Tanya’s story, ‘Not scorned in Heaven, though little noticed here‘ won the 2020 Ellen J Miller Memorial competition, run by the Barbara Pym Society. The brief was to write a short story featuring characters from a Barbara Pym novel. Here, with a few added tweaks, is the story.
Inside The Foundling Museum, in London’s Bloomsbury, hangs Hogarth’s splendid portrait of a generous-hearted man who should be better known.
Thomas Coram, a sea captain, on his retirement to London in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, was horrified that babies were abandoned to die on the dung heaps of the city’s streets. The Catholic Continent had convents which accepted foundlings, but there were none of those in Protestant England. A man of action, Coram devoted his retirement to raising enough capital for a refuge for infants whose mothers were unable, through want or the social disgrace associated with unmarried motherhood, to care for them. It took this tenacious man an amazing seventeen years to make his dream a reality but, finally, in 1741 London’s Foundling Hospital opened its doors.
Today, TheFoundling Museum has on display the well-thumbed notebook in which he painstakingly recorded the sums – large and small – that he persuaded citizens of London to part with. The Museum also holds poignant examples of the coins or scraps of ribbon or lace left as tokens by desperate mothers in the hope they might, one day, be able to reclaim their precious child. It was one of these, a pink square of fabric embroidered with my own initials, that moved me to write my novel, The Servant. The embroidery is exquisite, the fabric looks like silk, and the woman who created it was clearly literate. What was her story? We will never know, but it must have been a sad one.
I like to think it was Coram’s wife – like myself childless – who suggested to him that he stop his fruitless attempts to raise enough money from the city fathers and powerful male aristocracy and instead approach their wives. For it was the signatures of the Duchess of Somerset and other high society women on The Ladies Petition presented to George III in 1735 that finally made Coram’s dream a reality. I am also tempted to wonder whether the consciences of those ladies had been pricked by awareness of sins committed by their own sons and husbands.
When the Museum is properly open again, next year, I hope that those who live within reach of London will make a visit. The stories of so many betrayed women are poignant, but an important part of our history.
In his final days, Thomas Coram is recorded as liking to sit in the garden of The Foundling Hospital, in his distinctive scarlet coat, handing out gingerbread men to the children. The Santa Claus of his age.
This room was, of course, full of books; but I have rather ceased to regard books as being very personal things — everybody one knows has them and they are really rather obvious. It was no doubt significant that Mary Beamish should have the novels of Miss Goudge while Piers had those of Miss Compton-Burnett, but I should have been able to guess that for myself without actually seeing. (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, published in 1956)
What is the narrator heroine Wilmet Forsyth actually saying here? Earlier in the novel we learn that ‘Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless — she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but small and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. She lived with her selfish old mother in a block of flats near our house and was on several committees as well as being a member of St Luke’s parochial church council.’
Do those thoughts tell us more about Barbara Pym’s heroine than about Mary Beamish, dismissed in another scene as so very much not my kind of person? Is it only good and dowdy people who are likely to read Elizabeth Goudge’s novels?
Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) was the only child of an Anglican priest and became a best-selling author in the UK and America after the success in 1934 of her first novel Island Magic, set in the Channel Islands. Like her later novels, it combines an almost mystical sense of place and love of nature, with themes of forgiveness, self-sacrifice and redemptive personal growth through suffering.
Characters offer themselves to others and restore them to wholeness. One of the most unforgettable is in Green Dolphin Country when a young sailor in the nineteenth century muddles up names, asks the wrong sister to travel from Guernsey to New Zealand to marry him, and when she arrives doesn’t tell her of the mistake. An almost unbelievable story, but based on Elizabeth Goudge’s great uncle.
Elizabeth Goudge shows us the holiness and interconnectedness, through suffering, love and foregiveness, of all human beings — and they are ordinary ones, like us, dealing with failure, loneliness, poverty, mental illness, disability, feeling misunderstood, undervalued, excluded, unloved. Christian spirituality is interwoven into the text, in unhurried lyrical prose. But this is never in a fundamentalist proselytizing fashion: more just whispers of Teilard de Chardin, Thomas Traherne, C.S. Lewis, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence. Elizabeth Goudge’s Christianity is always generous, non-judgmental and inclusive. There is redemption and happiness at the end for the characters, though this is hard won, and only possible with the help of others and the healing effect of connectedness with them.
