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.
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/
For writers, especially during lock-down when bookshop signings and talks at the local library are impossible, getting on-line reviews are one of the few ways to promote a new novel. And if they are lucky enough to acquire 50 positive reviews, Amazon will feature them in periodic promotional posts, for free.
Yet how many of us write them? I must confess to producing a mere handful myself, though I am striving to do better.
People assume they will be required to produce an erudite outline of the plot, a thoughtful character analysis and include quotes of good (or bad) prose. All the while avoiding those dreaded spoilers. No wonder it seems daunting.
Yet Amazon and Goodreads make the process relatively easy. You simply decide whether the novel you have just read is any good, then give it a star rating out of five. You could stop there, if you wanted. You could also choose to withhold your full name, if feeling shy, by calling yourself something like Bedfordshire Bookworm.
A sentence or two about whether you enjoyed a book would help others decide whether or not to invest in a copy and would at the same time delight the author. Something like the following would be perfect:
**** “A page-turner. Thoroughly recommended.”
*** “Really enjoyed travelling to a different time and place. Perfect for lovers of historical fiction.”
**** “Had me on the edge of my seat at times.”
***** “Loved it!”
Obviously, if you really loathed it, the author would prefer you to refrain from comment. But most authors welcome constructive criticism. That is the way to learn to write better.
If you love nothing better than escaping into a book, why not spend a few minutes supporting those who feed your addiction? It costs nothing but a few minutes of your time, and will have an author somewhere purring with pleasure…
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness… A time to curl up with a really good book, or maybe even to write one.
The Caledonian Novel Award for an unpublished novel of at least 50,000 words. First 20 pages plus 200-word synopsis. Open to over-18s only. Entry fee: £25. Prize: £1,500, plus trophy. Runner-up from UK or Ireland to receive free place on writing course at Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre. Deadline: 1 November. Details: thecaledonianovel-award.com/rules-entry/
Hastings Writers Room First 1,000 words Novel Competition for a psychological thriller, gothic horror or crime novel. Prizes: £100, £50, trophy, signed books, judge’s feedback on the shortlisted entries. Entry fee: £7. Deadline 30 November. Details: http://www.hastingswritersroom.org
Retreat West Novelette Flash Prize for 3,000-8,000-words total, made up of flashes up to 500 words each. Prizes: £150, £100, £50; publication. Entry fee: £14. Closing Date 29 November. Details: http://www.retreatwest.co.uk
Betty Trask Prize for published or unpublished traditional or romantic (not experimental) first novels by authors under the age of 35 on 31 December. Prizes: £20,000 total, to be used for foreign travel. FREE ENTRY. Deadline: 30 November. Details: http://www.societyofauthors.org
Bath Children’s Novel Award for unpublished and independently published writers of children’s novels. Send first 5,000 words plus synopsis. Prizes: £3,000, manuscript feedback, Cornerstones online course. Deadline: 29 November. Details: http://www.bathnovelaward.co.uk
Creative Mind Horwich Prize for short stories up to 1,500 words or poems up to 40 lines on the theme ‘walking in nature’. Prizes £50, £30 and £20 each category. Entry fee: £3, £5 for three. Closing date: 7 November. Details: http://creativemindhorwich.btck.co.uk
Fish Short Story International Writing Prize, word limit 5,000 words. Prizes: 3,000 Euros; Week at Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat; 300 Euros; 7 runners-up will receive 200 Euros each. Entry fee: £18. Deadline 30 November. Details: http://www.fishpublishing.com
Writers Bureau Flash Fiction Competition for stories up to 500 words, open theme. Prizes: £300, £200, £100, plus Writers Bureau course. Entry fee: £5, £10 for three. Closing date: 30 November. Details: http://www.wbcompetition.com
Do please remember to check entry details in case of last-minute changes.
Someone has to win these competitions, why not you? Best of luck!
Suffering from Writer’s Block? Take comfort from the following – from the biography of a well-known writer – about her own struggles to put pen to paper.
