Reading Elizabeth Goudge’s novel The Dean’s Watch was akin to spending time with what Anne Shirley would call a “kindred spirit”. Taking in her beautiful writing and endearing characters, as well as her perceptive insights and Christian themes, was a delight. I’d read one of Goudge’s children’s novels years ago, but this was my first time to read an adult novel, and it has been a most lovely encounter.
The Dean’s Watch is set in a cathedral city of the 1870s, and the story centres around the fearsome dean of the cathedral, Adam Ayscough, and Isaac Peabody, a shy and sensitive clockmaker, who become an unlikely pair of friends. In many ways it is a story about love—love for others and God’s love for us. I, for my part, love Goudge’s emphasis on goodness and beauty. It’s not that her characters have an easy life or inhabit a perfect world—there is ugly sin and real sadness in the story—but the feel of the story is one of light more than of darkness and even the tinge of sadness in the ending doesn’t spoil the book because it is a beautiful, redemptive sadness.
I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, but let me whet your appetite by sharing the story of one of the secondary characters, Miss Montague. By the time we meet Miss Montague, she is an elderly lady. She’s described as the sort of person people love to talk to: “She did not as a rule talk very much herself but then she did not often get the opportunity, so eager was everyone else to talk to her.” As a child she was unattractive and had a limp after an accident, and growing up she was overlooked by her family. Knowing that she would never marry and that she would be the one left at home looking after her parents, she decided that her mission in life would be to love people. As the years pass, this resolution slowly changes her entirely by bringing her into a real relationship with Christ. “At some point along the way, she did not know where because the change came so slowly and gradually, she realised that he had got her and got everything. His love held and illumined every human being for whom she was concerned, and whom she served with the profound compassion which was their need and right, held the Cathedral, the city, every flower and leaf and creature, giving it reality and beauty. She could not take her eyes from the incredible story of his love. As far as it was possible for a human being in this world she had turned from herself. She could say, ‘I have been turned,’ and she did not know how every few can speak these words with truth.”
It sounds so enviable, doesn’t it? And yet “[t]hrough most of her life no one noticed anything unusual about her, although they found her increasingly useful. The use her family made of her, however, was more or less unconscious, because she was always there…. She was just Mary, plain, dumpy, lame….” The saints on earth can be easily overlooked.
Nor is their lot necessarily one of spiritual plain sailing. In her middle age, Miss Montague’s internal world collapses after the death of her brother. She loses her grip on God and on joy. Gradually, however, things come right again, and the climax is beautiful.
It comes as she is sitting alone in the cathedral:
“How much more friendly it is when you cannot see, thought Miss Montague, and how much closer we are to him. Why should we always want a light? He chose darkness for us, darkness of the womb and of the stable, darkness in the garden, darkness on the cross and in the grave. Why do I demand certainty? That is not faith. Why do I want to understand? How can I understand this great web of sin and ugliness and love and suffering and joy and life and death when I don’t understand the little tangle of good and evil that is myself? I’ve enough to understand. I understand that he gave me light that I might turn to him, for without light I could not have seen to turn. I have seen creation in his light. He shared his light with me that I, turned, might share with him the darkness of his redemption. Why did I despair? What do I want? If it is him I want he is here, not only love in light illuming all that he has made but love in darkness dying for it….”
If I could but truly add an “amen” to that–not just the amen of a day, but of every day. And that is hard. Yet I know, theoretically, that–to steal an expression from George Herbert–“hard things are glorious”. Miss Montague’s path brought her through real difficulties, but it was worth it.
(And if you’re not convinced by now to read the book, will you ever be?!)