The Heart of the Family


I had to cave and buy the final installment of Elizabeth Goudge's Eliot Family chronicles on the Kindle, though I hope to pick up The Heart of the Family in material form somewhere, somehow, one day. Perhaps even more than the previous two volumes, The Heart of the Family lacks what you might call a plot -- it consists almost entirely of conversations, some in rooms, many in the woods between the two households of the Herb of Grace and Damerosehay. It's almost like reading a book of sermons as various pairs of characters ruminate on pain and sin, death and love, divine grace, guilt and prayer and penance.

The war is over, and Lucilla, the queen of the family, has abdicated her royal seat at Damerosehay to the family of her beloved grandson David. However David is wracked with self-torture at his recent narrowly-avoided infidelity; his newly acquired secretary Sebastian Weber is carrying wounds of his own, having lost his own family in the war, and hating David for his blessings. The eventual reconciliation between these two men forms the core of the story, but there are ancillary family dramas as Lucilla, at 91, meditates on death, other grandchildren fall in love or decide careers, and another baby is on the way. 

As Susan Green recently remarked, Elizabeth Goudge is not a sentimental writer. Despite the apparent extreme smallness of her canvas, she doesn't spare her characters torment, cruelty or harrowing self-reproach; but she always offers them some redemption. There are huge themes here, but there is also humour, delight and beauty, and as always a keen and appreciative eye for small children and dogs, which helps to leaven the weight of the deeper reflections. This is probably not my favourite Eliot story, maybe I read it too fast for the philosophy to sink in properly, and I should probably return to it when I need to.


  1. This is my favourite of the three books, Kate, even though - as you say - almost nothing happens. I think in most of her novels, no matter how seemingly light, Goudge is always grappling with some of the really big issues in life...duty, service, love, guilt... Each time I read her books, I'm drawn to a different one. On my last reading of this book, I was struck by the way that Sally's fear of childbirth seems to her a measure of recompense, a balancing, for her great unearned good fortune in health, happiness and love.

  2. Yes, there seems to be a recurring theme in Goudge's writing to do with payment or balance or evening out -- pain for joy, prayer for peace, some kind of sacrifice for happiness (one's own or for others). Maybe it's a way of trying to make sense of the random gifts and sufferings of the universe, trying to make them into some kind of pattern? I can see the comfort in it.