I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge

Oh, this lovely – a beautifully and loving crafted warm security blanket of a book!

The story opens on Christmas eve, in a harbour town in the west of England, two centuries ago.

Polly was spending her first Christmas there with two maiden aunts, Dorcas and Constantia. She had lived with them since the death of her parents in an accident earlier in the year, and she was beginning to realise that her aunts’ ideas about celebrating Christmas were rather different to hers.  At her parents farmhouse home the door had been left  unlocked day and night to offer hospitality to all: friends, neighbours, travellers, the needy …. 

“But we always did it at home,” said Polly.

“My dear,”  said Aunt Dorcas, “at home you had a man in the house.”

“But we’ve got The Hat in the hall,” said Polly.

“My dear,”  said Aunt Dorcas, “it is not such an adequate protection.”

The aunts were eminently sensible; there hadn’t been a man in the house since one of their brothers had married and the other had run away to sea. But Polly couldn’t accept that. She believed that she would see three ships come sailing in, bringing three wise men to see them, and she believed that angels would visit them, because every Christmas she had heard their feathers brushing the panelling on the stairs.

I Saw Three Ships

The aunts locked the door and hid the key. It wasn’t that they were unkind, they were just the opposite; they just wanted Polly to be safe and secure, and they’d had a lovely time creating the perfect Christmas stocking for her.

They would find that their niece had been right. They were visited by three wise men of a most unexpected kind, they brought three gifts that had the same symbolism as gold, frankincense and myrrh, and three ships did come sailing into the harbour on Christmas morning.

They couldn’t have been happier – and neither could I – the ending was perfect!

It was a happy tears kind of ending ….

I’d love to say more, to re-tell the whole story, but I mustn’t.

The story is beautifully written, it’s very well thought out, it’s full of lovely details, and it’s told with warmth, understanding, and just a little bit of humour.

The characters – including a very amenable cat – are nicely differentiated and very well drawn, the historical setting is evoked so well, and the words of the carol that gives the story its title are threaded through.

You might say that the story is old-fashioned, and maybe it is.

And you might think that it sounds sentimental, but I’d say that it isn’t. It’s a story underpinned by real emotions and real faith.

It’s a lovely story for Christmas. A very small book, written for children but very readable for grown-ups.

I just have to thank Lory for mentioning it and Open Library for lending me a copy.

Merry Christmas!

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

It’s taken me a very long time to get to this second report for my 100 Years of Books project.

That’s partly because I’ve read a couple of big books that were published before 1850 – The Count of Monte Cristo and Vanity Fair – and partly because I ‘ve been going back to authors – Margaret Kennedy, Anthony Trollope, Angela Thirkell – and I want 100 authors for my 100 years so each author only gets one appearance.

And it’s also because I began to have doubts about whether this was the right project. Because I feel differently about the two centuries I’ve brought together. The twentieth century is home and the nineteenth century is somewhere I love to visit, so I thought that maybe I should have two projects, one short term and one long term.

That thinking distracted me for a while, but in the end I decided I would stick to the original plan; to read the books I picked up naturally and to read the books that I didn’t pick up quite as naturally but really appreciated when I did.

I may struggle to fill some of the earlier years but …. I think I have to try.

So, my first report is here, and this is the second:

1866 – Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade

“Charles Reade was once a very popular author; and, though his historical novel ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’ was his most acclaimed work, ‘Griffith Gaunt’ was his personal favourite. You might call it a sensation novel, and it is a sensation novel, but its much more than that. This is a book that grows from a melodrama, into a psychological novel, into a courtroom drama ….”

1878 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Listening highlighted the quality of the storytelling, the characters, the prose, and the wonderful, wonderful rhythm of the words. That was something I would never have picked up if I’d read from a book. It didn’t take long at all for me to be smitten ….”

1911 – Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole

“Mr Traill is a new master, in his first teaching post. He knows that it is first step on the ladder. He is young, handsome, athletic, charming, and the boys love him. But he is oblivious to the tension in the air, and he is incredulous when one of his colleagues warns him to get out as soon as he can ….”

1923 – None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick

“I found myself listening  to Mary Clarendon, as she spoke about what happened  when she and her husband moved from London to a Cornish cottage they named ‘None-Go-By’, and it’s lovely because her voice is so real, open and honest; and because she catches people and their relationships so beautifully.”

