Guest post by LeighAnna Schesser.
Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are, with justice, frequently held up as an archetype of Catholic fiction: her narratives get down deep in the nastiness of the sin-dulled human spirit and record the violence that sweeps through it in the wake of the passing of the Holy Ghost. O’Connor’s work is often fiercely beloved by its fans, and as equally firmly refused by those who cannot bring themselves to appreciate her style. However, there is a far too little appreciated English writer who, though Anglican rather than Catholic, merits to be mentioned in the same breath as O’Connor, perhaps particularly to those who cannot bring themselves to love O’Connor’s style: Elizabeth Goudge.
Where O’Connor is dark, Goudge is light; where O’Connor is rough and unsettling, Goudge is tender and restful. Yet these two styles which seem so disparate are not opposites, but companions, working for and achieving the same end: to truly see, to know, a human soul, and – somehow – make visible to the reader the invisible action of grace within it.
Goudge’s novels are works that cut deeply to the bone of what literature is. As Chesterton to put it, “Nothing is important except the fate of the soul; and literature is only redeemed from an utter triviality, surpassing that of naughts and crosses, by the fact that it describes not the world around us, or the things on the retina of the eye, or the enormous irrelevancy of encyclopedias, but some condition to which the human spirit can come.” When you read a Goudge novel, you enter into a family, blood and otherwise, of four-dimensional people to whom you are given immediate, intimate inner access. The drama of how each “works out his own salvation with fear and trembling” is stunning in its power, accumulating gravity with every page, yet nearly imperceptible until the full weight of the unfolded narrative, like an immense winged bird, seemingly weightless in the air, flies home to roost in the reader.
The stories of these people – it is difficult to think of them as only fictional, as mere characters – are set like jewels within the glory of place, including gorgeous and grounding description of nature, and the homes they build within it. Their temptations, shortcomings, sins, and triumphs rise and fall, grow and gather, against the backdrop of family, home, and what it means to reach out and grasp at salvation. Goudge treats with great grace, immense wisdom, and gentle humor the foibles and misunderstandings of men and women, the travails of marriage, mother and fatherhood, aging, childhood, the reality of self-sacrifice, questions of duty, justice, and theodicy.
The joyful overflow of all things beautiful in a Goudge novel is not an erasure, ignoring, or covering-up of pain, ugliness, and suffering. On the contrary: beauty stands out all the more clearly because of the intense, often interior, suffering of her characters. In the height of this suffering – such as in the climax of The Heart of the Family, or almost any page in Green Dolphin Street – beauty itself becomes so bright and sharp, so much itself, that it is a kind of suffering too, piercing the heart like a sword. But more even than that: when this sword pierces, the wound it deals the soul is the means of its healing. Healing is, after all, another word for salvation.
“Authentic beauty,” said Pope Benedict XVI in a meeting with artists in November 2009, “unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part.”
In novels such as Green Dolphin Street, the Eliot trilogy (The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace, The Heart of the Family), and The Scent of Water, among many others, Elizabeth Goudge shows what Pope Benedict’s articulation of beauty can look like in practice, and incredibly (to a surface view) it turns out to be another way of saying that it is only through suffering that we reach paradise. Beauty is a crucible all its own, familiar and yet utterly unlike any other kind of suffering.
Goudge deals with beauty directly, in the midst of its abundance, and Flannery O’Connor with its lack, in the deep shadow of its privation. As unlikely as their pairing may seem at first glance – almost as unlikely as the relationship between the crucible of beauty and the scourge of evil – the juxtaposition of their works can teach us, as readers, writers, and Catholics, an enormous amount about literature, about grace, and especially those “conditions of the human spirit” to which the wounding beauty of the Divine Spirit may bring us.
LeighAnna Schesser is the author of Heartland (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016), a poetry chapbook that explores the convergence of landscape, identity, love, and faith. Her poems have appeared in publications such as Angelus, Dappled Things, Presence, and Peacock Journal. LeighAnna earned her B.A. at Benedictine College and M.F.A. at North Carolina State University. She lives in Kansas with her family. Find her online at https://www.acanticleforhomestead.com.