"The Dean's Watch" by Elizabeth Goudge

… is the only word to describe the void that is following The Dean’s Watch,” quoth my friend Laura in an email over the weekend.

Our book club just finished reading this 1960 Elizabeth Goudge jewel and I know exactly how she feels. We’re all kind of wandering, I’m afraid, unwilling to exchange that post-Goudge dreamy sort of happy-sadness for the cares of a new cast of characters with which Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda is doubtless only too eager to supply us.

Personally, I’ve been saving The Dean’s Watch, only slipping it onto our ballot after some half-dozen of her other books had in their turn been unanimously voted onto our reading list. My mother—who introduced me to Elizabeth in the first place—has long named it her favorite, and so it was with as much reverence as expectation that I anticipated the pleasure of its acquaintance.

At the meeting, everyone wanted to know if it was my favorite, as well. I hemmed and hawed and contradicted myself in the way that I generally do when confronted with a question that I haven’t fully settled in my own mind. I thought about Henrietta slipping like a sprite through the cobbled streets of A City of Bells. I swung round towards the beckoning flare that Pilgrim’s Inn will always be to me. I set down the delicate crystal goblet with which our hostess had supplied me upon arrival and sighed.

“It will be someday,” I said.

Someday when its hard-earned lessons of love are less experimental on my part and hopefully more experiential. When I am old enough to look back on the vision it has cast and God-willing able to say that the light it first shed is more dazzling upon approach than I could have dared to dream. The Dean’s Watch is a book of great maturity, disarmingly simple at face value. But Elizabeth Goudge will not let you take anything at face value. She, like all truly great novelists, probes the hearts and motives of her characters with an oftentimes brutal honesty. She examines what a life of love really looks like—and what it really costs.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England, reputed to be the setting of 'The Dean's Watch'

Through descriptions that glint and gleam and live, like the glimpses of heaven that they are, Goudge takes us into the heart of an English cathedral city at the turn of the nineteenth century. She gives us the fens of Cambridgeshire in all their stark beauty, and the personalities of those that inhabit them—oftentimes more stark and startlingly more beautiful. But the light with which this book is filled and borne along is set against a dark foil of evil and suffering. Goudge will not let us content ourselves with the charm of the narrow cobbled streets, with the warmth of Miss Montague’s drawing room fire and the music of the birds in the trees of the Cathedral Close. With a persistence that seems almost dogged she draws us into the slums of the city, into the repulsiveness of child labor and into the festering alleyways of hatred. And she bears the light with her, inexorably lavishing it upon all who come within its circle of brightness–deserving and undeserving alike.

The great Cathedral that towers over the city and all who dwell in it is itself a figure of love. An image of grace that overwhelms both reader and character alike with what Charles Williams would call a “terrible goodness”. And at the helm of the Cathedral, we find the Dean, like a captain at the wheel of a mighty ship. A man whose whose simple godliness–straightforward but never facile–has the power to affect an entire city. But it’s one man, the atheistic little clockmaker Isaac Peabody, that seems to have the whole burden of his soul…

I love and esteem the way that Goudge writes of sacred things with an absolutely spiritual touch and never resorts to triteness in the way that many Christian authors inadvertently do. She doesn’t tell us that God is good, that Love is real and that Light will always triumph over darkness. She shows us.  She blinds us with beauties and breaks our hearts with joy.

She enfleshes the Body of Christ–the Church–with characters that are humanly flawed and yet beatifically drawn into the heaven they’ve been made for.

The Heaven we’ve all been made for. God bless you, Elizabeth. You’ve done it again.