1925 – The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton

“It was not easy to feel sympathy for a woman who had abandoned her daughter, but I did. Because Kate Clephane was a real, complex, human being, and she was as interesting as any woman I have met in the pages of an Edith Wharton novel. “

1932 – Three Fevers by Leo Walmsley

“I learned recently that Leo Walmsley’s father, Ulric, studied art in Newlyn under Stanhope Forbes. and that pointed me to the best way that I could explain why this book is so readable: Leo Walmsley captured his fishing community in words every bit as well as Stanhope Forbes and his contemporaries captured the fishing community in Newlyn.”

1934 – Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

“‘Wild Strawberries’ is the story of one aristocratic English family and one glorious summer in between the wars. And it is set in Angela Thirkell’s Barchestershire, a place where every single person, however high or low their situation, is happy and accepting of their situation and the role they are to play. You need to be able to accept that – and I can understand that some might not be able to – but I can, and if you can too, you will find much to enjoy in this light, bright and sparkling social comedy ….”

1939 – Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish

“When I read the extract from her book I fell in love with her voice; it was the voice of a woman talking openly and honestly to a friend, a woman with lots and lots of great stories to tell. I so wanted to read everything that she had written, but there was not a copy of her book to be had. Until I found that I could borrow a copy from Open Library ….”

 1940 – The English Air by D E Stevenson

“The story played out beautifully, moving between Franz and his English family. It grew naturally from the characters I had come to like and to care about; it caught the times, the early days of the war, perfectly; and though it wasn’t entirely predictable it was entirely right. Even better – maybe because ‘The English Air’ was written and published while was still raging – the ending was uncontrived and natural. And that’s not always the case with D E Stevenson’s novel ….”

 1941 – The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge

“This is a story of the darkest days of World War II, when only England stood against the Nazi forces advancing across Europe, and when the fear of invasion was very, very real. Elizabeth Goudge lived on the south coast of England then, close to the eye of the storm, it was during the war that she wrote this book, and it was clear as I read that she knew and she that understood ….”

And that’s it! It shouldn’t be such a wait for the next report ….


It was Jo’s idea a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an annual event – celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books I’ve read and the books I’ve discovered.

Here are my six sixes:


Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
The English Air by D E Stevenson
The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goodge
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter


Six books from the present that took me to the past

The Visitors by Rebecca Maskell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey
Turning the Stones by Debra Daley
The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray


Six books from the past that pulled me back there

Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer
Esther Waters by George Moore
Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade
Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope


Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Wake by Anna Hope
Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin
The Lie of You: I Will Have What is Mine by Jane Lythell
Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick


Six successful second meeting with authors

The Auction Sale by C H B Kitchin
The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell
Mrs Westerby Changes Course by Elizabeth Cadell
Her by Harriet Lane


Six used books added to my shelves

The Heroes of Clone by Margaret Kennedy
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken
Portrait of a Village by Francis Brett Young
The West End Front by Matthew Sweet
The Stag at Bay by Rachel Ferguson
Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Boorman


Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge

This is a story of the darkest days of World War II, when only England stood against the Nazi forces advancing across Europe, and when the fear of invasion was very, very real. Elizabeth Goudge lived on the south coast of England then, close to the eye of the storm, it was during the war that she wrote this book, and it was clear as I read that she knew and she that understood.

She write of a group of people who were drawn together, at a castle on a hill.

Miss Brown was a very English lady; quiet, polite and unassuming. She had grown up in a sleepy seaside town, but she had moved to London when the family home that she had turned into a boarding house was requisitioned by the military, and when she was turned out. It had seemed to be the sensible thing to do, but she had been unable to find a job and she was weary of staying with relations; her spirits were low, and when the news came that her home had been destroyed in a bombing raid they sank even lower. She feared for her future; all she had in the world was a train ticket, bought for a visit to a relation in the country, and a few coins.

Mr. Isaacson was an Englishman of Jewish descent, who had travelled to Leipzig for his musical training and settled there. He achieved success as a musician, even though he was rather too fond of a drink, but the growing persecution of the Jews forced him to flee, across Europe, back to his homeland. He scraped a living, playing for pennies on the streets of London, but he was terribly afraid that he would soon face persecution there too.

