Back in 2012 I read my first book by Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse. I was completely blown away by the simple beauty of that story and resolved to read more of Goudge’s works. Somehow, I’ve only just now gotten around to reading another of her books, and this one was just as beautiful, uplifting, and oddly challenging.
While The Little White Horse was a children’s book, The Scent of Water is regular adult fiction. It is not a tale of high excitement, yet I found myself completely engrossed in this story every page of the way. The main character is Mary Lindsay, middle-aged in 1950’s England. She has just inherited a small cottage in a small village and although she has always been a city girl, she has decided to give country life a try. Mary is vaguely discontented with herself, despite the fact that she has had a successful career and has maintained her independence. Yet she feels that she is a ‘land-locked sea,’ and wonders why she has never ‘felt’ things the way that others seem to. Her fiancee died in the war, and while she mourned him, she realized at the time that what she was truly mourning was the fact that she had never been able to love him the way that he loved her.
Now, as she comes to this cottage, she recognizes that she wishes to come to know two people, and both of them have already died: her fiancee, John; and her cousin, also named Mary Lindsay, who left her this cottage despite the fact that they only met once, when our Mary was a very young girl.
I’m not really sure that I can tell you what the ‘point’ of this story is. Mary gradually gets to know the other people in the village. It is a small community, and I found myself frequently thinking of a line from Velvet Pie that I have remembered all these years – ‘so many currents in such a small puddle.’ This is really a story of those currents, a recognition that even ‘unimportant’ people have lives, feelings, drama, joy, sorrow. It is a book about ordinary people living ordinary lives, and yet so much more.
Goudge writes from a decidedly Christian perspective, but I think that it would be hard to be offended by her gentle, loving lessons that are revealed throughout. Mary herself begins the story rather ambivalent towards God, and while she never has a moment of ‘conversion,’ as the story progresses, she begins to see the beauty and detail of life, and to believe that God Himself is weaving life together.
There are three necessary prayers and they have three words each. They are these, ‘Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands.’
I started with a library copy, but swiftly realized that this was a book I wanted to own, if for no other reason than so I could underline and mark various passages. This was the first book that I have read in a long time that made me want to cry from the sheer beauty of it.
There seems to be a great trend in writing about people with mental illnesses, and I believe Goudge was far ahead of her time in her portrayal of Cousin Mary. Her story, told through her journal entries, was heartbreaking and beautiful – hard, yet ultimately hopeful. I loved that Cousin Mary never ‘solved’ her mental illness, but she did learn how to cope as best she can.
This is a story about love, and what that really means. There are several examples of it throughout the story, and Goudge draws us into the conclusion that love is so much more than a mere feeling. One of her characters writes in her journal,
I had not known before that love is obedience. You want to love, and you can’t, and you hate yourself because you can’t, and all the time love is not some marvelous thing that you feel but some hard thing that you do. And this in a way is easier because with God’s help you can command your will when you can’t command your feelings. With us, feelings seem to be important, but He doesn’t appear to agree with us.
Yet despite the fact that I would say this is a story about love, it is not at all a love story. Mary is not ‘rescued’ from her spinsterhood; she is still quite single at the end of the book, with no real reason to believe that that will change, and I loved that. It was so refreshing to read a story about a woman in her fifties, contentedly and productively single, who stays that way!
There are several stories woven together in this narrative, but I believe my favorite was the beauty of Mary discovering just why her cousin had left her this home, and how her cousin had lived and suffered and learned. There is this glorious revelation of the interconnectedness of life, a reminder of things and lessons and faith that we inherit from those who have come before us, and that we leave for those who come after. Cousin Mary’s journal said,
Who will live after me in this house? Who will sit in the little parlor reading by the fire? And then she will put out her lamp and come up to this room and light the candles and kneel by the bed to pray. I don’t know who she is but I loved her the moment I walked into this room, for that was a moment that was timeless. I shall have my sorrows in this house, but I will pray for her that she may reap a harvest of joy.
I don’t feel as though I am expressing this book very well, and I also feel like I am making it far more religious than it was in the actual reading. Just trust me on this: it is well worth the read. The language is wonderful, the characters drawn so well, and the lessons produced so gently and thoughtfully that I have found myself thinking about this book a great deal, weeks after the reading of it.
It was also an interesting contrast, because I read this shortly after reading Dead End Close, which I hated. Yet, in its way, Dead End Close was a similar sort of story: a small community of individuals, delving into each of their lives, seeing how they are all connected, etc. But where Dead End Close concludes that all people are base, evil, selfish, animalistic; Goudge concludes that there is hope for anyone and everyone who willing to reach out and realize that all of our lives connect; that there is no darkness that cannot be relieved.
The very title of her book comes from a passage in Job which she quotes in the front of the book:
For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.
The literal scent of water plays an important role in the story, a symbol of hope and life. Goudge’s characters are not perfect – they don’t start that way, and they don’t end that way. Yet somehow she portrays them in such a loving, generous light that I came to love even the unlikable ones.
All in all, The Scent of Water is one of those unexpected treasures that has immediately leaped onto my list of all-time favorite books. It is absolutely beautiful, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.