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What We're Reading: The Heart of the Family

Just recently I have been re-reading Elizabeth Goudge's The Heart of the Family. This book has been so helpful to me spiritually that I wanted to blog about it, without thereby endorsing it as a literary work for my more literarily stringent readers.

All quotations in what follows are from the hardcover edition by Coward-McCann (1953). The book is available in a reprint edition from Amazon here.

If you dislike any hint of preachiness in literature, you will dislike Goudge generally and this novel in particular. It is one of her most wordy, and occasionally the wordiness mars the dialogue in ways that even I (lenient though I am) cannot fully excuse.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a profound and painful Christian devotional book in the form of a story, this is the book for you. If you read it with attention and sensitivity, it will change you.

The Heart of the Family is the third and last of Goudge's novels about the Eliot family. The others, in order, are The Bird in the Tree and Pilgrim's Inn (alternative title The Herb of Grace). Set in Hampshire, England, between approximately 1939 and 1952, the Eliot novels are vintage Goudge, including stories about characters you care about combined with meditations on Christianity, marriage, love, and suffering.

I believe that The Heart of the Family can be read on its own, though some acquaintance with the earlier novels would probably be helpful. Pilgrim's Inn is, literarily, the strongest of the three.

The Heart of the Family does not have a great deal of plot, and it is part of the genius of Goudge to be able to do so much with so little plot. The movement of the story lies chiefly in the heart of the character Sebastian Weber, an Austrian (apparently not Jewish) survivor of a post-WWII Russian concentration camp. Formerly a famous concert pianist, Sebastian has suffered the loss of his career and entire family in the course of the war. His wife and several children were killed in the fire-bombing of Hamburg while on a visit there, and his last child died in his arms on a train car when they were taken up as refugees by the Russians and shipped somewhere or other under appalling conditions.

Only forty-eight years old and stranded as a refugee in America, Sebastian can no longer play the piano and suffers from heart failure, poverty, and mental illness (what we would refer to as PTSD). He is taken on for (unneeded) secretarial duties by David Eliot as an act of charity and comes to Damerosehay, the Eliot family home in England, at the beginning of the book. David Eliot is a few years younger than Sebastian, a successful, handsome stage actor, naturally egotistical and selfish but basically kindly, struggling mightily to follow the Christian way of commitment and renunciation despite his own faults. At the moment David is racked with guilt over having had a near-affair with a woman other than his wife while on the American Shakespeare tour on which he met and hired Sebastian. Sebastian knows that he should be grateful to David for taking him on as secretary and giving him a home, and he knows nothing of the semi-affair, but he is filled with envious hatred for David's position in life and anger over having to be beholden to a successful man. Since Goudge persistently brings something like ESP into her novels, there is another reason why Sebastian instinctively hates David, but that is kept as the "big reveal" of the novel, and I won't tell it here.

The movement of the novel consists chiefly in Sebastian's personal growth, recovery of religious faith, and recovery of the ability to love and to experience friendship, including friendship with David Eliot. Goudge also uses the book as an opportunity to give the reader "news"--both circumstantial and spiritual--about the other members of the Eliot family. These are all characters that Goudge readers would have met in the earlier two novels, with a few additions such as a fiance for Ben, David Eliot's 21-year-old cousin.

Into this slight frame Goudge packs quite amazing reflections on suffering, God, and the Christian discipline of "offering up" all things as prayer--pain and pleasure, worries, and struggles with sin. Goudge is simultaneously a sentimental novelist and a stark and uncompromising advocate of Christian mysticism based on a theology of suffering. The combination is unusual, to say the least. What one realizes as one reads and understands Goudge is that everything matters intensely, painfully. Even the things that are good matter in an almost painful way. Joy itself is interwoven with pain, but it is a joyful kind of pain. At the same time, nothing quite matters in the way that you thought it mattered. Personal enjoyment, for example, is both tremendously important--it can be transmuted into worship of God, the giver of all good things--and also unimportant, in the sense that one should be willing to give it up in order to know God more intimately.