7213279It was as she sat on a bench in front of the London Free Library that Miss Brown heard music; a lovely melody that she had never heard before. It lifted her spirits, and so that she rose from her seat to find the musician. She found Mr Isaacson and she spoke to him, wanting to know what the tune was. He responded eagerly and she put a shilling in his hat before she left to catch her train.

That shilling left Mr Isaacson in a quandary.  He had decided, some time earlier, that he would use the next shilling he earned to fuel the fire in his rented room, so that he could gas himself. It wasn’t what he wanted but he saw no alternative, no future for himself. He just hadn’t expected the moment to come so quickly.

But when Mr Isaacson arrived home he found that maybe he could seize another moment. His landlady’s two small daughters were being evacuated to the country that day and their mother was anxious that they would be too late to report to their school; as he was fond of the children Mr Isaacson found himself volunteering to take the girls to the station.  The bus fares swallowed his shilling.

An extraordinary series of coincidences – or maybe the hand of fate – or maybe the guidance of a higher power – saw the two adults onto the same train to the same destination.

I found it easy to accept. Elizabeth Goudge writes so beautifully, with rich descriptions catching every detail, catching the wonder of the world and being alive; and she brings her characters to life with such wonderful understanding, setting out their hopes, their fears, all of their emotions as they react to everything that happens.

That makes her books very slow, but very rewarding; I love them, but I can understand why others don’t.

When Miss Brown missed her station a gentleman saw her distress and offered assistance. Mr Birley was a historian – Miss Brown recognised his name, and had read his books – and that helped him to draw her out, and gave her the confidence to explain her circumstances. And that gave Mr Birely an idea. He was returning from a trip to London, where he’d had no success in engaging a  suitable housekeeper for his home, Birley Castle. Might Miss Brown be the woman for the job? He persuaded her that she was!

In another part of the train evacuees were on their way to Torhaven, the nearest village to Birley Castle. And Mr Isaacson is in the guard’s van. He hadn’t eaten for some time and not long after he handed the girls over to their teacher he collapsed into the baggage car. The guard, Mr Holly, found him there and, thinking  that the children Mr. Isaacson was accompanying were his own, he offered him a place to stay until he could find a job and establish himself in Torhaven.

It was almost too fortuitous, but I was completely caught up with the characters and the story. And I wanted the best for each and every person I met in the pages of this book.

Miss Brown found the role and the place in the world that she had so needed as she settled in as the castle’s housekeeper. Moppet and Poppet were billeted there and, though they missed their mother and their home terribly, they were pleased to see the lady who had rescued a drooped teddy bear at the station again and to have such a wonderful new home to explore. They were even more pleased when they spotted Mr Isaacson in the village: he was still lodging Mr Holly, but he had established himself as a street musician and a music teacher and he was paying his way.

Meanwhile Mr. Birley was able to return to his books, free of domestic distractions; his elder great nephew, Richard, a fighter pilot, came and went between missions; his younger great-nephew, Stephen, a conscientious objector, left to work with the emergency services as they struggled to cope with the casualties and the damage caused  by the bombing of London; and, in the village, Prue, the doctor’s daughter, who was drawn first to the quiet Stephen but then formed a deeper attachment with his dashing elder brother, struggled with her feelings.

In the castle Mr Boulder, the butler who was loyal but horribly aware that he was aging, was resistant to Miss Brown at first but quickly won over; and in the lodge the widowed Mrs Heather, who knew she was blessed, was a reassuring presence.

Each and every one of them was fully realised; a real human being, living and breathing at a particular point in history.

There were flaws – Mr Isaacson’s character seemed unfocused; the naming of Moppet and Poppet – but emotionally and spiritually the story rang true.

And it said so much about their times.

Mr Boulder’s story explored the feelings of generation too old to go to war, who had fought in another war and had not thought that there would be another; Miss Brown’s story spoke of class divisions that it seemed would always remain; Stephen’s story, his feelings about the war and the way they changed in the light of his experiences and his family’s feelings, was particularly striking. And all of their stories caught the mixture of faith, pride and fear that sustained them through those difficult war years.

They were all changed by events, by their circumstances, as the story moved forward. And above all the story spoke about people coming together to live through difficult times.

