Sweet Wild Grace: On Forgiveness, Redemption, and Humanity in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree
“‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be.
But there is one thing much more necessary.’
“‘What is that, grandmother?’
“To understand other people.'”
—George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin
Elizabeth Goudge’s The Rosemary Tree is a story about many different things: about family, relationships, secrets, second chances, redemption, living, and loving. The shining thread uniting all these different points is Elizabeth Goudge’s understanding of the strength and fragility of humanity, an understanding that extends beyond her characters to her readers themselves. She does not create characters that are wholly saints or sinners, but instead, acknowledges the beauty and brokenness in each character. She creates characters who are human, and who struggle to forgive and be forgiven. She creates characters who are perhaps unworthy and undeserving of the love they so desperately crave, but who receive that love anyway, and in receiving it, learn to love others as well. The Rosemary Tree is about people: kind people, despicable people, petty people, repentant people—people who make mistakes, people who fight daily battles against themselves, people who, despite their pretense of strength, are fragile and broken. And by anchoring such characters in her story, she exposes her readers to humanity’s undeniable and inescapable brokenness, and the deepened beauty in its redemption.
Each one of her characters enter the scene with their own judgments and opinions regarding their loved ones and acquaintances. The teachers, students, parents, and children in The Rosemary Tree must go through individual transformations in order to truly see and understand each other, but are set up from the beginning as people whose misinformed or misplaced distrust, dislike, and general discontent with each other have already been established as reality in their own minds. The young pupils, for example, detest Miss Giles for her crossness and her cruelty, and only see her as such. She, in return, hates them for their resentment and misconduct. Her coworker, Miss O’Hara, has no love for her due to the way she treats their students, and neither one of them can approach the headmistress Mrs. Belling without fear or apprehension. John and Daphne have lost the contentment and mutual understanding in their marriage, John having developed a tendency for despondency and self-loathing, and Daphne a habit of criticising and of keeping her pain to herself. As these characters do not attempt to explain their line of reasoning or their emotions to each other, they make hasty assumptions and nurse their own wounds in private. These characters must put away their prejudices and past hurts in order to see the people in their lives for who they truly are: as humans. Like flowers, the relationships in The Rosemary Tree endure trials and tribulations before they are able to cast away the shadow of frost, and blossom.
Elizabeth Goudge also recreates this blossoming of understanding between her readers and her characters. Though some of her characters make unpleasant first impressions, she does not allow the reader to confine them to the circumstances of their first appearances. She slowly unfolds pages of her characters’ histories to show the wounds they have suffered, the burdens they still bear, and the fears that eat away at them when they are alone. As cruel or careless as they may be, Elizabeth Goudge does not leave any one of her characters without some hope of redemption or forgiveness. But this effect is not achieved instantly. She takes her time in revealing the innermost thoughts of each character, allowing the reader to first form their own judgments, before giving the reader a deeper glimpse into her characters’ hearts. Miss Giles’s temper and cold personality, for example, masks many hurts and unfulfilled dreams, the pain and sorrow of which Elizabeth Goudge slowly unfurls over the course of the book. The more the reader is exposed to her misery and coping mechanisms, the easier it becomes to understand and sympathise with her. A more extreme example can be found in the cloyingly sweet but utterly self-serving Mrs. Belling, who, despite her mean-spiritedness and abusive treatment of all those around her, is a woman one cannot help but pity in the end. It is impossible to hate Elizabeth Goudge’s characters; she simply does not allow her readers the luxury of such an easy road. No character is beyond hope, and no character is one-dimensional enough to be simply hated.
This is a lesson her characters also learn about each other, as uncomfortable or humbling of a lesson it might prove to be. Daphne and Michael, who share a painful romantic history, must confront the pain they have suffered and the pain they have inflicted on each other. John must face and even forgive the two women who have, in one way or another, hurt his daughters. Even the children must travel this road and discard their judgments and opinions. Margary, for example, is forced to look at the situation from another perspective when she tells her father about Miss Giles’s cruelty ,and her classmates’ shared dislike for her. She first tells him that everyone loves the lively and warmhearted Miss O’Hara; one of her classmates even saves up her money to buy flowers for their beloved teacher. But no one buys flowers for Miss Giles—why should they, when she is so cold and cruel? When John asks her how her classmates treat Miss Giles, she says, “They’re not unkind, Father, they’re just not kind”, to which John replies, “Then they must be unkind. You must be one thing or the other” (Goudge 164). And Margary, who is especially affected by this perspective, internalises his words and decides to act.
