The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge

The Middle WindowIf 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

 

 

25 thoughts on “The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge

  • October 12, 2015 at 9:56 am
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    This doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d like (or indeed that you’d like, Simon) – but it’s odd how a book can surprise us sometimes and we end up getting much more out of it than we expected. I’m currently reading The Green Hat which is having that kind of effect….!

    • October 12, 2015 at 10:21 pm
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      It is fun when a book is a surprise – well, when it’s a good surprise anyway! The Green Hat I remember being rather tiring to read… but I enjoyed it, in small doses.

  • October 12, 2015 at 12:47 pm
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    Have just finished re-reading, for about the seventeenth time, Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘Damerosehay Trilogy’. She’s one of my favourite writers, so I seized on The Middle Window with alacrity when I first found it, read it once and immediately gave it away. I thought it was very poor compared with pretty much everything else she ever wrote. So for everyone who has hated it, I’d certainly encourage another try with something else from her ….

    • October 12, 2015 at 10:24 pm
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      Everyone seems to loathe it, which makes me think that I’ll completely adore her other novels.

  • October 12, 2015 at 2:33 pm
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    Simon, I am not sure if you are familiar with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series? I was startled to read your review of The Middle Window, as there seem to be some very strong parallels. In the first book of the series, originally published in the UK as Cross Stitch, Claire, the heroine, is on holiday with her husband in the Highlands just after the end of WWII. She wanders between some rocks and – bang – she is transported back to Jacobite times… I will have to get hold of a copy of The Middle Window to compare the two. Gabaldon is now on volume 8 (at least) of the series, and the first book has been televised.

    • October 12, 2015 at 10:28 pm
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      I haven’t read any of the series, but when I was describing the plot to a friend she mentioned that it sounded very similar to the Outlander series – and I wondered if Diana Gabaldon had read Goudge and been inspired. Although the idea of there being 8 books in the series makes me wonder how long the story could be sustained for…

  • October 12, 2015 at 3:28 pm
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    Goodness, I’m really quite surprised that you enjoyed it! Though the bit you quote reminds me that Goudge always delights me – I’ve only ever read it once and perhaps it’s time I gave it another go. Now you’ve read one EG, perhaps you can be persuaded to try another? The Damerosehay series is wonderful, but my own particular favourite is The Rosemary Tree, and I read it about once a year.

    Oh, I’ve just noticed Henry Williamson coming up on your LibraryThing feed – have you written about him here? I must have a look.

    • October 12, 2015 at 10:31 pm
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      I think that the writing is exactly what saved this quite preposterous plot – her tongue-in-cheek and observant humour was a delight. And I definitely want to read more by her now! Anything you read once a year is sure to be a treat for me.

      I’m afraid I own but have not read Henry Williamson! Just the one, I think.

  • October 12, 2015 at 6:24 pm
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    Well, I’m glad you enjoyed this, and along with others hope you’ll give some of Goudge’s better works a try! If you’re after something less “historical” the Damerosehay books might interest you — Pilgrim’s Inn is the best of those in my opinion. But I think my favorite book of hers so far is A City of Bells; it’s just delightful.

    I’m planning to host an E. Goudge day next year on April 24 (her birthday) and have the Rosemary Tree earmarked for that. Maybe you’ll join us!

    • October 12, 2015 at 10:37 pm
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      It makes me very excited to read some of her other books now! And thanks for the recommendations – I shall bear those in mind, particularly if they’re not historical. Do remind me nearer next April; I’d love to join in!

      • October 13, 2015 at 10:14 am
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        Well, I’d say all her books are steeped in the past — the Damerosehay books are about two wonderful old houses, and their history plays into the narrative. But the mid-century setting as such is contemporary with when they were written. Worth a try!

  • October 12, 2015 at 8:18 pm
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    I’ve been known to read random books with covers like this one now and then. I’ve even found a few that I’ve loved.

    • October 12, 2015 at 10:39 pm
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      Oo, examples, please, James!