Coincidence – or fate – or a higher power – continued to play a part – but the natural falling into lace of the earlier part of the story did not.  There would be tragedy, there would be losses, lives would be changed irrevocably, before and ending that felt right but was by no means final. The war was not over and the world was changing.

But this story caught those early years of the war, and the people who lived through them quite perfectly.

Ten Authors Whose Books I Seek

I’ve spotted a few lists of ‘must buy’ authors today, inspired by a meme at  The
Broke and the Bookish
. Now I could come up with a few, of course I could, but the thing is, I know new books and mainstream reissues will go on being there, maybe not for ever but for long enough that I can pick them up when I’m ready.

My true ‘must buy’ books are out of print and hard to find titles by authors I have come to love, and books I know I must seize as soon as I see, because if I don’t the chance may never come again.

It seemed like the moment to pull out ten authors whose books I seek:

The Ten

Oriel Malet: I spotted a book called Marraine by Oriel Malet in the library and I recognised her name from the Persephone list. That book was a lovely memoir of her godmother, the actress Yvonne Arnaud. Once I read it I had to order Margery Fleming from Persephone, and it was even lovelier; a perfectly executed fictional biography of a bookish child. Her other books are out of print and difficult to find, but I found one and I was thrilled when my Virago Secret Santa sent me another, all the way across the Atlantic.

Margery Sharp: I read much praise for The Eye of Love in the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing and so I picked up a copy. I loved it too – romance with a hint of satire and a hint of subversion. I was so disappointed that her other books were – and still are – out of print. But I’m slowly picking them up, used copies and library books, and I’m hoping for more.

Leo Walmsley: Looking back, it’s strange to think that when I picked up Love in the Sun in the library it wasn’t with the intention of reading the book. I remembered a local family called Walmsley and I was simply looking to see if there was a connection. But once I had the book in my hand I fell in love with the cover and with a warm introduction by Daphne Du Maurier. And I fell in love with the book, thinly veiled autobiography written with such honesty and understanding. The library fiction reserve provided copies of the three that follow chronologically from this one. The Walmsley Society has recently bought these books back in to print, and others too, but I was thrilled when I stumbled across lovely old editions of Phantom Lobster and The Sound of the Sea.

Angela Du Maurier: Talking of Daphne Du Maurier, did you know that her sister was a successful author too? I didn’t until I found two novels and one volume of autobiography that Truran Books have in print. It was the anecdote that gave the autobiography its title that made me love Angela – she was stopped by a woman she didn’t know who was convinced that she knew her. As she spoke Angela realised she had been mistaken for Daphne, and when she explained the woman said loudly to her companion, “It’s only the sister!” and stormed off. Angela treated the incident as a great joke, and though it wonderful that her sister was held in such regard. And she wrote of her family and her life with such love and enthusiasm that I had to look out for her other books. They’re out of print and its hard to find out much about them, but I liked the one I found in the library fiction reserve – The Frailty of Nature – and I’d love to find more.

Edith Olivier: I had no idea who Edith Olivier was when I picked up my copy of The Love-Child, but it was a green Virago Modern Classic and I have great faith in those. It is a wonderful tale of an imaginary friend, and I’m afraid I really can’t find the words to do it justice. The library gave me a two wonderful works of non fiction, and there are some diaries I plan to borrow one day, but I would love to find another novel. Sadly though, they seem as rare of hen’s teeth.

Elizabeth Goudge: My mother mentioned four authors she though I’d like when I first moved up to the adult library: Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Goudge. I only picked up me first Elizabeth Goudge  – The Scent of Water – last year, and when I did I realised that she had been right about all four authors. It was simple story but it was so very well told, with both emotional and spiritual understanding. Her books all seem to be out of print, but I have tracked down copies of the Damerosehay novels that I have heard so much good about, and I found one or two others in a charity shop a while back.

Elizabeth Jenkins: I found The Tortoise and the Hare thanks to Virago. I found Harriet thanks to Persephone. I found A Silent Joy and her autobiography, The View from Downshire Hill in the library. I found used copies of Doctor Gully and The Phoenix’ Nest on my travels. I’ve been lucky I know, but I also know that Darlene and Anbolyn both found copies of Brightness and I so want to find one too. And, of course, there are others.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: I first met Sylvia Townsend Warner in a Virago anthology years ago. I forget which anthology and which story, but she stuck in my mind and a picked up Virago’s collection of her short stories. I loved it, and I still think there are few authors who hold a candle to her when it comes to short stories. One fortunate day I found six of her original collections of short stories and a couple of biographies in a second-hand bookshop. I’m looking out for the others, and for her letter and diaries too.

