Elizabeth Goudge Day: Towers in the Mist

I have Lory of The Emerald City Book Review to thank for introducing me to the work of Elizabeth Goudge. Last year, for her Elizabeth Goudge Day (hosted on the author’s birthday, 24th April) I read The White Witch, and the year before I read The Child from the Sea. I loved both so there was no question of not taking part again this year – and I had high hopes for my third Goudge novel, Towers in the Mist, which was first published in 1937.

Not all of Goudge’s novels are historical, but it’s the historical ones that I’ve been drawn to first. Towers in the Mist is set in Oxford in the Elizabethan period and, like the other two I’ve read, it’s a truly beautiful novel. It begins on May Day with Faithful Crocker’s first sight of the “fragile city spun out of dreams, so small that he could have held it on the palm of his hand and blown it away into silver mist”. At the age of fourteen, Faithful has found himself alone in the world and has made his way to Oxford where he hopes to achieve his ambition of becoming a scholar and attending university. With no money, no friends and not even any decent clothes to wear, this may seem unlikely, but Faithful’s fortunes improve when he catches the eye of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, who takes him into his household and treats him as one of the family.

Following the death of his wife several years earlier, Canon Leigh has been left to raise his children alone and most of the responsibility has fallen on his eldest daughter, Joyeuce. Joyeuce is devoted to her younger brothers and sisters, but when student Nicolas de Worde enters her life, she will have to decide what is more important to her. We also follow the stories of the domestically-minded Grace, who longs to step out of her sister Joyeuce’s shadow and take control of the Leigh household, and of four-year-old Diccon, who is thought to have been switched at birth as he is so different in looks and temperament to the rest of the family. These are the people with whom Faithful will build his new life, sharing in their small everyday dramas – such as the chaos of the Spring Wash – as well as the larger ones which affect the entire city and university.

I loved getting to know Faithful and the Leighs (and Nicolas, who ended up being one of my favourite characters after undergoing a bit of a transformation which I hadn’t expected at the beginning) but there are also several real historical figures from the Elizabethan age who play a part in the story. The most prominent are the poet Philip Sidney and the poet/explorer Walter Raleigh who, at the time during which the novel is set, are both young men attending university along with Faithful, Nicolas and Giles Leigh. I loved the contrast between the two characters – the flamboyant, daring Raleigh and the quiet, sensitive Sidney – and I enjoyed the little insights we are given into the work of a poet: “The loveliest phrases are winged, and when the poet opens the door of the place where he put them he finds that the tiresome creatures have flown away.”

Each chapter opens with a passage from a poem by Sidney, Raleigh or another 16th century poet and I thought this was a nice touch which helped to set the mood for the story. Goudge admits in her note at the beginning that not everything in the book will be entirely accurate historically, but I think she is very successful at capturing the overall feel of the Elizabethan period even if it may not be correct in every detail.

Towers in the Mist is a lovely book, but it does have a few flaws and could be too sentimental for many modern day readers. Although the descriptions of Oxford are beautiful and Goudge’s own love for the place shines through, sometimes she goes into long digressions on the history of the city and university which add very little to the plot – you either have the patience for that sort of thing or you don’t. As with the other Goudge novels I’ve read, there’s also a strong religious element which won’t be for everyone either (in fact, it’s not really for me, although it didn’t bother me at all when there was so much else to enjoy).

So, that’s three books by Elizabeth Goudge that I’ve read now and three that I’ve loved. Which one should I read next?

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18 thoughts on “Elizabeth Goudge Day: Towers in the Mist”

  1. I absolutely loved Elizabeth Goudge’s books when I was younger, though you’re right, to modern sensibilities the strong religious elements and the sentimentality can be off-putting. However, much of her writing is so, so beautiful that you can skim over those bits and lose yourself in the sheer loveliness of her descriptions. The only other one of her historicals apart from ‘The Child From The Sea’ that I’ve read is ‘Green Dolphin Country’ which, if I remember rightly, starts in Guernsey and finishes in New Zealand, but I didn’t like it so much as ‘Towers in the Mist’ and ‘The White Witch’ (both of which were influences on my own early efforts at writing). She also wrote children’s books, of which the most famous, and my own favourite, is ‘The Little White Horse’, filmed as ‘Moonacre’.