With which wordy introduction, here are a few salient quotations:

When one was well, the next thing flowed in so easily and naturally but when one was tired to death it sent before it a wave of nervous apprehension. Would one be able to manage? Would one make a mess of it?...Engulfed in this fear Sally had taught herself to think of the next thing as though it were the last thing....If it were the last thing then it did not seem too hard to rally one's forces just once more....[W]hen you took the moment in your hands as selflessly as you were able, past and future were not so much destroyed as gathered into it in one perfect whole, and living for it was not destructive but creative. The moment was no longer the last thing but the one thing, and so nothing else mattered and one would not fail. (p. 65)
The cloudless sky was a cool clear green behind the Island, but overhead it deepened to a blue so glorious that it dazzled the eyes not so much by its brightness as its power. Strange that color could have such power. A lark had braved it and was singing up there, and two great swans passed overhead with a mighty beating of flame-touched wings. But the lark and the swans had the same power. The small bird, tossing almost unseen now above the music that fell like brightness from the air, had lifted the souls of men out of their mortal weariness more surely than any other musician since the world began. And the passing of the swans was as powerful as a rolling of drums. They were Apollo's swans, who according to Socrates sing and rejoice on the day of their death because they foresee the blessings of immortal life. Conquerors of the souls of men, conquerors of time and death; the place of the lark and the swans was in the depth of the blue that would still be there when the sky had let fall the stars "even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs." (p. 90)
"How can good be lost if it is remembered?" asked Lucilla. "It can be pain to remember, I know, but it is one of those pains that are incumbent on us and the pain lessens if one does not shrink from the duty."

"How can it be a duty to remember?" asked Sebastian.

"I think it is all part of the purging," said Lucilla. "That hard deliberate remembering of good leaves no room for the remembrance of evil. That way we hasten the time. Don't you sometimes think, Mr. Weber, that one of the dreadful discoveries that we shall make in the life to come will be the extent to which we have put the clock back, and kept humanity upon the rack, by the mere unwilled thinking of idle moments?" (pp. 93-94)

This last phrase, "the unwilled thinking of idle moments," has been much on my mind lately. Lucilla Eliot (the great-grandmother and matriarch of the family) relates the problem of uncontrolled thoughts to the good or harm of mankind generally, but it is at least as relevant to the good or harm of the individual soul. How necessary it is for the Christian to be constantly on guard against the temptation to let one's thoughts wander--to hatred, vain regrets, the keeping of grudges, envy, resentment against God, going over painful thoughts profitlessly, or anything else that stands between the soul and Christ. And the Tempter is always ready to guide the course of "the unwilled thinking of idle moments" if we (or the Holy Ghost) do not keep it on the right track.

Yet whom did he hate? The actor who had given him the relief of catharsis or the employer who had been so thoughtful for his comfort? The father telling stories to his little girl or the gray ghost going up the stairs? Was it possible that he hated a mere ghost, the ghost who had been sitting in Banquo's chair when he looked across and saw it empty? A dead man, or a man whose eventual death was so certain that he could be already counted as dead. A man who was being done to death in David Eliot by some terrible adversary; terrible and glorious. [snip] Abruptly he was awake once more, forcing himself to ask again, [hatred] of whom? and to give a truthful answer. Of a man who possessed all that he had once possessed, fame and the gifts of fame, wife and home and children, and who like himself might one day lose them. Of a man as extravagant, emotional, egocentric and arrogant for all the world to see as he had once been himself, and as deeply sinful in ways known only to himself and to his God, or even only to his God, as he was now. Of himself in fact. Of that dying self who in the eyes of the "terrible," purging the grain, was only the flying chaff. O God, the idiocy of jealousy, indignation, wrath and contention. (pp. 109, 112)

In the immediate context Goudge has quoted both the poem "Carrion Comfort" by G.M. Hopkins and the prayer from the Imitation of Christ that begins, "Take, O Lord, from our hearts all jealousy, indignation, wrath, and contention, and whatsoever may injure charity and lessen brotherly love," and these are wrapped into Sebastian's meditation on his own hatred of David. The idea that each of us is, and must be, a dying man, an egotistical self being done to death by God, is rightly terrifying and yet bracing as well. For that death is the gateway to eternal life, that life of the true self whom God created each of us to be.

