A Somewhat Disappointing Magic: Linnets and Valerians

Back when I chatted about A Little White Horse, I received a number of requests to reread Elizabeth Goudge’s other young adult book: Linnets and Valerians. It was—or so I thought—easily available from the library, and so I agreed. Alas, in this case “easily available from the library” turned out to be a bit of misinformation, and between that and August traveling I only got around to it now. Which is to say, here we are.

After she wrote A Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge had been considerably more organized and put together than I was in the above paragraph. She focused most of her attention on adult books, including one, The Rosemary Tree, which, if mostly ignored when it was first published 1956, garnered extensive critical praise and attention when it was extensively plagiarized and given a new setting by author Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen in 1993.Gideon Smith amazon buy link

(Major spoilers ahead, not that I think anyone here will have problems guessing what happens in the end.)

Linnets and Valerians, a later children’s novel published in 1964, enjoyed no such exciting publication history, but it generated its own criticism for its (somewhat) approving use of witchcraft, not something all U.S. children’s libraries were eager to purchase in the 1960s, perhaps one reason the book later fell into relative obscurity. I just read it for the first time, and found it an odd mixture of comfort and unease.

As the book opens, the four Linnet children, Nan, Robert, Timothy and Betsy, are all deeply unhappy. Their mother died five years ago, and their father, after raising them alone in India, with a few brief trips to England, has now decided to go to Egypt without them, leaving them in England with a grandmother they barely know. As if this were not bad enough, their grandmother and her companion, Miss Bolt, are strict disciplinarians. In all fairness to them, it does sound as if the four children are in desperate need of discipline, and I rather found myself on the grandmother’s side here. It helps that Goudge—perhaps in an effort to be reassuring—makes several side comments indicating that the grandmother loves her children and grandchildren very much, and is very proud of them.

Nonetheless, the four children decide to run away. Fortunately—in a way I can only term magically fortunate—they just happen to end up running away to the house of their uncle Ambrose, who just happens to be a former schoolmaster now working as a vicar. Ambrose agrees to take the children in if—and only if—they agree to Be Educated (this is a very scary thought), Do Chores for pocket money (also scary, since without pocket money they can’t buy sweets), and visit their grandmother every two weeks. In between times, they can explore most, but not all, of the surrounding area—if they are careful, and if they avoid the Tor. The children agree, which is more or less when the official magic begins.

More or less, because if the first few chapters aren’t particularly magical, the children have already encountered some enchanting things well before they agree to Ambrose’s terms: the amazing coincidence that brought them there in the first place, various marvelous things in the cottage, the sight of Ezra Ambrose’s gardener, cook, and, well, anything really servant singing while half-drunk beneath the stars, a wonderful garden, and a few bees.

The bees, Ezra explains, are magical indeed, and will help protect the children: they are safe as long as the bees are around. This is not, as you cynical grownups might be thinking, merely a ruse to ensure that the kids don’t squash the bees and cause havoc with the vicarage’s honey supply, but something a bit more: the bees do, after all, lead to what could be called clues to the main mystery, in what some of you would call magic and the rest of you would call Plot Contrivance. And as long as the bees are around, the children seem to be safe.

And the bees do seem to be needed: after all, the children are about to encourage a Mysterious Older Lady, a Mysterious Mute Man, a Not Very Mysterious and Frankly Kinda Annoying Monkey Footman, and a Witch, who—spoiler—turned to witchcraft out of jealousy. I quite like the way the witch is introduced: she seems, initially, to be a completely ordinary person, not at all the sort of person who would be carving up mandrakes to resemble people she knew and then sticking pins in the resulting, uh—figures? Dolls? I’m not really sure what the right word is in this case. And—spoiler—it’s rather comforting to know that, yes, Everything Works Out Well.

But for all that I found myself feeling distinctly unsatisfied and uneasy as I ended the book, and it took me awhile to figure out just why. After all, everything has a very happy (if contrived) ending. It’s not exactly the two things I’m going to be warning parents about in a few more paragraphs, either: those two more or less fit with the tone/setting of the book, and if I don’t exactly like either, I can see why they are there. It’s definitely not the characters, who are for the most part delightful and charming. Nan, admittedly, might be somewhat too sugary and perfect for most tastes, but she completely fits the tradition of the Good and Responsible Eldest Sister found in so many books, so I can work with that, and the book has a lovely scene where her uncle realizes that, as a caretaker to her younger siblings, what Nan really needs is some privacy from time to time, and gives her a place where she can revel in that. That this private parlour ends up hiding a Plot Point is just a bonus.

No, I think the problem is that the children get almost everything they want and need at the beginning of the book—before the magic really kicks in. (Their father is still in Egypt, but otherwise they are gloriously happy.) So they end up questing for the sake of others, not themselves. That on its own isn’t bad—but the final, climatic magic scene where they finally defeat the witch and save the Valerian family? Is mostly accomplished by the adults, not the kids. It’s not that it’s a bad scene, it’s just that having plunged into a book that is—mostly—about four kids on a magical adventure, it’s kinda disconcerting to have the final mystery solved by adults. Well, and some singing. But mostly adults. It might just be my expectations going into this book—and I grant, that after my carping about the Mushroom Planet books where the adults in question had no problems sending two kids off to Save the World, I may be coming off a bit hypocritical here. But those two kids were using a mostly homemade rocket to leave Earth. These kids are taking pins out of dolls. It’s not quite the same thing.

So not only do these kids end up gaining nothing for themselves—again, not necessarily a bad thing—they don’t even really get to end their own adventure.

Sigh.

While I’m carping, those concerns that parents might have before reading this book to their kids. First and foremost regards Moses Glory Glory Alleluia. As the name might suggest, Moses is a black man who works as a servant for Lady Alicia, the old woman at the nearby manor. The children are initially terrified of him partly because of his size, partly because of his color; the color part really doesn’t make a lot of sense because the text has explicitly told us that all four children lived in India where they encountered non-white people. Moving on. Moses is mostly a cross between a stereotypical devoted black servant and a stereotypical Magical Negro, until this bit, where Robert is pretending to be a Roman emperor so he can feel brave:

“Slave,” he [Robert] said to his coal-black Nubian standard-bearer [this would be Moses], “lead on!”

Timothy looked anxiously at Moses, but saw to his relief that he did not seem to be at all hurt in his feelings and was smiling quite amiably as he led the way to the house. Hurt feelings were no part of the two men Moses was. One was gentle and humble and the other could be as wild as a thunderstorm, but neither was resentful.

The book is set in 1912, but written in 1964.

Moving on, the other concern is the treatment of women in this book. Leaving the love triangle out of it for a moment—very much a side plot, even if it makes none of the people in it look very good—the book contains several statements that certainly fit the setting of the novel—again, 1912—about the correct place for girls to be, which is at home. Interestingly enough, most of these comments come from men, and the book does have a working woman character—who turns out to be a witch. Hmm. Later, Nan learns to draw and paint almost as well as her husband. But not quite. Again, it fits the setting and the time, but seems to be a backtrack from the previous book—which for all of its focus on domesticity and its openly misogynistic characters, still was less emphatic on the proper place for women.

And speaking of Nan—if I have the timing right for this, Nan ends up marrying a man at least 20 years older than she is. It makes some sense in the book, and she is happy. It’s just a Thing.

For all of this, this is a book dripping with charm and character and magic. And perhaps, if I hadn’t come into it expecting another A Little White Horse, I would have liked it much more.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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