“…it was not every day that she could write. Sometimes weeks or even months elapsed before she felt she had anything to add to that portion of her story already written.”
Some writers can regularly produce a thousand words a day, but they are in the minority and most of us need to acknowledge there is no shame in putting a project aside until ready to take it up again.
Nor did the above writer’s pain end with lack of inspiration. Even after her work was finally completed to her satisfaction, she bewailed the inevitable disappointment of rejection letters:
“…often not over-courteously worded…and none alleging any distinct reasons for rejection.”
We have all been there. Rejection is bad enough, but if we must be rejected we do yearn for constructive feedback: were the characters weak or was the prose too florid? Did the manuscript need to be cut back, or developed further? Was there anything about it that they liked?
Instead we are all too familiar with:
“I am sorry we don’t feel 100 per cent certain we could sell your book to publishers.”
Or the almost-dismissive:
“If you haven’t heard within 8 weeks, assume not interested.”
Writing is not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes even one’s nearest and dearest reveals lukewarm belief in your writing talent. Here is a conversation between our lady writer and her father. She must surely have been tempted to either flounce out of the room, or throw something at the insensitive man:
Papa, I have been writing a book.
Have you, my dear?
Yes, and I want you to read it.
I am afraid it will try my eyes too much.
But it is not in manuscript: it is printed.
My dear! You have never thought of the expense itwill be! It will be almost sure to be a loss, for how can you get a book sold? No one knows you or your name.
If you have not already guessed, our author was Charlotte Brontë and the biographer was Mrs Gaskell. The book in question was Jane Eyre.
So, corona virus restrictions are being reimposed. Less socialising, less going out of the house, maybe worse to come. But the upside of all that is, you can top up your lockdown reading … Your Books To Be Read pile might have shrunk in the past six months, but why not add to it now? Why not choose something new, maybe something you wouldn’t normally touch?
Taking some books at, er, random – you can enjoy historical fiction, thrillers, comedy, romance, novels exploring relationships and the human heart; revel in the settings of London (in the 18th century and today), modern Czechia, Sussex, the Lake District, Alaska, South Wales, Devon and the Cotswolds.
Or you can read biography and moving memoir; and if you are a manager and your staff are all working from home, why not take advantage of their absence and bone up on management thinking? And if you’re a parent or doting grandparent, get a lovely book for the little one.
Last, but not least, there’s poetry. What better way to cope with today’s vicissitudes than settling down with some great poetry ‘the best words in the best order’, as I think someone said.
In these troubled times, love is surely what we need. For one another, and incorporated into a good, escapist story.
The Romantic Novelists’ Association has launched the RNA Learning Programme as part of its sixtieth diamond anniversary celebrations.
Online workshops will take place this autumn, with monthly web-based workshops covering writing, craft, technical skills for writers and the business of writing and publishing. They will be open to RNA members, but ALSO TO NON-MEMBERS.
In addition, as part of its ongoing commitment to widening opportunities for romantic fiction writers, a number of RNA Diamond Bursaries are available to new and mid-career writers from under-represented backgrounds for membership of the NewWriters’ Scheme, which includes a full manuscript assessment.
Their New Writers’ Scheme is something I joined myself this January and I consider it one of the best investments I have made. The manuscript that I submitted to them had a minor character killed off half-way through, only to mysteriously reappear at the end, fit and well. It also included incorrect information about an inheritance, which my mentor – carefully chosen to be knowledgeable about historical novels – tactfully drew to my attention. There was praise for what I had got right, and constructive suggestions about how I could strengthen my plot. That it was a worthwhile investment can be seen from the fact that the manuscript subsequently went on to win the Historical Writers’ Association 2020 Unpublished Novel Award.
The RNA are not only about light-hearted Regency romances. They simply require an element of love incorporated in your plot. Jane Austen did so, as did Charlotte Bronte and many others.