Sebastian was beginning to admit that side by side with David's egotism there existed a certain selflessness. Or perhaps that was putting it too strongly. Perhaps it would be truer to say that David had headed his egotism for the loss of it, as a man shooting the rapids deliberately steers his boat for the sickening fall that is just ahead of him. (p. 212)

This is a place where Goudge, for all the demanding nature of her Christian vision, gives us something to grab onto. For if I cannot be selfless right now, I can at least try to "head my egotism for the loss of it" like a man steering a boat for the rapids.

Then there is this insightful bit of dialogue, on the pain that parents feel for the pain of their children and (in this case) grandchildren. Lucilla is speaking at first:

"...Don't you think that in each generation there is some special person who is a candle lighted for the rest?"

"Yes, I do think so," said Sebastian, but he could never speak the name of his son Josef.

"'Light me a candle,'" quoted Lucilla. "Maurice died in a burning of pain. He bore it and so did I. Something of the sort must happen to David and I am as willing as he will be. For Meg, though I shan't see it, I can't bear it and I'm not willing." Her soft old voice was suddenly torn off and died.

"You can and you will be," said Sebastian... (pp. 230-31)

Here is the character Hilary (Lucilla's oldest son) talking to Lucilla about substitution:

"...And then one day, with great difficulty, I suddenly put into practice and knew as truth what of course I had always known theoretically, that if pain is offered to God as prayer then pain and prayer are synonymous....The utterly abominable Thing that prevents your prayer becomes your prayer. And you know what prayer is, Mother. It's all of a piece, the prayer of a mystic or of a child, adoration or intercession, it's all the same thing; whether you feel it or not it is union with God in the deep places where the fountains are. Once you have managed the wrenching effort of substitution the abominable Thing, while remaining utterly detestable for yourself, becomes the channel of grace for others and so the dearest treasure that you have. [snip] [I]t's not just the way you look at it, it's a deliberate and costly action of the will. It can be a real wrenching of the soul....And it's the same with joy as with disaster and Things, lifted up with that same hard effort even the earthly joys are points of contact and have the freshness of eternity in them." (pp. 266-267)

This is at the heart of the idea of "offering up" that is woven throughout the book.

Here is David's meditation on the interaction of all things and people in God's creation:

As he closed the gate behind him a spray of winter honeysuckle, the dew still on it, touched his face. The sudden breath of scent took him by surprise, the coolness of the dew, the perfect trumpets of pale yellow flowers against the glossy green leaves. The fact of it suddenly filled his whole consciousness, blotting out all other facts....Yet the sight of it, the scent and feel, were the least part of its value, even as his body that saw and felt and breathed was no great thing. It had its reality of invisible good, as he his, but though it was a gift to him, he in his ignorance could not even guess at what it was. His consciousness, that had narrowed to such a pin point, widened slowly to an awareness of an ocean surface of form and color and movement: the gray faces of men who suffered, the rosy faces of children, women's pearly fairness or blotched unsightliness, the grace of bodies and their degradation, flowers and birds' wings and the beautiful pelts of beasts, sunlight on the water and the flame of burning cities; all just an appearance of invisible good or evil that lived in the depths and could not be seen. Yet not in the still depths, only just below the surface where the flow of interchange was unresting and unceasing. One took and gave unendingly and could not know what one took or what one gave, because one did not know what one was, or who or what it was that gave. One was tossed upon this surface of appearance and could know nothing of the meaning of it, until one had passed through the fear and agony of its total loss. (pp. 284-285)
Yet, contrary to what David thinks here, Goudge shows that David and Sebastian, and others in the story, actually do know something of the meaning of their interactions, of their takings and givings, even here in this life. And something of the meaning of creation. The mystery of those meanings should only keep us humble and ever open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, for we may never know the significance of some act to which we are prompted, or some act that we refuse, for good or for evil.

I'll stop with that quotation. There is much more in the book. I recommend it if you are looking for something profound to read, something that will draw you closer to Christ, even if it is merely good literature and not truly great literature.

A blessed end of Advent to our readers.


Comments (2)

"Merely good" literature is most worthy! You are right, I love these quotes, and I shall have to find the book. Most encouraging. Thanks for letting me know about this piece.

I think it's kind of neat that it looks like several of Goudge's classics are back in print. Someone started reprinting them a few years ago in paperback editions. Before that you had to order them from out-of-print book dealers, sometimes shipped from England. I'm not sorry to have my vintage hardcover editions, but this way her work can be made more widely available.

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