The beauty of the places where Elizabeth Goudge spent her life — Wells in Somerset, Ely, Oxford, Hampshire and the New Forest, Devon, childhood holidays in Guernsey at her grandparents’ home — becomes a breathing, life-changing spirit in her novels. God is all the time revealing his presence in what we see around us.
Children play an important role in Elizabeth Goudge’s adult novels and their inner lives are extraordinarily sensitively drawn. It’s perhaps why many of us loved novels like The Dean’s Watch, The City of Bells, The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace, at an early age, as well as her children’s books, including The Little White Horse which won the Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction in 1946 and Linnets and Valerians published in 1964.
Are the novels too unrealistic and sentimental and fanciful for modern taste? Is the prose style too flowery, do the books feel as though they belong to a vanished past, to be read only for nostalgia? Elizabeth Goudge believed that ‘As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.’
Elizabeth Goudge was a founding member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in 1960, together with Denise Robins, Netta Muskett, Rosamunde Pilcher, Catherine Cookson, Barbara Cartland: very different writers loosely grouped under a broad definition of romantic. Even the word romantic might be misleading. Susan D. Amussen’s essay about Elizabeth Goudge in Anglican Women Novelists published by Bloomsbury in 2019 argues that she ‘frequently offers a critical view of contemporary gender norms in her fiction.’ Elizabeth Goudge’s male characters owe nothing to the Mr Darcy model, while unmarried women are portrayed as fulfilled and successful in their own right. They do not need a man or romantic love affairs to have a full life.
The Joy of the Snow is Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography published in 1974. It’s as absorbing a read as any of her novels. It’s shortish, with a direct personal note, as if she wanted to explain something important before she became too frail. She died ten years later. A sentence from a chapter titled ‘Pain and the Love of God stood out on re-reading: if we can find a little of our one-ness with all other creatures, and love for them, then I believe we are half-way towards finding God.
The World of Elizabeth Goudge by Sylvia Gower has just been reissued in a lovely new edition by the altogether wonderful Somerset-based Girls Gone By Publishers — they republish some of our beloved out of print twentieth century books that are hard to find second hand. https://www.ggbp.co.uk/
Take a leap into the fictional unknown and enter one of the competitions below.
The Ruth Rendell Short Story Competition for stories up to 1,000 words. Prizes: £1,000 and commission to write four further stories over the course of one year. Entry fee: £15. Deadline 2 December. Details: http://www.writers-online.co.uk
The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2021, the world’s richest short story prize, is inviting entries up until 4 December. In addition to the winner’s prize of £30,000, shortlisted authors each win £1,000. Shortlisted writers will also be included in an Audible audiobook anthology and receive a further £1,000 fee. Writers must have a track record of publication/broadcasting with an established publisher, magazine or broadcaster. Website: http://www.shortstoryaward.co.uk
Mslexia Poetry & Pamphlet Competition 2020. Poetry: 1st prize £2,000 plus mentoring and writing retreat, 2nd prize £500, 3rd prize £250. Special prize of £250 for the best poem by an unpublished woman poet. Deadline 7 December. Details: http://www.mslexia.co.uk/competitions
Language Evolves Short Story Competition for max. 2,500 words on the theme of language evolution. Prizes: £400, plus publication in New Welsh Review; shortlist also considered for publication. Details: creativewritingink.co.uk/competitions/language-evolves-short-story-competition-2020. Entry free. Deadline 1 December.
The Devon & Cornwall International Novel Prize for the first 5,000 words of a novel, plus a synopsis of no more than 500 words. All adult genres acceptable, including YA. Entry fee: £15. Prizes: £2,000 for the winner, plus a trophy and online publishing contract; shortlisted authors get a trophy and online publishing contract. Deadline 31 December. Details: dci-novelprize.com
Henshaw Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,000 words on any theme. Prizes: £200, £100, £50. Entry fee: £6. Deadline 31 December. Details: http://www.henshawpress.co.uk
Not a huge list, but some competitions appear to have been withdrawn because of the covid crisis. Because of this, please check the appropriate website before entering any of the above in case more withdrawals have taken place.