I have never pretended, nor ever will pretend, that Emily was a proper child. Books are not written about proper children. They would be so dull nobody would read them. (L. M. Montgomery Emily Climbs)
Anne of Green Gables when it was published in 1908 was an instant success and established L M Montgomery’s career as Canada’s leading children’s author. Yet it’s Emily of New Moon, published in 1923, that L M Montgomery described in her journal as ‘the best book I have ever written … I have had more intense pleasure in writing it than any of the others—not even excepting Green Gables. I have lived it…’
Both Anne and Emily are highly imaginative girls, intensely receptive to the beauty of the natural world, in love with writing poetry and stories; characteristics shared by their creator. But Anne’s early literary ambitions – which include a comic episode when she wins a short story competition and wishes she hadn’t – are sidelined in the sequels which follow her life at college, working as a teacher and finally as a wife and mother.
Emily is altogether more driven, a fiercer, more complicated character – and possibly to a modern reader more interesting and satisfying. The three books in the series Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest tell Emily’s story from early childhood as she struggles to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. L. M. Montgomery knew about rejection; Anne of Green Gables was rejected many times before being accepted for publication. It’s not surprising that Emily’s courage and self-belief remain an inspiration for girls all over the world.
From early childhood Emily experiences what she calls ‘the flash’ – a moment of visionary awareness when she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music.
L.M. Montgomery was only 21 months old when her mother died. Lucy was packed off to live with her Presbyterian grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, and would later marry a minister. It was a childhood and adulthood she would mine for her novels and short stories.
Even as a small child, Emily has her own ideas about God. When her beloved father dies and as a penniless orphan she is wished onto unknown relatives, she scorns the advice of the housekeeper who has looked after her: ‘There’s one thing I’d advise you to do,’ said Ellen, determined to lose no chance of doing her duty, ‘and that is to kneel down and pray to God to make you a good and respectful and grateful child.’ Emily paused at the foot of the stairs and looked back. ‘Father said I wasn’t to have anything to do with your God,’ she said gravely… ‘I know what your God is like…I saw His picture in that Adam-and-Eve book of yours. He has whiskers and wears a nightgown. I don’t like him. But I like Father’s God.’ …‘Well, you’re bound to have the last word, but the Murrays will teach you what’s what,’ said Ellen, giving up the argument. ‘They’re strict Presbyterians, and won’t hold by any of your father’s awful notions.’
It’s Emily’s ability to withdraw into the world of her imagination that save her in her new life at New Moon – this, and the pride for which all Murrays are renowned. ‘You ought to be thankful to get a home anywhere. Remember you’re not of much importance.’ ‘I am important to myself,’ cried Emily proudly. L. M. Montgomery was writing at a time when children were much more powerless than they are today, and the way Emily gets the better of tyrannical grown-ups with her use of language makes up much of the comedy in Emily of New Moon and Emily Climbs.
Perhaps many older readers like myself will remember a cruel teacher who used sarcasm to destroy our self-confidence and reduce us to misery. The scene in Emily of New Moon where the hateful Miss Brownell mocks Emily’s poetry in front of the class always takes me straight back to when I was caught during prep time at boarding school writing a story when I was meant to be doing maths, but thankfully escaped with only a detention and without the teacher reading it. The unbearable horror of an unsympathetic adult treading on those so sacred words!
But L. M. Montgomery gives us inspirational teachers too in her novels, and the unorthodox Mr Carpenter, though regarded by some as an alcoholic failure, is one of them. He makes Emily promise not to write to please anyone but herself, and his last words to her are ‘Beware of italics’ – today would he say exclamation marks or adverbs?
The delightful Irish Catholic priest Father Cassidy is another of the eccentrics L. M. Montgomery is so gifted at portraying and he too perceives Emily’s gift for words. To the end of her struggle for recognition Emily never forgot Father Cassidy’s ‘Keep On’ and the tone in which he said it. Significantly, when narrow-minded, domineering Aunt Elizabeth dismisses Emily’s ‘writing nonsense’ and even kind Aunt Laura doesn’t understand her compelling need to write, it is so-called simple-minded Cousin Jimmy, the composer of a thousand poems in his head, who is always on her side.
