Saturday, January 16, 2016

Green Dolphin Street

The first book I finished in 2016 was Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge, a 1944 novel set in the Channel Islands, New Zealand and France. I had been looking for this book for years, even before I went to Korea, but I didn't cross paths with it until I discovered that it had been published in e-book form about six months ago. Why was I so attracted to this book? I don't even remember.

Although this book was originally published more than 70 years ago, in some ways it seems much older, a 19th century novel perhaps. I wish it were a 19th century novel, because some of the elements present would be much more forgivable if it were an older book...but I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll explain more below.

In summary, Green Dolphin Street is about two sisters, Marianne and Marguerite, who love the same man: their childhood friend, William Ozanne. After William and his father (who once loved Sophie, the girls' mother) move to the Channel Islands, the three grow up together. William (who is strong and handsome, but not the sharpest tool in the shed) loves Marguerite, who is tall and blonde and tranquil, but he enjoys discussions and adventures with Marianne, who is somewhat plain but ferociously intelligent and ambitious. William begins a promising career as an officer in the Royal Navy, but after a misadventure in China, he flees to New Zealand. After ten years, he writes to the girls' father and asks for Marianne's hand in marriage. After a lengthy voyage, when Marianne gets off the boat (The Green Dolphin) at Wellington, William has a "D'Oh!" moment worthy of Homer Simpson. He had been drinking whisky while composing the letter and the liquor, coupled with his well-established faulty memory for names caused him to write for the wrong sister. He wanted Marguerite, who bravely sewed Marianne's trousseau, then went off brokenhearted to be a contemplative nun. Instead of admitting his mistake, he spends the next 40 years still in love with Marguerite but determined to make a go of it with Marianne.

I liked the old-fashioned quality of Green Dolphin Street, and even though I really don't care for pages and pages of description, Goudge did it so beautifully. I was also amused at the novel's hook; Goudge admits in her preface that getting the sisters' names wrong but going ahead and putting a good face on it seems highly improbable, but she insists that it actually happened. There's also more than a trace of mysticism in the novel (I suspected; the introductory quote is from Evelyn Underhill) and some interesting religious discussions among characters that are attractive in their complexity.

Now the awful part: As mentioned above, a good deal of the novel takes place in New Zealand in the 1860s-70s, and this part of the book shows the worst of colonialism and the depiction of the Maoris is offensive. To make matters worse, Goudge admitted in the 1944 preface that she had never even been to New Zealand. The way the Maoris are portrayed is so insulting and inflammatory, that the publishers of the 2015 e-book considered editing out passages. In the end, they kept the novel intact with an apologetic explanation: Goudge was shining the truth on the ugliness of this period of English history and also Green Dolphin Street casts a reflection on how insensitive 1944 readers, writers and publishers could be. It's like they were trying to have it both ways. But the insensitive part is true: there is not one bit of saving irony or anything that would let the reader know that the writer has any special discernment when it comes to the Maoris or the foreigners' attitudes towards them.

Although I was holding my nose while reading the despicable Maori part of the book, I have to confess that it was the best-written chapter. The main characters are offstage, and a fine bromance springs up between Samuel Kelly, a clergyman and Tai Haruru AKA Timothy Halsam, an older Englishman who left his native country and noble upbringing and gained acceptance with the Maoris. Tai Haruru's paternalistic attitude made me cringe. He finally leaves the Maoris, but at that point he exits the novel. What a waste, because in spite of everything, he was an attractive character.

This was the first novel I have read by Elizabeth Goudge, who had a long and prolific career, and I think it will probably be my last. I was amused and entertained and disgusted and dismayed, sometimes all at once. It's been a long time since I've encountered such a mixed bag of a book.


Dusty said...

I enjoyed Elizabeth Goudge a lot in the 70s when I was young, but I don't actually remember reading this one or any others that related to race. Probably her most interesting book to me was her autobiography. You are right, she was mystical.

She made one point in her autobiography that really stuck with me, and I don't remember coming across it anywhere else, and that is that so many men of her generation died in World War I, that a woman of her age in Britain had virtually no chance of marrying unless she was exceptionally attractive or very well off.

Melwyk said...

Oh, please do try her again -- I think this is her worst book by far. The Maori parts are repulsive, I agree. The unlikeliness of the plot is also a problem for me - anyone in a writing workshop these days would never get away with "but it really happened".....

CLM said...

All too true! This book was hard to put down but also had some really unfortunate bits that made it seem more dated than it was. Maybe that is why I felt it went on too long.

The Little White Horse continues to be my favorite!