    1. Yes, I did find myself skimming from time to time, yet I didn’t feel that I was missing out on much because the rest of the book was so good and so beautifully written. I had considered reading Green Dolphin Country for the Elizabeth Goudge Day but decided that this one appealed to me more…I think it was probably the right decision, although I would still like to read Green Dolphin Country at some point.

  2. I loved “Green Dolphin Street” (the American title of Green Dolphin Country), and although it’s one of my favorites of hers, it is lengthy. If I were you I would try “Gentian Hill” next. It is a story set during the Napoleonic wars with the English Navy. I love all her writing but haven’t yet read “Towers in the Mist” so after reading your review I am encouraged to pick up that one next!

    1. I love the sound of Gentian Hill and am very tempted to try that one next. The only problem is, most of her other books are tempting me too! As you already love her writing, I’m sure you’ll enjoy Towers in the Mist. 🙂

  3. According to my notes I read Towers in the Mist in 1996. Loved it of course because it was written by Goudge. I was raised in a very religious family and left off being religious soon after I left home but Goudge by comparison is so forgiving and humanist in her approach that she almost calms my bad memories. I have often wondered if she didn’t believe in people more than in God.

    1. Religion has never been a very big part of my life, so I sometimes struggle when a book has a very strong religious element. It doesn’t affect my enjoyment of Goudge’s books, though, which is probably because of the forgiving, humanist approach you mention – and also, as I’ve said to Pam, I sometimes skim those bits anyway.

  4. Great review! I read the first chapter of this title and Green Dolphin Street, but ended up choosing The Rosemary Tree ultimately to read for this particular event. So I can’t really recommend any book other than The Rosemary Tree. However, I am now quite curious to try some of Goudge’s children’s fiction if I am able.

    1. I would like to read The Rosemary Tree eventually, but it’s not one that I’ve been drawn to so far. I’m curious about her children’s fiction too! I seem to have completely missed out on her books as a child so I hope I’ll still be able to enjoy some of them as an adult.

  5. I love the sound of this. The pattern sounds not unlike some of the stories she wrote set in her own time and the setting sounds lovely. My favourite of her books is still ‘The Castle on the Hill’ and after reading one of her children’s books – which was lovely – I’d like to read one of her books for grown ups, which have rather more depth, next time.

    1. I’ve only read her historical novels so far but I would like to read the books set in her own time too. The Castle on the Hill does sound good and knowing that it’s your favourite makes me want to read it even more.

  6. I think if you read only one Elizabeth Goudge novel let it be The Scent of Water. It is almost a distillation of her philosophy….it is restrained and accomplished and deeply moving

    1. Thanks for commenting, Di. So far the Elizabeth Goudge novels with historical settings have sounded more appealing to me, but I do want to read her others and you make The Scent of Water sound wonderful.

  7. I’ve not yet read a Goudge book that I didn’t enjoy in some measure – though some of them have more drawbacks than others. Here, one does definitely need to have patience for the digressions and the insertion of religious history, which seem to show a strong influence from Goudge’s father and do not fully come to life.

    I completely agree with Judy about her books being more forgiving and humanist than one would expect of “religious” fiction — although to me that’s a sad statement of how far religion has strayed from what it really should be. In any case, I’m glad that readers of many persuasions can meet and find something to appreciate in these rich and compassionate stories.

    As for what to read next, I am personally fond of The Dean’s Watch and A City of Bells, but anything that catches your fancy will do. I have not yet read Gentian Hill, so that one might be next for me. Thanks for participating once more!

    1. All of her books sound good to me and I think everyone who has commented here has recommended a different one! Thank you so much for hosting this event for the last few years – I might never have tried Elizabeth Goudge otherwise.

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