L.M. Montgomery went through periods of depression, made worse by a difficult marriage to a man suffering from some kind of mental illness. She never had the happy life that she gives to Anne in the Anne of Green Gables series. Something of this comes across in the sombre, almost tortured tone in part of Emily’s Quest, where Emily for a time loses her will to write and gives in to the controlling desires of a much older man. It’s hard for readers today to see Dean Priest as anything other than creepy or to forgive him for what he makes Emily do to her first book The Seller of Dreams.
It’s pride that keeps Emily from falling apart during the years of brutal rejection slips and the awfulness of faint praise; it’s also what keeps her estranged from the man she loves. But literary success comes by an unexpected route, and even Aunt Elizabeth (like Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables she mellows in her later years) can remark ‘Well, I never could have believed that a pack of lies could sound as much like the real truth as that book does.’
There’s been a bit of a Twitter craze recently to come up with really boring descriptions of famous books. The ninevoices decided to have a go. How many can you guess? Do you have some gems to challenge us with?
(Well, come on, what else is there to do besides shop for a Darth Vader facemask?)
Name that book:
Lawyer advocates protecting avian – and anyone resembling it.
Old butler questions career choice but sticks with it.
Man resents government, then changes mind.
Two friends take long walk to dispose of item of jewellery.
9-35 to Victoria delayed by adverse weather conditions and a police incident.
After lifetime of misery woman marries disabled employer.
Grain merchant reunited with wrong daughter
Dyslexic child hangs siblings and self
Young woman, poor judge of men, inherits farm.
Island guests eliminated one by one.
Fate of sisters in the hands of crotchety aunt.
Draught under door leads, eventually, to capital punishment.
House of seamtress’s employer collapses.
Wild scenery, tame love story
Professional mourner, accused of theft, gets more than he asked for.
Professor with novelty timepiece solves riddles leading to the Louvre.
Man makes long journey, has IT problems.
Sisters move to Devon, marry dull men.
Woman who once swiped left and regretted it, gets second bite.
Why are collective nouns standby questions in a Zoom quiz? And why do they never stick in the memory even if the same question came up two weeks ago? And we’re not thinking of a gaggle of geese (or women) or a pride of lions. No, we’re talking of the esoteric. Does anyone in everyday speech talk of a busyness of ferrets or a tabernacle of bakers? I thought they might have been something to torment children in an age when they had no electronic devices to entertain them.
However, having Backrubbed – that’s the old name for Google (quiz question) – collective nouns, I learnt that the ones we use today date from the late Middle Ages. Monks were looked on as abominable because they had an easier life than the peasants, who would have preferred their old religions.
Nor were “terms of venery” – that’s the old name for collective nouns (putting that in the next time I am quizmaster) – something for children to learn by rote. They were hunting terms “intended as a mark of erudition of the gentleman able to use them correctly”. Hence a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens and a richesse of martens – the pine marten having the most highly-prized pelt. The Book of Saint Albans (1486) was a collection of advice and information on hawking, hunting, and heraldry. Dame Juliana Berners, the prioress of an abbey near St Albans was a contributor. She allocated “nouns of assembly” according to the rank of the owner. Hence a cast of hawks denoted nobility, but a flight of goshawks indicated that they were owned by a yeoman.
A superfluity of nuns? The nunneries were overcrowded with unsupported females, widows and unmarriageable daughters.
Later came modern expressions, light-hearted and humorous, for occupations. A misbelief of painters, a shuffle of bureaucrats, a shush of librarians.
There are several choices for a group of writers. Perhaps we would favour an excellence of authors but more accurate is likely to be a procrastination of authors.
An ingratitude of children was probably coined by Adam.