Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Goudge's Little White Horse

Oxford : Lion Hudson, 2008, c1946.
222 p.

I'm not sure why I've never read this before: it is children's fantasy and by Elizabeth Goudge, both of which I adore. But, I recently read a glowing review over at Shelf Love as well as seeing a new copy appear at work (a movie tie-in; this book has just been made into a film -- greatly altered -- called 'The Secret of Moonacre'). So I brought it home; it is exactly what I would expect from Elizabeth Goudge, religious elements, nature, and food all equally important. But it was quite literally enchanting.

Maria Merryweather is a 13 yr old orphan, and the story opens as she travels with her governess to live with her last relative, Uncle William Merryweather. It's a magical night journey as their rattly coach travels through a long dark tunnel to emerge in a beautiful park lit by moonlight, leading up to the grand house of Moonacre. The house comes complete with tower, which turns out to be Maria's room, with a door so tiny only she can get through it. Sugar biscuits at night and clothing in the mornings mysteriously appear for her -- this room is a marvellous creation, and many people have mentioned that the description of the room is something that stays with them from childhood on. It has a starry ceiling and ultimate privacy, and is altogether worthy of envy!

The characters populating the novel are also quite memorable: the dog Wrolf, and cat Zacharias are more than they first appear. She meets Old Parson, a very unusual minister, and his beautiful housekeeper who lives in a cave under a hill, as well as re-encountering her childhood's imaginary friend, Robin, who is alive and well and very much in the flesh. Maria must take her place as a true Moon Princess of Moonacre and remove the curse on the family, and the antagonism of the Dark Folk who live in the pine wood on the hill and block access to the sea. Both the curse and the antagonism were created by the actions of her distant ancestor, Sir Wrolf. With great courage and level-headedness, with the help of Robin and of the various animals, she of course succeeds.

It is a marvellously odd tale; with characters like Marmaduke Scarlet, dwarf and cook at Moonacre who creates extravagant spreads; Miss Heliotrope, gawky governess who is nevertheless a sterling individual; blustery Uncle William; the nefarious Cocq de Noir; Loveday Minette and Robin; and of course the animals. There are catastrophic estrangements arising from such things as disagreements over one's liking of the colour pink, and character reversals prompted by the vision of phantom white horses from the sea. It's all strange enough to feel like a dream, like a truly enchanted world. Like all Romances it ends with everyone satisfactorily paired up and all conflict past, pink geraniums abounding as a symbol of accord. It's a lovely story, well worth exploring, with a strong sense of fairytale about it.

Here's the trailer for the movie, which appears to be much altered to allow for handsomer leads and extra conflict for more modern excitement:

Other opinions:

Review at Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover

Review at Framed and Booked


  1. That cover is a real grabber!

  2. How come I never heard of this book before? It sounds fabulous. I've just requested it from my library. :-)

  3. Bookfool - I agree! It caught my eye.

    Julie - Elizabeth Goudge isn't known in the US as much as in UK and Canada, I don't think. Plus she's been out of print for ages, but with the movie release hopefully more of her books will come back into print.

  4. One of my all time favourite children's books discovered by me in my school library one rainy afternoon. I was 15 and should have been studying for my exams when I came across it and that was that for the rest of the day until I read it straight through.

    Elizabeth Goudge is a wonderful writer and her stories are underpinned by her religious faith and background but it is not over worked and never obtrudes. She lived in cathedral towns and her stories set in such places are wonderful: the Dean's Watch, City of Bells to mention two.

    Yes a lot of them are out of print but some are being republished in the US so do see what you can find. Green Dolphin Country, a huge sweeping saga from the Channel Islands toNew Zealand has recently been republished by Capuchin Press in the uk.

    If you have to discovere EG let me assure you there are hours and hours of pure reading pleasure ahead of you.

  5. Elaine - I totally agree! I love Elizabeth Goudge, and own most of her books in old 70's paperbacks. They are not too difficult to find in Canada, but I'm glad to hear that some of them are being republished in the UK -- we'll get them here soon then.
    I am not a religious person but as you say, I don't find Goudge's religious faith intrudes on her stories, it's just a part of them.

  6. I remember watching an interview with JK Rowling several years ago in which she mentioned The Little White Horse (and Goudge in general) being one of her greatests inspirations. She specifically mentioned loving all the detail devoted to food in Goudge's work. I've never read her stuff, but I really want to! Wonder if my library has any of her work? Hmmmm. Must find out!

  7. I'm so glad you enjoyed this. I think Linnets and Valerians is even better, so see if you can hunt it down!

  8. Andi - I had heard that JK mentioned loving this one; probably what brought it back to attention.

    Jenny - L&V is better?! How exciting, I have it ahead of me...

  9. This looks good... I have to go look her up!

  10. I absolutely agree about Goudge's faith not interfering with good storytelling (although she always makes me feel a better person while I'm reading!). Compton Castle, the inspiration for Moonacre Manor, is close to my mother's home, and I'm planning to go and take some photos soon. I often think about Maria's journey in the coach while I'm travelling to Devon from London.

  11. Kailana - I hope you enjoy it if you find a copy!

    Geranium Cat - wow, I am jealous of you going to Devon. If you do take pics of Compton Castle, please post a couple! I'd love to see Goudge's inspiration for the wonderful Moonacre Manor.


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