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The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge

Many fine books have adopted me as their constant child. I am loyal to their influences upon me, even when my views may radically differ now from when I first found my way into their pages. What captivated me as a child, adolescent, young adult, and grown-up woman (if such a version of me actually exists) would surely catch me up again. A fine biography that lets me become an intimate of the subject … A masterful fairy tale whose romanticism and wisdom is timeless … an historical novel that hurls me back in time and causes me to dream … a political thriller with terrible insight and at least one character of boundless courage … a children’s book that makes my eyes tear and my nose drip … a family saga … magic realism …. That’s quite enough to give you an overview of my reading smorgasbord. Add in some science fiction and history for dessert and substance, and let us move on to the title of this post.

What Elizabeth Goudge achieved in a single novel suspended my breath in admiration. It was the depth of that appreciation for her work that prevented envy from corrupting my feelings about it. The Dean’s Watch was written in the style of its 1870s setting in a tiny English Village. Published in 1960, it completely eschews the modern; I found no anachronism to break the spell this glory of a book cast. It felt as though it emerged as a prayer for the heart and soul of the lost, the lonely, the emotionally tortured, and the ones whose faith, if it ever was, has left them.

Goudge’s Christian devotion and love guided the exquisite prose, prose as good as any I have read. This is a wild claim when one considers the likes of Shakespeare, Milton, Steinbeck, Woolf, Alice Walker, Elena Ferrante, George Eliot, and on and on and on. It is even unfair to try a comparison because The Dean’s Watch is also unique to anything else I have read. Not quite at random, as I did not want to signal too much, I opened the book to give you an ordinary passage. Emma, a woman in late middle age, awaits the unprecedented visit of her Vicar, Dean of the Cathedral. She and her brother Isaac have little enough to spare, but Emma has spared nothing to provide her eminent guest his evening tea:

All over the city the clocks struck five. He would soon be here now. She turned to look at herself in the spotted old mirror above the mantelpiece. She was looking her best, with her mother’s shawl softening her angularity and a tall tortoise-shell comb set high in her hair. There was a little color in her usually sallow cheeks and it was not impossible today to realize that in her youth she had been a handsome girl. She was very much aware of it herself, for like so many spinsters she had remained oddly oblivious of the effects of time.

The reader met Isaac Peabody on the first page of the book. It is the end of the work day, and the gifted maker of clocks and personal timepieces lingers after hours in his shop. Renowned for his repair work, as well as his original creations, he is kept busy enough. One may rightly wonder why Isaac does not check his watch and go home, much as does Dickens’ Scrooge (at least, after counting his receipts). Ah, but the difference is that Isaac exhilarates in the craft that fills his somewhat antiseptic life:

The candle burned behind the glass globe of water, its light flooding over [his] hands as he sat at work on a high stool before his littered worktable. Now and then he glanced up at it over his crooked steel-rimmed spectacles and thought how beautiful it was. The heart of the flame was iris-colored with a veining of deep blue spread like a peacock’s tail against the crocus and gold that gave the light. He had oil lamps in the shop and workshop but lamplight was not as beautiful as his candle flame behind the globe of water.... And he liked to feel that through the centuries men of his trade ... had worked just as he was working now … in their workshops after the day’s business was over, alone and quiet, the same diffused light bathing their hands and the delicate and fragile thing they worked upon. It banished loneliness to think of those others, and he was not so afraid of the shapeless darkness that lay beyond the circle of light.

Again, Miss Goudge was a product of the twentieth century, and I was flabbergasted at her mastery of the cadence, tone, punctuation, and overall style of her writing in this work. She was well steeped in English history, through the centuries, and in fine detail makes the town in which her story is set as three-dimensional as the one in which any of us now lives. Every rise and fall of the road, the fens, the mud that washes over the mean roads when the river floods its banks, the ever turbulent sea, the bustle of day, the eerie stillness of night, the relief and celebration of Christmas, of birth, and of death, all these and more make so vivid a picture that the book resembles a film in its fluidity.

The reader learns much about clocks and clockmaking, about hierarchy in the smallest town, about the bundling warmth with which God can enwrap the poor in body and spirit. Elizabeth Goudge gives us an unforgettable metaphor for strength, faith, and passion. Towering above the town and profoundly symbolic in The Dean’s Watch, the Cathedral withstood the blasphemy of neglect and other punishments over hundreds of years. It is Dean Adam Ayscough who reluctantly foregoes his retirement to take not only the needy Cathedral but the entire town in hand. Over time, his name becomes indistinguishable from the town itself. The Dean, both feared and loved, renews life within and without this gothic wonder as would become a magus. As Goudge tells us at the end of Chapter two, He was somehow the city.

Finally, lest I slip and begin to recount the entire book, know this: the godless can find a route to the Almighty and in so doing find the Almighty in ordinary persons. To some degree, each of us chooses the extent to which we reject religion or simple faith, whether we nurture kind- or mean-spiritedness, and whether others are a curse to us or a blessing.

If you know The Dean’s Watch, you would delight me in sharing your thoughts. If the book is new to you, please discover its beauty, and then share your thoughts. Please, if for some impossible reason you found the book empty of value, or went so far as to say meh, refrain from saying so, at least to me. I cling jealously to my few delusions. By now you see that The Dean’s Watch is such a one.


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