Elizabeth Goudge Day: The White Witch

The White Witch A year ago I read The Child from the Sea as part of Lory of The Emerald City Book Review’s birthday celebrations for Elizabeth Goudge. This year, Lory is hosting another day devoted to the same author and this seemed like a good time to read my second book by Goudge. There were plenty to choose from – some historical and some contemporary, some for adults and some for children – but I decided on The White Witch. I loved The Child from the Sea, which was set in the seventeenth century and told the story of Lucy Walters, a mistress of Charles II, so as The White Witch is set in the same period the chances were good that I would love this book too – and I did.

The English Civil War forms the historical backdrop to the story, but the focus of the novel is on the inhabitants of a small Oxfordshire village and the ways in which their lives are touched by the greater changes taking place in the country as a whole. The ‘white witch’ of the title is Froniga, a healer and herbalist who has family ties with both the Puritan household of Robert Haslewood, the village squire, and with the band of Romany gypsies who camp nearby. Caught between both of these worlds while fully belonging to neither, Froniga is the character around whom all the others revolve.

Froniga is a fascinating character, but there were others whose stories interested me too, particularly Francis Leyland, the secretive stranger who offers to paint a portrait of Haslewood’s two young children, and the mysterious Yoben, who is in love with Froniga. There’s a ‘black witch’ too – and a parson who tries to save her soul – and a vengeful gypsy woman who causes trouble wherever she goes. Whether Parliamentarian or Royalist, Puritan or Catholic, nobleman or gypsy, in the hands of Elizabeth Goudge each of these characters becomes a well-rounded, believable human being – a person we can sympathise with even if we don’t necessarily agree with their views or their choices.

In this novel, the conflicts that take place in an individual’s heart or soul are as important as those which take place on the battlefield, though we do get to see some military action as several of our characters become involved in the major battles and events of the Civil War. But what I loved most about this book were the details of daily village life in the seventeenth century, the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, and the undercurrents of magic, mystery and mythology which run throughout the story.

The White Witch, although never boring, has a slow pace and – as it was originally published in 1958 – it is written in a style which may not appeal to readers who prefer more modern historical novels and as with The Child from the Sea, there are strong religious and spiritual elements. I love Goudge’s writing style, though; it’s warm and gentle and comforting. I’m looking forward to working through the rest of her novels…and would like to thank Lory for introducing me to her work!

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16 thoughts on “Elizabeth Goudge Day: The White Witch

  1. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I’ve only read Elizabeth Goudge’s novels set in her own era, but you have me thinking that it’s time I tried one of her historical novels. With a few honourable exceptions, I seem to like older historical novels more than more recent ones.

    • Helen says:

      I usually prefer the style of older historical novels too. I’ve loved the two I’ve read by Elizabeth Goudge and am looking forward to reading her others.

  2. Lisa says:

    I really thought I had read this one, but what you’ve written doesn’t sound familiar at all! I must be remembering wrong, either the book itself, or whether I’ve actually read it.

  3. Pam Thomas says:

    This was one of my favourite books when I was a teenager, but I’m not sure if I’d be so enthusiastic now. Next time, try ‘Towers in the Mist’, which is set in Elizabethan Oxford, and is, amongst many other things, an enchanting portrayal of children.

    • Helen says:

      I completely missed out on Elizabeth Goudge as a teenager, so I’m pleased that I’m still enjoying her books so much as an adult. Towers in the Mist sounds like a good one to try next!

    • Helen says:

      I highly recommend Elizabeth Goudge’s historical fiction (at least based on the two books I’ve read so far) but the novels set in her own time sound lovely too.

  4. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I also found this a slow read (not sure I would have had the patience for it when I was younger), but very rich and rewarding. I definitely want to read it again at some point, but in the meantime I think I’m going to take Pam’s suggestion and read Towers in the Mist next. Goudge does have so many wonderful child characters, and I would love to visit Elizabethan Oxford. Thanks for participating in the celebration!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for hosting, Lory, and for the introduction to such a great author. Towers in the Mist does sound good – I’m tempted to read that one next too.

  5. Krysta says:

    Why have I not heard of Goudge before? This looks like a great book and I know some people who would surely love it, as well. I am marking it down for future gift-giving purposes!

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    Yes, I agree with everything you say about The White Witch. I read it so long ago but the images from it remain in my mind. I especially liked how Froniga was caught between worlds and how she navigated those differences. I think that is a theme of Goudge’s and I love her for it.

    • Helen says:

      Froniga is a great character, isn’t she? I haven’t read enough of Goudge’s books yet to be able to spot common themes, but I’m hoping to read more of her work soon.

  7. Charlie says:

    Reading this year’s posts has introduced me to Goudge which I’m grateful for, her work sounds great. I like the sound of this one particularly, the sort of contrast between the historic battles and what sounds to be a different mood for the village life. In this case ‘slow pace’ seems a big positive.

    • Helen says:

      The contrast between the battle scenes and the daily lives of the villagers was one of the many things I loved about this book. Both of the Goudge novels I’ve read so far are slow and gentle, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing when the writing is so beautiful.

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