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.
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…
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not wearythem, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon wrote ‘For the Fallen’, in Cornwall in September 1914, a month after the outbreak of the First World War. Though not himself a soldier, being in his mid-forties when war broke out, he created some of the most poignant words of the First World War.
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!
If you are starting to think of books to put on your Christmas wish-list, here is a suggestion from Maggie. We may put up a few more in the weeks that follow.
The Phoenix of Florence is a vivid evocation of a brutal era in Italian history. We are introduced to a senior member of the forces of law and order in Florence: a man of power who also shows surprising sensitivity and compassion for the position of women in his male-dominated society. Someone who, all the while, is guarding an astounding secret of his own.
I relished Philip Kazan’s use of language and marveled at the complexity of his plot as I raced through the pages of the book. It reminded me, in places, of C J Sansom’s Shardlake – until the story takes a shocking twist into the back story of its main character and makes you question everything you have previously learned about Comandante Celavini.
If you enjoy thrillers, mysteries and historical fiction that transports you breathlessly into a different time and place, this book delivers on all three counts.
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.