Green Dolphin Country

I've been reading Green Dolphin Country super-slowly -- a chapter per night in bed, over months and months. It's a very long book. I turn to Elizabeth Goudge for comfort reading -- her steady spirituality, her deep appreciation of nature's beauty and the inner goodness of imperfect people, and her gentle humour, are very soothing. So eminently suitable for bed-time.

Having said all that, Green Dolphin Country is a very weird novel. Written in 1944, it won an international prize sponsored by MGM, and was subsequently made into a movie. By the time my edition was published, in 1956, it had sold over half a million copies -- I imagine it must be into the millions by now: a true blockbuster.

Apparently loosely based on a true story, the novel centres on Marianne and Marguerite, a pair of sisters from 1830s Guernsey, who both fall in love with golden, generous William Ozanne. William joins the navy and ends up settling in New Zealand, from where he writes back to Guernsey to ask for his true love to join him. Alas, poor William muddles up the names of the sisters and it's sharp Marianne rather than gentle Marguerite who steps off the boat in Wellington. (This, the most implausible aspect of the story, is the part based on truth.) The novel follows the travails of William and Marianne as they struggle to make a success of their marriage, their conflict with Maori warriors, and protect their beloved daughter Veronique. Meanwhile, broken-hearted Marguerite becomes a nun and finds solace in the grace of God.

Goudge cheerfully admits in a foreword that she has never visited New Zealand and relied heavily on someone else's memoir to describe those sections (the majority of the novel). It's a brave choice, and it almost works, But it's clear that the chapters set on Guernsey are lovingly and vividly drawn from personal experience, while New Zealand never quite comes to life in the same way. Anyone who has actually visited New Zealand in person couldn't fail to be moved by its spectacular reality, yet the New Zealand of Green Dolphin Country feels like a pale and distant island in comparison to the fresh, bright accounts of Guernsey.

Needless to say, the portraits of the Maori characters, while generally sympathetic, are horribly colonial, dated and patronising. I pushed past them because I love the other aspects of Goudge's writing, but it was an effort. I'd like to think that this is not a novel that would be written today -- at least, not in the same way. A definite relic of the past.


  1. How fascinating that the muddle over the name was based on a true story!
    I read a lot of Elizabeth Goudge as a child because as an avid bookworm I constantly ran out of books and had to read what I could on my mother's shelves. I remember this one chiefly for the mistake with the names which I found unbelievable. I didn't entirely buy the idea of the left-behind sister ending up a contented nun either- a bit too Pollyanna-ish for me. And didn't the sister who went also have a love affair with someone else but it was very pure and sexless? All very innocent but unlikely.

  2. I also read my mother's adult Elizabeth Goudges, like The Rosemary Tree. (Just this morning, Mum picked up a Girls Gone By catalogue which came wiht my copy of The Valley of Song, and said, 'Remember Elizabeth Goudge?') Nothing unsuitable for children in them, though :)
    Yes, Marianne realised she and Tai Haruru (based on the man who wrote the NZ memoir, apparently) loved each other JUST before they were parted forever... Very convenient!
    I think the innocence and sexlessness was part of what appealed to me about Elizabeth Goudge -- nice and safe and none of those messy passions. Lots of feelings but not much action.

    1. The Valley Of Song rang a bell for me, so I just googled it and the memories came flooding back. I only read it once and never found it again (must have been an old library copy) but I absolutely adored it aged about nine. It was utterly fantastical and magical. But I have a horrible feeling that I couldn't possibly reread it as an adult, and if I tried it would spoil my memory of it!

  3. I don't think I ever read The Valley of Song, so I have no treasured memories to risk! My favourite was always The Little White Horse -- I read that over and over. It will be interesting to see if The Valley of Song sparks the same magic.

  4. The Little White Horse is a classic of course, and will probably be the book of hers that survives beyond all the others. I reread that from time to time and still enjoy it.

  5. I recently found a late (1963) Elizabeth Goudge adult novel in a second-hand bookshop. "The Scent of Water" deals with all the usual Goudge themes - marriages, happy and not; childhood; the past alive in the present; the joy and solace of the natural world; old fashioned virtues such as restraint, patience and duty. It's not one of her best, but there's a lot of comfort to be had from it.

  6. I'm sure I've read The Scent of Water -- they do sort of blur together, to be honest! I think comfort is definitely the right word for Elizabeth Goudge. I do enjoy her emphasis on those old-fashioned virtues!