G B Stern: A couple of years ago I spotted a book called  The Ten Days of Christmas in a second-hand bookshop. I picked it up, because I recognised the name G B Stern as belonging to a Virago author and because I wanted to know why there were ten days of Christmas rather than the more traditional twelve. It looked lovely, and so I bought it. It was lovely, and when I picked up Monogram, a sort of memoir, I really warmed to the author. Since then I’ve picked up The Matriarch and A Deputy Was King in Virago editions and Debonair as an orange numbered Penguin, and I’d love to find more.

Francis Brett Young: Last year I spotted a book called White Ladies by Francis Brett Young in the very same second-hand bookshop. I knew the author’s name, because one of his books was in a list of titles readers had suggested to Persephone that Nicola Beauman included in a Persephone newsletter. It looked wonderful, but I couldn’t justify the price – it was a signed first edition. But when I arrived home I checked LibraryThing and I found that Ali and Liz both came from the same part of the country as Francis Brett Young and they loved his books. I found White Ladies in the library’s fiction reserve, and fell in love with rich prose, wonderful characters, and good old-fashioned storytelling. I’ve ordered a couple more books from the library, I’ve picked up a trio of old out of print titles, and I’m hoping to find more.

And that’s ten!

So now tell me, whose books are you hoping to find?

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge

I remember my mother guiding me when I made the transition from junior to senior member of the library. I remember four authors she steered me towards: Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Goudge.

The first two I read then, loved then and still love now. The third I didn’t read until more recently, when her books were reissued, and I found that I loved her too.

That just left Elizabeth Goudge. She didn’t appeal to me at all back in the day, and I must confess that when she fell out of fashion and her books disappeared from the shelves I forgot all about her. I can’t remember where I found her again, but I’m sure it’s either a book blogger or a LibraryThing member I should be thanking.

The library offered a range of titles – not on the shelves but tucked away in the fiction reserve – and ‘The Scent of Water’ caught my eye.

It tells the story of Mary Lambert, a middle-aged teacher, who quite unexpectedly inherited a country house from a distant cousin.

Though the two had shared a name they met only once. Mary’s father took her on a visit when she was still very young.

“An ivory coach, you see, Mary,” whispered her cousin. “it’s no bigger than a hazelnut but it’s all there, the horses and the coachmen and Queen Mab herself inside. Do you see her inside?”

Mary nodded speechlessly. She could see the fairy figure with the star in her hair, and the tiny delicate features of the child-like face. It did not occur to her that human hands could possibly have made the queen and her coach for she seemed as timeless as Cousin Mary herself. They had always lived her in this world inside the picture and they always would.”

Mary saw her inheritance as a sign that she should change her life. She moved to the country, and her cousin’s home became hers. She found a new way of life, a new place in the world, and she found time to think.

The Scent of WaterThat allowed her to come to terms with memories of her wartime romance with a naval officer who had been killed just days before they would have been married.

Her story opens out to catch the stories of her new neighbours. A contented elderly couple whose peace was disturbed by their beloved son. An author who was coping with the loss of his sight rather better than his wife. A couple whose way of life was threatened. Children accustomed to having possession of the old woman’s garden and wary of the new arrival…

Mary found her cousin’s diaries and she learned her story too. Why she had chosen to live alone, why she had become distant from her family and her neighbours, what she had coped with, and how she had coped.

This is a quiet story but it is so well drawn, the people, the places, the situations all utterly real.  And it is a story enriched by lovely descriptions,  and by true emotional and spiritual understanding.

A book to read slowly so that you can be drawn into that world, so that you can appreciate everything that is there, and so that you can appreciate that understanding.

I wouldn’t have appreciated this in my early days in the adult library, but I do appreciate it now.

The right book at the right time.

And that’s four out of four to my mother!

Though she is fallible. She told me that Barbara Pym was dull, and that she had only kept her copy of I Capture The Castle because it had been a gift, it wasn’t very good …