If you had told me at the beginning of 2015 that I’d have read two reincarnation romances before the year was over, my response would probably have been along the lines of doubt that two such books existed. But, yes, they do. The first one I read was Ferney by James Long – but over fifty years earlier, Elizabeth Goudge had written The Middle Window (1935) which had a similar idea at its heart.
This is actually the first Goudge book I’ve read, which is probably a rather unusual place to start. It came as part of a postal book group, otherwise this cover wouldn’t have inspired me to pick it up (nor yet would the tagline ‘a lively story set in the majestic Scottish Highlands’), though I ended up really enjoying it – particularly the first half.
The Middle Window is very definitely divided into halves. The first – set in the 1930s – concerns Judy, a London-dweller, whose life is changed when she looks into the three windows of an art gallery. Each displays a painting: one is a cityscape; one is a country cottage. In the middle window is a painting of the wilds of the Scottish highlands. For some reason, Judy believes that her life must follow the path indicated by one of those paintings. This isn’t the last time that the title of the novel will be significant, but Judy (as you may have guessed) opts for the middle window and the Scottish highlands.
Being in the happy position to be able to afford to take a ten week holiday, she advertises to rent a house there, and goes with her parents and her fiancée Charles to Glen Suilag. It’s a beautiful but neglected mansion in the middle of nowhere. There is no running water (which horrifies Judy’s mother, Lady Cameron) and little by way of local amusements. The only company seems to be a grumpy old servant, Angus – who greets Judy by saying “Mistress Judith, ye’ve coom back”.
I loved this section of the novel. The descriptions of being released from the city into the countryside rang true with me, and in fact the scene with the painting inspiring Judy’s decision – coming alive, so she can feel the breeze and see the mountains – is strikingly similar to scenes in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Father. But how would I cope when the reincarnation bit kicks in? Well, the hint is there in Angus’ welcome, and grows apace as Judy feels like she already knows the area. She also feels like she already knows Ian, the Laird of the Manor, who is staying in the village. He is a passionate, amusing, and educated man; a contrast to her nice-but-dim Charles. Ian works as an unpaid doctor in the little village, treating things which aren’t serious enough for the local hospital which, in those days before the NHS, was beyond the means of the poor locals. (Curiously, these minor ailments include a boy who has cut two fingers off; I’m wondering if that denotes an injury less appalling than it sounds.) Oh, and they take a trip to Skye that reinforces how much I really must visit it one day.
Judy and Ian gradually fall in love, and also gradually realise that it is not the first time they’ve met – but the first time was in another life…
“A man living a life is like a man writing a book. He may break off after a few chapters but he comes back to his work again and again until the book is finished.”
“And will you and I come back again and again through the centuries until we have built paradise in our glen? Faith, but Glen Suilag will grow mightily tired of us.”
“No! We are as much a part of it as the bog myrtle and the heather. It does not tire of its children.”
That conversation actually takes place in the second half of the novel, which takes place in 1745. Here they are Judith and Ramand, who fall in love and marry only a day before Ramand is called away to fight in the Jacobite rising for Bonnie Prince Charlie. This is period of history I know very little about, so The Middle Window was surprisingly instructive, helping put in context lots of terms I’d heard but without knowledge.
I had to fight my natural aversion to historical fiction, but that actually didn’t end up being my problem with the second half. It’s just as well drawn, character-wise, as the first half (for they are essentially the same characters), but the end of the first half essentially tells us what will happen at the end of the second half. I shan’t spoil it now, but the link is a flashback Judy has – which gives away the end. Of course, plot is not the only thing to read for, but it removes some of the tension – though there is a bit of a twist which goes some way to atone for it.
Despite, on paper, being a book that shouldn’t interest me, I actually really liked The Middle Window. And what I mostly liked about it was the style and humour of the writing. The humour is more evident in the first half, and it’s great; it’s centred around how insufferable the rest of the family find Judy. She’s rather a great heroine to read it, but must be endlessly frustrating to live with – as this indicates:
Lady Cameron sighed. Judy’s recent saintly mood of meditation and withdrawal had been distinctly trying, leading her as it did to leave her galoshes about in awkward places and take not the slightest notice of anything said to her, but it had at least been harmless. The same thing, she felt, could not be said of this new phase. She knew quite well, from painful past experience, that when Judy drew her belt in tightly like that she was about to be tiresome.
Little turns of phrase throughout demonstrate Goudge’s skill as a writer, even as early as her second book. Some might be too put off the theme, but – having spent years immersed in 1920s and ’30s fantastic fiction – I was willing to suspend my disbelief and enjoy it. My only wish is that she’d spent the whole time in the 1930s, with perhaps flashbacks to 1745, rather than giving equal space to both halves when there couldn’t really be equal tension or reader engagement.
Others who got Stuck into it (and generally hated it!):
“Gar. What a tiresome story this was. I feel all bilious; I think I need to read something crisp and witty to cleanse my emotional palate.” – Barb, Leaves and Pages
“This, unfortunately, is the first book by Elizabeth Goudge I have ever wished I hadn’t read. I disliked Judy Cameron heartily.” – Jenny, Shelf Love