Finding the Light When You’re in a Season of Despair: Wisdom in the Words of Elizabeth Goudge

By Maggie Swofford, Marketing & Editorial Assistant

This time what I went through was a double thing, two strands twisted together of black and gold. There was the bad thing, fear and darkness pressing in, and there was the glad singing of love, the “Yes, I will,” that is my song.

Elizabeth Goudge is a master of words, but even more than that she is a master of noticing and putting into writing the delicate human emotions that ring through our hearts but are rarely verbalized. As I discussed in a blog post about Towers in the Mist a year ago, Goudge deftly navigates moments that are intimately woven with pain and love. As the below excerpt shows, she does the same in The Scent of Water. However, this time I found myself taken not so much with the paradoxical nature of joy and sorrow in the human experience, but instead with the natural and honest way she discusses depression and fear and pulls us into and out of such desperate, fierce mentalities.

In The Scent of Water, the main character Mary Lindsay boldly decides to abandon her urban London life for a cottage bequeathed to her by her cousin, also named Mary, who she met one single time in her youth. With a healthy amount of curiosity and apprehension, she finds herself drawn to this place that she fell in love with as a child and drawn to explore her late cousin’s life through her journals. While the majority of the novel is spent with Mary herself, we get peeks into her cousin Mary’s life via journal entries. The previous quote is an excerpt from one of her diaries, as is the following. What we learn from Cousin Mary’s life is that she dealt with severe recurring depression and anxiety. Against all odds, though, her lifelong struggle with these conditions did not hinder her desire to understand them or her reliance on God to prevail through the pain.

In moments like the following, Goudge beautifully expresses the downward spiral to seeming hopelessness. But she doesn’t leave us—the readers—there. Goudge/Cousin Mary tactfully brings us through an intensely spiritual experience of wrestling through these emotions that can be thrust upon anyone at any time. In classic Goudge manner, she holds in equal significance the joyful realization of God’s faithfulness and the journey through the dark valley that typically precedes that insight.

It was a dream I had, a little while before Christmas. It had been my worst day, after a sleepless night, and one of the worst things about it was that I had stopped being aware of the double thing. I did manage to say, “Yes, I will,” but I think I only said it three times and each time saying it was like lifting a mountain, so reluctant was I. It had been a cold dark day. There had been a light sprinkling of snow but with no sun to make it sparkle it had seemed not beautiful but bitter and sad. . . . I thought, I can’t bear it. I was lying on stones and the walls were moving in. And then, and that was the third time, I said, “Yes, I will.” But it didn’t help. The walls moved in nearer and as they closed right around, trapping me, I screamed.

I don’t suppose I really screamed. What had happened was that I had fallen asleep at last and drifted into nightmare. I was imprisoned in stone. I knew then what men suffered who are walled up alive. But I was able to think, and I thought, Shall I scream and beat against the wall or shall I keep my mouth shut and be still? I wanted to scream because it would have been the easier thing. But I didn’t. And when I had been still for a little while I found myself slowly edging forward. There was a crack in the stone. The hardness pressed against me upon each side in a horrible way, as though trying to crush me, but I could edge forward through the crack. I went on scraping through and at last there was a glimmer of light. It came to my feet like a sword and I knew it had made the crack, a sword of fire splitting the stone. And then the walls drew back slightly on each side of me, as though the light pushed them. I had a sense of conflict, as though the darkness reeled and staggered, resisting the light in an anguish of evil strength. It had a fearful power. But the light, that seemed such a small beam in comparison with that infinity of blackness, kept the channel open and I fled down it. There was room now to run. I ran and ran and came out into the light.

I had escaped. I was so overwhelmed with thankfulness that I nearly fell. I sank down on the ground and sat back on my heels, as children do sometimes when they are saying their prayers and are tired. It was ground, not stone, it was a floor of trodden earth. The stone walls were still there but the light had hollowed them out into a cave and they no longer frightened me. There was a lantern in the cave and people were moving about, a man and woman caring for a girl who lay on a pile of hay. And for a newborn child. As I watched, the woman stooped and put Him into His mother’s arms.

. . .

Looking around I saw that the cave of the nativity was very small. The walls were pressing in upon Him close and hard and dark the way they pressed in on me. And the old claustrophobic terror was back on me again, but not for myself. I remembered the rocks of the wilderness and the multitude of sinners surging in, selfish and clamorous, sick and sweaty, clawing with their hot hands, giving Him no time so much as to eat. I remembered the mocking crowd about the cross and the thick darkness. I remembered the second cave, the dark and stifling tomb. Two stony caves, forming as it were the two clasps of the circle of His life on earth. And I remembered Saint Augustine saying, “He looked us through the lattice of our flesh and He spake us fair.” Shut up in that prison of aching flesh and torn nerves, trapped in it . . . The Lord of glory . . . I remembered the sword of light that had split the rock of sin, making for me the way of escape to where He was at the heart of it. At my heart. At the heart of everything that happened to me, everything I did, everything I endured. He was not the weakness that He seemed, for He had a sword in His hand and all evil at last would go reeling back before it. He had entered the prison house of His own will. And so He was not trapped, nor was I. There was always the way of escape so long as it was to the heart of it, whatever it was, that one went to find Him.

Did this snippet whet your appetite for more? If so, feel free to click on the below cover images or peruse our website for more about Elizabeth Goudge and her novels.

Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge9781619707535 Island Magic by Elizabeth Goudge The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge  


Maggie Swofford is a marketing and editorial assistant at Hendrickson Publishers. She graduated summa cum laude with honors from Gordon College with a BA in English Language & Literature. She can often be seen ogling Impressionist and Renaissance art and scribbling bits and pieces of poetry and memoir in her writer’s notebook.

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