Love is not merely an emotion. When the definition of love is limited to the rush of strong feeling, it loses its power and lasting effect just as quickly as it loses its depth of meaning. Emotions change, and feelings can waver or become swayed by outside forces. The heart is fickle, and being fickle, cannot be solely relied upon for discernment or moral guidance. Love, in other words, cannot simply be defined by feeling, as such a definition is insufficient and limited. Love is also an act. It is a gift. It is a skill that must be practiced repeatedly, though its first attempts may prove clumsy or fruitless. Love is a difficult and trying choice that must be made again and again on a daily basis. At one point in the story, Harriet observes that neither John nor Daphne are happy in their marriage. “John had gone off to church this morning sick at heart, and sure, as always, that it was all his fault. Daphne, she suspected, could have uncovered the root of their unhappiness had she tried, but she didn’t; roots can be ugly things” (Goudge 148). It is this lack of effort that makes such injuries to the heart fester—something that is later remedied, as John and Daphne uncover the roots of their unhappiness together. But their daughter is the first to make this effort. She is the first to choose to love, and to act in love.
Miss Giles has no reason to expect any difference to her daily routine on this fateful day. She enters the classroom in an oddly optimistic mood, and is immediately crushed by her students’ greeting: “She felt, as always, [the children’s] hatred rising against her, forgot the bright tide and hated them in return… Desolation seized her, and the sharp words that she would use presently thrust through it like steel needles in her mind” (Goudge 195). The cycle of hatred, benefiting none and hurting all, seems to circle around again, and Miss Giles is about to slam her books on the table and take her turn, when she realises that something is different. “She did not drop [her books]. She stood holding them, gazing at the bunch of flowers laid on her desk; stubby little snowdrops with the earth still on them, wet primroses, wild white violets, roots and all, some sprays of moss and a few beautiful great purple violets, the whole bound about with a spray of ivy with tiny deep-red leaves. It had been painstakingly arranged, yet with a sweet wild grace that delighted her. She put the exercise books down very gently and picked it up. She had forgotten how lovely the scent of wet violets can be. The coolness of the rain was on her hands… The cold, sweet spring… “ (Goudge 195). Elizabeth Goudge allows the reader to linger in this lovely newness, before a soft, relenting understanding blossoms between Miss Giles and Margary.
But this is not Miss Giles’s only moment of realisation. “Margary’s answering smile, equally shy, had illumined a face where all that she was feeling was most clearly written… Thankfulness that it had “come off”, humble delight in the fact that she had given pleasure, an almost painful relief that there were to be no sarcasms at her expense. “And it’s been my pleasure to torment this child,” thought Miss Giles. “What have I become?” A new sort of pang wrung her, the first of its kind. It was as though a hand suddenly squeezed her heart, so that she was breathless” (Goudge 196-197). This moment opens her heart to Margary’s compassion, and to the extent of her own cruelty. Though this understanding of herself and her own actions does not come into full bloom as swiftly as their connection, it leads her one step closer to a later conversation she has with Miss O’Hara, where she confesses, “It’s not the children’s fault I’m not a happy woman. Yet I take it out on them… I’ve only just begun to realize it” (Goudge 201). The cycle of cruelty is only slowed by kindness and empathy, and only stopped by love. This willingness to look beyond the self and to strive towards loving and understanding someone, to attend to someone else’s needs, is essential to breaking an otherwise endless cycle. “Until the death of self had come to pass the deep intent could not make contact with the good will that waited, longing as the heart longed to bring the seed to flower” (Goudge 206).
