is something of an acquired taste, and will not appeal to everyone as it can be slow-moving and highly descriptive.

It must be around eighteen years since I first acquired and read ‘The Dean’s Watch’. I had totally forgotten it when I picked it up to re-read a few days ago, and was at first a little daunted by the small print and lengthy paragraphs. I thought I would read a few pages… and found myself quite quickly caught up in the lives of the characters.

The story is set in the latter part of the 19th century. We first meet Isaac Peabody, a master craftsman who is the town watch and clock-maker. He puts immense effort and creativity into everything he makes, and also into the frequent repairs he must do. We learn a little about his past, and about the stress he experiences living with his spinster sister Emma. Isaac, unusually for his time, is a devout atheist.

The next chapter introduces us to the city, with a quick run through the centuries, eventually reaching 1865 when Adam Ayscough is installed as Dean. He’s described as ‘terrible’, yet he wants to see the city rejuvenated, the slums replaced by airy, pleasant dwellings for the poor, and the workhouse reformed. The city is most likely based on Ely, a town in Cambridgeshire where Goudge spent some of her childhood.

The other main characters in the novel are Polly, who works as a maid for Isaac and Emma, and Job, a teenage boy who currently works as apprentice for a violent and unpleasant fishmonger. Each of these people is lovingly introduced, and painted in such a way that there is never any danger of confusing them. There’s a lot of sensory description of both places and events, and I did, once or twice, skim a paragraph or two. But part of the enjoyment of Goudge’s writing is her evocative description, so I tried to make the effort to read more slowly, to savour the words and better imagine the surroundings in which these people live.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the Dean gradually getting to know a few of the people in the city, and enabling their lives to become happier. He’s an old man and evidently in failing health. His wife rather despises him, but he has a great capacity for love, and only really discovers it during the course of the story. His watch, mended by Isaac, gives the title to the book, but I assume it has a double meaning, also describing the Dean’s watchfulness over his beloved city and its inhabitants.

As a piece of social history it gives excellent insights into ordinary people of all classes, and the customs and social niceties of the times. It’s undoubtedly a Christian book; the Cathedral and the Dean’s faith are highly significant, yet there’s no ‘preaching’ as such. There is, however, a mystical thread: people communicate with God, there are signs and omens, and intuitions so strong that they are as real as words spoken.

There isn’t much action, yet a great deal happens in the lives of several individuals. All in all, it’s a thoughtful and beautifully written book, reminiscent of calmer, slower times - yet bringing stark awareness of how very unpleasant life would have been for those born into the lower or otherwise impoverished classes.

I was surprised at how difficult it was to put down by the time I was around half-way through, and I finished it in just four days.  Definitely recommended to all who like slow-moving character-based and beautifully written stories.

It's the kind of book that is often found in charity shops, so I was a little surprised to see that it was re-printed a few years ago and is currently in print, albeit rather high priced for a paperback that is unlikely to appeal to many.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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