The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge (1958)
Elizabeth Goudge is an author whose stories linger with you long afterwards. Somehow she manages to explore character, spirituality, and heavy themes with grace and perspective. She is never black and white, which is a quality I didn’t understand when I was younger. Life is so much easier if you can separate people and ideas into these two categories. Grey requires understanding, wisdom, and the hard knocks of life. Not that I believe there is no right or wrong, but when it comes to people, it’s not over until life is over. Growth and change are always possible and Goudge consistently weaves this theme into her writing.
The background of The White Witch is the English Civil War and its aftermath. The book’s chapters tend to focus either on the war and those fighting in it or alternatively, those left behind in Oxfordshire who are not actively involved.
Goudge allows her readers to understand and empathise with her characters. There are a couple of unlikeable personalities in this book but for the most part she redeems them in some way. I’ve always appreciated this aspect of her writing.
The White Witch of the title refers to Froniga, a healer and part gypsy; a woman who has her feet in two camps but belongs to neither. Goudge spends some time describing gypsy belief and superstitions and does so in a refreshingly realistic and unsentimental way. Froniga’s synergistic approach to faith is likewise handled objectively and without censure. At first I was put off by some aspects of magic that were described, Froniga’s use of Tarot cards, for example. However, later on there is an encounter between Froniga and a ‘black witch’ where Froniga realises that there is a line that she must not cross. In another situation, a desperate one that involved a person she loved, Froniga accepts her inability to change the situation through her attempts at magic. Magical power is a controlling force that she ultimately rejects.
To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the war accounts very much. The descriptions of King Charles I, his wife, Henrietta Maria, the Royalist leaders and Oliver Cromwell before he took power, gave me a better sense of their personalities than any historical title ever had. The grey areas of conflicting beliefs between family members and residents of the town were sensitively probed, and as in real life, no easy path was found around them.
'He had hoped that all the religious fanatics were on the other side, for extremists set his teeth on edge. Well, one's friends could not be cut to one's private and personal pattern...'
This unusual historical novel is replete with splendid descriptions of the setting (Oxford mostly) and the natural world. And Elizabeth Goudge's characters are not easily forgotten.
'Books were living things to those who truly loved them.'