That death of self comes easier to some characters than others. Gentle-hearted Harriet, for example, who is limited due to her health conditions and her chronic pain, has had more practice in extending grace to those undeserving of it than most of the other characters. Her kindness, patience, and honesty are exactly what eventually encourage Daphne to unburden herself and finally open up about her past. But even for one as tender and experienced as Harriet, the act of loving is one that takes a conscious effort. Elizabeth Goudge makes it clear that love is no easy feat—that loving, understanding, and forgiving take conscious, consistent effort. Yet just as she shows how no one is beyond hope, she also shows that no one is incapable of learning to love. She shows the capacity for good and evil in each person’s journey, and shows that everyone must choose between them. As John says, there is either kind or unkind. There is either good or evil, and that choice is presented to everyone every single day. Her characters too must make this decision. Some, like Mrs. Belling, choose to love only themselves, and despite the chances they are given, drown in their own self-inflicted misery because of their refusal to look beyond their own wants and needs. Some, like Margary and Harriet, learn to love with relative ease. Some, like Daphne and Miss Giles, learn to step out of their comfort zone in order to take those first few steps. And many, like Michael, learn that their redemption and the redemption of their broken relationships can only occur because of a greater love—a love that, unlike human love, is whole, perfect, and can cover all past sins.
Tormented all this time by the mistakes in his past and the horrors of the war, Michael finds himself in the garden again near the end of the book. He has been thinking about whether or not he will ever be able to escape his own “vile actions” when “he thought of the Holy Grail and of a white dove, of fire in the rock and immense wings in the sky. Then he thought of the doors that had opened in his childhood that immensity, and the darkness beyond the walls of his man’s experience. “Ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at midnight, at even, or at cockcrowing or in the morning.” The God who had thrust him through in the darkness with probings of dread and shame was the same God who now held out the sword and shield [to him]” (Goudge 257). He takes up a different role in a different war now—a war not fought between humans, but between light and darkness, in the world and within himself. Assured of God’s forgiveness, he is given the courage to finally approach Daphne and ask her forgiveness. In these scenes of reconciliation (between Michael and Daphne, between Daphne and John, and between Miss Giles and Miss O’Hara), little of common dramatic outbursts, tension, or accusations can be found. Instead, confessions of past mistakes and gentle replies are exchanged with the peace that comes from finally understanding the other person. “The real comfort [is] to have one’s sins and weaknesses not explained away but understood and shared” (Goudge 306). Forgiveness falls gently “like rain upon parched earth” (Goudge 294).
These processes—of healing, of understanding, of forgiving, of learning to love—are largely connected to Elizabeth Goudge’s faith and her insightful observations of human nature. These processes are initiated simply, honestly, and with the acknowledgement of the undeniable, inescapable brokenness of humanity. But even in these acknowledgements of brokenness, there are moments of transcendent beauty. The joy of recognising that divine beauty in a fellow creature or in an aspect of creation is an essential part of human nature. That shining thread uniting all the themes Elizabeth Goudge has woven into The Rosemary Tree is the thread of grace that weaves through all of our lives. It is grace that heals old wounds, grace that mends broken relationships, and grace that walks alongside us when we must go through the darkest of valleys. The Rosemary Tree is about many different things: the healing of hurts, the brokenness of humanity, the beauty in the divine, the innocence of youth, the wisdom of experience, and the difficulties of learning to love, and to love well. But above all it is about the grace of a silent listener. The grace of a heart laid bare. The grace of second chances, third chances, even thirtieth chances. The grace of the scent of wet violets, the coolness of the rain on your hands, and the soft, sweet promise of spring.
Jaslyn’s elementary school teachers were often chagrined to find her reading under her desk in the middle of class, and though she managed to concentrate on her studies in later years, she has always been and will always be a lover of stories. Jaslyn calls Thailand, Taiwan, and Canada home, but will always have a special place in her heart for Middle Earth. These days, she spends her spare time scribbling frantically in her notebook, listening to Sleeping At Last, and drowning her woes in Jane Austen, Brian Jacques, period dramas, and lots and lots of tea. You can also find her in her little corner of the world: herheadintheclouds.art.blog/
Goudge, Elizabeth. The Rosemary Tree. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2017.
Hydrangea Flower Floral Blossom Plant Petal via Pixabay [https://pixabay.com/photos/hydrangea-flower-floral-blossom-871682/]. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.