  • October 13, 2015 at 9:50 am
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    I absolutely hated The Middle Window. I was a devoted Goudge reader all through my adolescence and twenties, but had not heard of this one until a friend of a friend suggested it, and it was SO disappointing. And deeply irritating too, from a Scot’s perspective, annoyingly sentimental about landscape and history from a writer who didn’t actually live there or know what she was talking or writing about. I think this novel brings out all Goudge’s weaker aspects, and doesn’t allow her to go wild on the lyrical mysticism that I think she does very well. It’s also such a drippy story; gahhhhh. Perhaps it’s the time travel aspect, I have stern views about how that works on a technical level so perhaps I’m just being too sniffy about this poor novel. My recommendation for a different, better Goudge experience: Towers in the Mist (historical, about Elizabethan Oxford), Gentian Hill (also historical, I think it’s about a 18thC witch), or The Herb of Grace (sublime post-WW2 family saga novel, no. 2 in the Damerosehay series). Can I contribute to the Emerald City Goudge day next year too?

    • October 13, 2015 at 10:35 am
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      Of course, Kate, it would be marvelous to have you!

    • October 14, 2015 at 11:01 pm
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      What a shame that you disliked it so much! I feel like I had a charmed experience with it – but, of course, I wouldn’t notice anything that would enrage a Scot. And I’m ruthlessly vague when it comes to time slip novels.

      I’m unlikely to rush towards her historical novels – even enjoying this one won’t overcome my prejudice – but The Herb of Grace sounds wonderful.

  • October 13, 2015 at 1:32 pm
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    Gosh, there are indeed better Gouges than this one sounds. I’m amazed you got through the historical bit, but then again, I’ll tolerate those better in a time-slip novel than elsewhere. I bet you love her other stuff …

    • October 14, 2015 at 11:03 pm
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      Yes, I definitely coped with the historical bits better for having it begin in the present (or what was then the present, of course!)

  • October 13, 2015 at 3:10 pm
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    I’m not sure what I think of Goudge. I loved her as a teenager, but when I’ve tried to go back and read books that I read them (Child from the Sea comes to mind), I’ve found that her writing seems very awkward. Maybe I’ve just tried to reread the wrong books.

    • October 14, 2015 at 11:05 pm
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      There are certainly a lot of fans of hers around, so hopefully some of the suggestions in the comments encourage you? I hadn’t realised there were so many I hadn’t heard of!

  • October 14, 2015 at 8:24 am
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    Oh Simon, if this is your first EG then you are totally in for a treat with her other work! I like her children’s stories best, you simply can’t go wrong with Linnets and Valerians (also published as The Runaways) which I think has your name written all over it.

    • October 14, 2015 at 11:06 pm
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      It does seem like I’m in for a treat, doesn’t it? I’ve got The Runaways from when Hesperus reprinted it, excitingly, though it might be in Somerset.

  • October 14, 2015 at 10:48 pm
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    The plot of The Middle Window sounds similar to a more modern book by Suzanna Kersley that I read called The Winter’s Sea. Only instead of a painting, the heroine sees the ruins of a castle which lures her into the past (and the Jacobite rebellion).

    I do enjoy historical fiction, but am not much of a fan of romance novels (I did not like the Kearsly book much either) so I will give this one a miss. But as always, it was an entertaining review Simon. And it is a relief to occasionally read a book review and to know that that book will not be added to the long, long, TBR list!

    • October 14, 2015 at 11:08 pm
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      Glad you enjoyed it, Ruthiella, even if (or because!) the book isn’t for you :)
      Who knew the Jacobite rebellion was such a lure for time travellers??

  • November 22, 2015 at 7:05 pm
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    I’m so glad to see some love for this book, which even I (who adore Elizabeth Goudge) admit isn’t one of her best. Despite that, I’ve always really liked it, and for some of the same reasons. The strength of the first half points to Goudge’s growing skill as a writer, and like you, I learned a lot about that period of Scottish history from the book. It’s a time and place I feel oddly drawn to, which may be another reason I like the book: like Judy, I’ve had the experience of feeling as though I already know a place, of having been there before — though in my case, without the dramatic flashbacks. I generally put it down to ancestral memory, since I have some Scots ancestry, but I rather like the reincarnation idea, at least in fiction. I’m glad you read, enjoyed, and reviewed this book. (P.S. I found my way here through Lory of The Emerald City Book Review.)

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